Let's play squash: Pumpkins are for life – not just Halloween - Features - Food + Drink - The Independent

Let's play squash: Pumpkins are for life – not just Halloween

By turning them into lanterns and wasting their juicy flesh, we’re missing a tasty trick

It is the most curious conundrum in the foodie world – Britain has become the pumpkin basket of Europe, and the whole world loves a pumpkin. Except, that is, for the British, who hardly eat them at all.

David Bowman's 3 million glowing orange globes – the item of produce which so iconically epitomises the season of mellow fruitfulness – are destined not to be lovingly made into pies as they would be by Americans, combined with lamb and spices as they would be in Bangladesh, mingled with pasta or rice as in Italy or even made into the fast, nutritious and tasty soupe de potiron so beloved by the French.

The vast majority dispatched from Spalding, Lincolnshire, now the pumpkin capital of Britain, will be carelessly eviscerated some time this week, carved into Jack O'Lanterns for the weekend and tossed into the trash the day after Halloween.

Mostly, their owners have no interest in using the nutrient-dense orange flesh to make the dishes which grace American, Italian, Indian, Chinese and Japanese tables throughout the winter, providing a rich source of the beta-carotene which is a welcome weapon in the arsenal of the immune system during flu season.

This waste of really good food wouldn't happen anywhere else, and especially not in Italy: "Around Alba at this time of year, you hear cries of "zucca, zucca" everywhere," says American food writer Marlena Spieler, who regards herself as an expert on winter squash as well as the truffles they complement so well. For pumpkins, it seems, are just the flag wavers for a whole family of veg, and it's not all about a bright orange shell: "The ones I've seen them use in Italy actually have a pale-brown skin," she says.

And although they talk so enthusiastically about pumpkin at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen, where an Italian sensibility pervades the food philosophy, the pumpkin they are talking about is a gorgeous, if slightly startling, shade of duck-egg blue. "We don't touch the orange ones – they're far too fibrous; for us, it's all about the Crown Prince," says head chef Andy Appleton. He buys the variety in from Rob Dowling, an accountant who has found such an appetite for squash in Britain he has given up crunching numbers to grow no fewer than 22 different varieties in Cornwall.

Perhaps lack of knowledge about how sumptuous a winter squash can be is the main reason large orange pumpkins get carved and discarded.

"There is all the difference between the big ones for carving and the smaller, organic ones we sell for cooking," says Waitrose vegetable buyer Alistair Stone, who has seen an encouraging rise in the purchase of all winter squashes, with sales of winter squash up55 per cent and small pumpkins up80 per cent in the last four years. "Butternut remains the most popular, because it's so easy to peel."

And perhaps the peeling problem is the other reason so many pumpkins go uneaten. The shiny and gorgeous Crown Prince has a terrifyingly tough skin – "make sure you steady it on a stable surface before you cut it in half," Appleton warns – but a rewarding deep-orange interior. "It's not just the beautiful colour but the fact that it holds up in cooking."

Although it looks too exotic for words, Crown Prince is now on the shelf at Waitrose, along with a whole variety of winter squashes unknown until recently, including the Far East's favourite, kabocha. Spieler adores this squash, which has a uniquely chestnutty flavour and texture, and remembers: "I used to bring them home in my suitcase until they finally reached the shops here, I love them so much. I still remember the first one I ever tasted."

Acknowledging the tendency of her American compatriates to bake every kind of winter squash with butter and brown sugar in the hollowed half-shells, she says: "The kabocha is one you can bake and eat, roasted or steamed, on its own, with just some coarse salt." She also likes to add cubes of it to pasta, with cream and cheese, or make it the main feature of an Oriental soup, combining with lemon grass, ginger, Thai curry paste, coconut milk and chicken stock. "I'll also probably add cumin, cinnamon and turmeric, because all those spices go with it so well, and a handful of green beans or peas for colour."

While acknowledging that the flesh of the kabocha can be a bit mealy, she insists: "The chestnutty, sweet mealiness is part of its charm." A writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, she has eaten kabocha on both sides of the Pacific, and is a fan of many kinds of squash, including the basic orange pumpkin.

"The classic American pumpkin pie recipe, made with single cream, is good because it's not overly sweet, but I also like pumpkin muffins and French pumpkin tart," she says. "And the Japanese treatment of little pumpkins; they fill the shells with a delicate custard."

Guy Watson of Riverford Organic, which grows many varieties of squash, believes the small variety he calls "sugar pumpkins"(Sainsburys sell little ones as "munchkins"), are a lot better than the large carvers, which he describes as "wet and soapy". But even the smallest, sweetest pumpkins, he feels, lack the nuttiness of other winter squashes which makes them so irresistible.

Anyone who still needs convincing should consider the added value that makes winter squash the ultimate waste-free vegetable for our credit-crunched times. First, they serve as their own decorative containers in which to serve anything from a soup or a soufflé made with the pulped orange flesh within, as well as a meat-and-rice mixture.

And although there is no greater treat than the seeds, while waiting for squash to bake, the lazy may be tempted to scoop them straight into the bin. They need just be laid out on a baking tray and roasted at 180C for 10 minutes (a little longer will caramelise them, but don't allow them to burn). There's no need to remove the strings, which will simply dry, caramelise and crumble during the roasting process.

Pumpkin possibilities

Gordon Ramsay's right-hand woman, Angela Hartnett, pairs pumpkin purée with scallops, lightly rolled in curry powder before searing, and candied walnuts, all dressed with an apple vinaigrette (a recipe published in the new cookbook, 'The Good Food Guide: Recipes').

Andy Appleton, who has relocated from Fifteen London to the Cornwall branch, makes Crown Prince squash the subject of an absolutely sumptuous risotto. He finishes the dish with crumbly goat's cheese, a shake of Parmesan and the ingenious addition of an amaretto cookie crumbled atop each portion. Appleton also advocates a sprinkle of chopped parsley to alleviate the only complaint a foodie might have about a squash dish – which is that they can seem monotone without a touch of green.

Tristan Welch of London's Launceston Place uses pumpkin in both sorbets and cheesecake – and likes to pop the inner kernels out of the shell after roasting, just before serving. He also offers a tip for a flavourful pumpkin soup: "Make sure you roast the peeled pieces in a pan with butter for a good long time to caramelise the sugars within. Resist the temptation to add your chicken stock (which should be flavoured with thyme and bay) too early."

Pumpkin is a staple in Bangladesh, and the acclaimed Indian restaurant Raja of Kent combines it with lamb and spices to make a fabulous Kudu Goost. The masala used is a combination of cumin, coriander, turmeric, ground ginger, green chilli paste, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

The food writer Marlena Spieler likes to stuff squash varieties that have a thin layer of inner flesh with a mixture of meat spiced with North African flavours including cumin and cinnamon, and rice. "Toast the rice with chopped onion until golden, and half-cook with some chicken stock. Add to half-cooked lamb, add a handful of raisins, pile into the half-roasted squash shells and finish cooking in the oven, serving with a dollop of yoghurt on the side."

Squash-based recipes make substantial vegetarian dishes, and Richard Turner of Hawksmoor Seven Dials has made an intriguing main course based on butternut to tempt veggies into what is known primarily as a steakhouse. He combines wedges of the squash, which has been roasted with garlic, thyme and rosemary, with cooked wild mushrooms and buttered boiled puy lentils, dressing the finished dish with dandelion leaves tossed in vinaigrette.

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