Orange is not the only squash

Pumpkins come in a feast of colours, says Michael Bateman. And they're as good baked or stewed as hollowed into lanterns
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The Independent Culture
WHAT A harvest! A feast of patty pans, apple squash and custard marrow; goldarc, gem and sunset scallopini; turks cap and acorn squash; golden delicious (no, not the apple) and golden nugget.

These are the rich pickings of pumpkins on Ralph and Barbara Upton's nursery at Slindon, near Arundel in Sussex. And on the eve of Hallowe'en they beg the question: why is it that, offered the excitement of so many varieties for the table, we settle for a single type? There's surely more to a pumpkin than the large, inflated balloon that once a year we hollow out and fashion into lantern masks that throw out the flickering light of a candle set inside.

We've never really taken to pumpkin-eating in Britain, except for those who give a nod to American Thanks-giving Day with pumpkin pie. Yet many cultures incorporate pumpkins into their cuisine. A North African vegetable couscous glows with a palette of sunny colours - red tomato, amber carrots, yellow chick peas, apricot-coloured squash; the Japanese dredge slices of pumpkin in tempura batter and deep fry them; in the south of France they are combined with sweetcorn and peppers to make rib-sticking soups; in the West Indies, pumpkin stew is spiced with chillies. The Italians have pumpkin gnocchi, a flour and pumpkin paste, pinched into small pieces, boiled, then baked in a cheesy sauce.

Frankly, for all their pomp, pumpkins and winter squash (as they are also known, from the Amerindian word for them, askutasquash) are New World vegetables that haven't translated very well to Anglo-Saxon eating habits. The (near-starving) Pilgrim Fathers from Plymouth were grateful to discover them among foods the native Indians were prepared to share with them in those desperate early days. Indeed, to the Indians, the pumpkin was more than a subsistence food. They prized the dried seeds, with their cargo of nutritious oil, and gave them as gifts.

The new settlers certainly found pumpkin flesh handy to bulk out bread, and a century later the Penn-sylvania Dutch made them into pies, as they did with everything: apple, rhubarb, lemon, butterscotch, custard, chocolate. Pumpkins and squash were central to the diet of the Shakers, the celibate sect that had broken away from the Quakers in the mid-18th century.

For all their beauty, to carnivores these vegetables are bland to the point of absurdity. But the good cook will find ways of maximising their strengths (colour, delicacy) and minimising their weaknesses (wateriness, lack of taste) by baking rather than boiling, by spicing and sweetening.

Lynda Brown, in her new book The Modern Cook's Manual (Michael Joseph pounds l6.99), is one who embraces the pumpkin. She is a gardener-cook, a signed- up member of the organic movement who has produced a work that recognises the changing priorities of the modern home cook.

She completely alters the emphasis of a traditional cookbook, kicking off with pasta, pestos and salsas, moving on to vegetables and pulses, rice and potatoes, then fish, consigning meat and chicken to the back of the book. In cooking according to Brown, pumpkins and winter squash feature before beef, pork and lamb.

She makes no strong claims for their flavour, though she says they lend themselves to soups, bakes, pies and purees. She also argues that pumpkins are worth buying for their ornamental value alone. As an added advantage, they have great keeping qualities. At room temperature they store for three to six months and, she says, their flavour improves with age.

A warning. large pumpkins are watery and disintegrate quickly when cooked. Look for smaller ones with hard skins. These have a dense texture and sweeter flavour. The tougher the skin, the riper the squash, so if you've bought a soft-skinned butternut squash that tastes like soggy marrow, you'll know why. It wasn't ripe. Check by knocking - they should sound hollow.

We may, I think, spare you a catalogue of all the types and characteristics, since these seem to be mostly a difference of colour, size and shape rather than flavour. (I always buy my squash from an Asian store; they are apparently imported from China and are small and dense-textured).

This is Lynda Brown's advice on preparing and cooking pumpkins and winter squashes. Then there's a sophisticated soup from The Dor-chester's chef des cuisines, Willi Elsener, from his new book, A World of Flavours (Pavilion, pounds 19.99); and a gypsy stew from Keith Floyd's Floyd on Spain (Penguin, pounds 11).

PREPARATION AND COOKING

Pumpkins and winter squashes are easy to prepare and cook, though there is considerable waste. As a rough guide, 450g/1lb squash will yield half that amount of usable flesh.

Soft-skinned squashes can be peeled with a vegetable peeler. If the skin is very hard, slice into wedges and either cut the flesh away from the skin or cook the squash with the skin on, removing the flesh once it is cooked. The seeds and fibres can easily be scooped out with a spoon.

Three simple ways to cook pumpkins and winter squashes are to steam them, to cook them with a little water in the bottom of a covered pan, or to toss cubes of the flesh in a frying pan with butter or oil, adding spices or herbs for the last minute or so.

Unless using them in soups, pumpkins and squashes should be cooked in a little water as possible. Cook them just until a knife will go in easily. This depends entirely on the density of the flesh. Pumpkins and soft-fleshed varieties cook down quickly. The smooth, denser-fleshed squashes take a little longer. Diced into cubes or cut into wedges, allow five to 10 minutes depending on the size of the pieces and the density of the flesh.

EASY WAYS TO SERVE: Plain squash can be finished in a number of ways:

l tossed in melted butter, with a sprinkling of coarse ground Sichuan peppercorns/black peppercorns/allspice/toasted chilli flakes

l tossed in melted butter with crumbled fried sage leaves

l dribbled with creme fraiche/cream/ soured cream and scattered with chives, tarragon, basil or parsley

l tossed in a mixture of the juice of a lemon and two teaspoons of soy sauce, sweetened with a little runny honey to taste, and with roasted sesame seeds scattered over the top.

BAKING: Stand the squash in a shallow ovenproof dish with 2.5cm/1in of water, cutting large ones in half first. Allow 35 minutes to 1 hour in a moderately hot oven - 190C/375F/ Gas 5.

Shorten the cooking time for whole larger squashes by parboiling them first: immerse the squash in boiling water for about 10 minutes and finish it in the oven as before.

Small squashes are just right for one person: parboil, slice off the top, scoop out the seeds, stuff and bake; or pour in a little cream, chopped herbs and a melting cheese and bake until filling is hot and flesh is soft: 15-20 minutes should be enough.

Or for trouble-free baking, cut the skinned squash into thick wedges, paint with oil or dab with butter, and bake for around 30-45 minutes.

ROASTING: Dense-textured squashes can be roasted around the joint as you would carrots or parsnips. Allow 30-45 minutes' cooking time. Or toss them in a little hot butter or oil and roast them separately, sprinkled with ground cinnamon or allspice if you like. To caramelise them, sprinkle sparingly with soft brown sugar.

PUREES: Cook the flesh of dense-textured squashes with a little milk until soft, with a clove of garlic if you like, then mash with a potato masher or puree in a blender. The puree can be further enriched with a knob of butter or cream, or instantly enlivened with a dash of Tabasco, ground allspice, or Singaporean chilli sauce. For a spiced puree, add a little mild spice paste by the teaspoon with cream to taste.

ORANGE PEPPERCORN SQUASH

Not so much sweet and sour as sweet and peppery. Cut the squash into wedges and remove the skin. Place the wedges in an ovenproof dish and dab with butter. Thin down two tablespoons of marmalade with water to form a thin sauce. Add the juice of an orange and a lemon and pour over the squash. Scatter over one or two teaspoons of coarsely crushed peppercorns and bake until soft (about 30-45 minutes), topping up with extra water if the sauce dries up.

WILLI ELSENER'S CREAMED COCONUT AND PUMPKIN SOUP

Serves 6

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

400g/14oz peeled pumpkin, cut into thumb-sized cubes

1 onion, peeled and sliced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with a knife or garlic press

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon mild curry powder

2 tablespoons flour

50g/2oz canned unsweetened coconut cream (thick coconut milk)

1 litre/134 pints cold vegetable stock

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

salt

freshly ground pepper

To garnish

2 tablespoons sunflower seeds, toasted and coarsely chopped

1 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

This soup has a unique flavour which I've encountered in many dishes in the Far East, where coconut is combined with turmeric.

Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add the pumpkin, onion and garlic and sweat for three minutes, or until the onion is translucent but not coloured. Stir in the turmeric and curry powder and sweat for a further minute.

Stir in the flour. Add the coconut cream and the cold vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly, then puree the mixture in a blender or food processor. Return the soup to the saucepan and bring back to the boil.

To finish: Add the vinegar and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Sprinkle over the chopped sunflower seeds and chives and serve at once.

GYPSY STEW

Serves 8

450g/1lb chick peas, soaked overnight and then drained

150ml/5fl oz olive oil

2 onions, chopped

2 ripe tomatoes, skinned and chopped

450g/1lb green beans, sliced

275g/10oz pumpkin, peeled and cut into chunks

salt

freshly ground black pepper

about 600ml/1 pint vegetable stock

6 firm pears, peeled and chopped

2 slices of white bread

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

20 blanched almonds, toasted

4 tablespoons white wine vinegar

few saffron strands

2 tablespoons paprika

Bring a very large pan of water - you'll need about 3 litres/7 pints - to the boil. Add the chick peas and simmer for about one hour, until almost cooked. Strain and reserve.

While the chick peas are cooking, heat a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a saucepan and add the onions and tomatoes.

Pop the lid on the pan and turn down the heat, leaving the onion and tomato mixture to sweat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the tomatoes and onions are really soft, add the chick peas along with the green beans and pumpkin. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with the stock and simmer gently for about 20 minutes, adding the pears about eight to 10 minutes before the end of the cooking time.

Heat the rest of the oil in a small frying pan and fry the slices of bread with the garlic until golden. Remove from the pan and drain on kitchen paper. Reserve the oil.

Now make a picada - a paste for thickening and flavouring - from the almonds, fried bread, garlic, vinegar, reserved oil, saffron and paprika. Grind everything down using a pestle and mortar, or be lazy and use a food processor or blender. Add a little of the liquid from the pan to make a smooth paste.

Add the picada to the other ingredients in the pan, stirring well to thicken. Check the vegetables for tenderness and serve the stew piping hot in soup bowls. !

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