A pleasure of pumpkins: Tasteless? Not when cooked like this. Annie Bell suggests sizzling and spicy things to do with squash and pumpkin

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'You expected me to be riding a broomstick, didn't you?' said Barbara Upton. Perhaps not a broomstick, but resident goblins would have been no surprise. In fact, I cannot think of anyone less witch-like than Barbara who, with her husband Ralph, tends a smallholding on the Sussex Downs which specialises in growing pumpkins and squash.

Their yard, in the village of Slindon, makes an arresting sight - a luminescent blaze of orange, especially on a dank, dark green sort of day. Ralph is grower and stylist of the astonishing display of gourds on the shed roof and every adjacent flat surface. This is no casual artistry - the garden displays carefully co- ordinated orange and yellow flowers throughout the year.

This year the Uptons planted 30 varieties of squash and 30 of pumpkin - a cross-cultural mix from America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Africa. They have to shop world-wide for seeds because the choice in the UK is comparatively limited. Not all 60 varieties survived, however: gourds are delicate souls.

The answer to the question 'When is a squash not a squash?' ought to be 'When it's a pumpkin', but Americans refer to pumpkins as winter squash. They are all members of the Cucurbita family, but the popular division of squash into summer or winter is too woolly.

A simple guide is that summer squash (spaghetti squash excepted) are courgette-like with soft flesh, and winter squash and pumpkins are long-keepers with hard skins and dense, smooth flesh that cooks beautifully. Though the latter store well, do not be misled: the fresher they are, the better they eat - and do not get too excited by size.

Think in terms of yin and yang when cooking pumpkins and winter squash. They are sufficiently austere to drip with wayward ingredients - such as cream, butter and cheese - without becoming gratuitous; but when a soup that is no more than a pumpkin puree is combined with cream, thinned to the correct consistency with stock and served with lots of grated gruyere and little garlic croutons, it is every bit as gratifying as a rich vichyssoise.

Pumpkins do not have the textural finesse of such squash as Rolet and Butternut. A great deal of their flavour is contained in their juices, which is why they are perfect for soup and purees; they also roast beautifully in olive oil or goose fat, with some thyme and sea-salt.

Winter squash and pumpkins have a chameleon quality: they are equally at home in a sweet puff-pastry tart flavoured with orange-flower water as in a savoury gratin with porcini served beside roast game birds.

As well as spices such as nutmeg, saffron, coriander, cinnamon and vanilla, they make successful marriages when cooked with rosemary, thyme and sage, or freshly chopped fine herbs. Think eastwards, too: root ginger and sesame are not out of place.

Spaghetti Squash is particularly special. It was only when I came to make a mock remoulade that I began fully to appreciate its qualities: in effect, it is a fine julienne of a vegetable, whose texture would take considerable time to replicate with a knife. Tasteless? Yes, to a degree, though delicate may be a kinder description. And delicate vegetables do have their uses: for one thing, they will not upstage expensive ingredients such as sole or halibut.

A gardenful of gourds is a weird and wonderful sight. The tenacious rambling vines with their huge fruits have the demeanour of some freakish prehistoric birds that cannot fly. Gourd enthusiasm is infectious, and already I am wondering how I can maintain a supply of celadon green Crown Prince squash, flame-orange Uchiki Kuri pumpkins and the most magnificent Rouge vif d'Etampes pumpkins. I will probably end up driving to Sussex.

Sautee of Butternut Squash, Red Pepper and Rocket with Eggs

Serves 2-3

This makes a delectable late breakfast or lunch: the general sound of sizzling and smell of squash frying draws spectators into the kitchen. The following quantity is as much as you can make in a 10in frying pan.

Ingredients: 1 small Butternut squash (1lb 6oz)

1 red pepper

2tbs extra-virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

sea-salt, black pepper

1/4 tsp coriander seeds, freshly ground

6 eggs (size 2)

2oz rocket, cut into 2in lengths

croutons: 1-2 slices sourdough bread, 1/2 in diced, fried in extra-

virgin olive oil

Preparation: Cut skin off squash. The easiest way is to slice off the top and the base, halve it to produce a neck and a dome, and cut the skin off each half. Quarter the dome and remove seeds and spongy fibres. Cut flesh into 1/2 in dice. Peel, core and deseed pepper and slice into strips.

Heat the olive oil in a 10in frying pan over a medium heat, add the squash, pepper and garlic simultaneously, and season with salt, pepper and coriander. Cook for 15-20 minutes until the squash is soft in the centre and golden and caramelised on the outside, like sautee potatoes. While the squash is cooking, make the croutons.

Whisk the eggs in a bowl and season with salt and pepper. Toss the rocket into the squash to wilt. Have the plates at the ready, turn the heat up high, tip in the eggs and turn with a spatula for 30 seconds until the egg is nearly set; serve it on the wet side. Scatter over the croutons and eat immediately.

Gratin of Spaghetti Squash with gruyere

Serves 4 as a single dish, 6 as an accompaniment

A no-nonsense plateful of this is my idea of heaven; it also slots in nicely with a Sunday roast or as a more general accompaniment. I prefer to use beaufort or appenzeller to gruyere, but they do take a little tracking down.

Ingredients: 1 spaghetti squash (about 2lb 5oz)

5fl oz double cream

6oz gruyere, grated

1 1/2 tbs kirsch

sea-salt, black pepper, nutmeg

Preparation: Bring a large pan of water to the boil, prick the squash with a knife-tip in places and cook covered for 25 minutes. When cool enough to handle, halve lengthwise and remove the seeds and spongy fibres. Run a fork along the length of the flesh and it will come away in strands; leave mushy flesh immediately next to the skin. The strands should be on the firm side; they will soften when baked. Place squash in a sieve and press out most of the additional juices.

Mix cream, half the cheese, the kirsch and seasoning in a bowl, and mix into the squash. Place in a gratin dish and scatter over remaining cheese. You can prepare up to this point in advance.

Heat oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6 and bake gratin for 25-30 minutes until golden in patches.

Annie Bell is author of Evergreen ( pounds 16.99) and Feast of Flavours ( pounds 5.99 paperback, pounds 14.99 harback) both published by Bantam.

(Photograph omitted)

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