Pleasures of the flesh: Mark Hix on the season’s best squashes

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The juicy, versatile squash is the ideal ingredient for autumn's most comforting dishes

Over the past few years, squashes have steadily gained in popularity – and one thing I have spotted is that restaurants are selling increasing amounts of dishes containing these lovely vegetables; partly, I think, because some people love eating them but are uncertain about how to prepare and cook them at home.

The good news, however, is that they really aren't much different from root vegetables and, if anything, they're even more versatile. There are hundreds of varieties that keep cropping up and it can be hard to keep tabs on how different they all taste.

Squashes and pumpkins have to be ripe – one thing to remember is that some of the most interesting looking specimens can taste deadly dull when they are cooked. Butternut squashes are easy to spot and yield consistently good results. Ask your greengrocer for advice, and if you're lucky he will chop the thing in half and let you have a look.

Squash curry

Serves 4-6

You can use a selection of squashes for this, or just a single variety. Check how tough the skins are before preparing them as some squashes taste delicious cooked with the skin on. If your specimens have tough skins, then buy a bit extra to compensate for losing some of the flesh.

1kg squash, peeled if necessary, seeds removed and cut into 2-3cm chunks
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
60g ghee or vegetable oil
3 medium onions, peeled, halved and roughly chopped
5 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp chopped root ginger
3 small, medium-strength chillies, sliced
1tsp cumin seeds
tsp fenugreek seeds
tsp onion or Nigella seeds
1tsp cumin powder
1tsp freshly grated turmeric or 1tsp turmeric powder
1 pinch saffron strands
A good pinch of curry leaves
tsp paprika
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp mustard seeds
2tsp tomato purée
Half a lemon
1.3litre vegetable stock (a good cube will do)
3tbsp chopped coriander leaves

Season the pieces of squash. Heat half of the ghee in a large, heavy-bottomed pan and fry the squash on a high heat until lightly coloured. Remove with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Add the rest of the ghee to the pan and fry the onions, garlic, ginger and chilli for a few minutes until they begin to soften. Add all of the rest of the spices and continue cooking for a couple of minutes with a lid on to release the flavours, stirring every so often.

Add the tomato purée, lemon and stock, bring to the boil, season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 45 minutes. Take a cupful of the sauce from the pan and blend in a liquidiser until smooth and pour it back into the sauce. Add the pieces of squash and simmer for about 15 minutes or until tender, then add the coriander and simmer for a further 5 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Scatter over the chopped coriander, and serve with basmati rice.

Squash tart with Blue Monday, cobnuts and herbs

Serves 4

This is a colourful tart that you can serve as a starter or as a vegetarian main course. You can even make a long version and serve it as a sharing buffet dish.

1kg mixed squash, peeled if necessary and seeded
2tbsp rapeseed or olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
200g butter puff pastry, rolled to 1/3cm
1 egg, beaten
80-100g Blue Monday or another similar blue cheese, broken into rough 1cm nuggets

For the cobnut dressing

15-20 cobnuts, shelled and lightly toasted
2tbsp chopped green herbs
2tbsp rapeseed or olive oil

Cut the pastry into 10-12cm x 6-8cm rectangles, lay on a baking sheet and prick all over with a fork. From the trimmings

cut long 1cm-wide strips. Brush the edges of the rectangles with egg and lay the strips along all four sides, and trim them to form a ridge all the way round. Mark the edges if you wish with the blade of a knife, or use a special pastry crimper. Then brush the edges with beaten egg. Leave to rest in the fridge for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Depending on the types of squashes you are using, peel as necessary and cut into a mixture of chunks and wedges. Take about one-sixth of the squash (without skins) and place in an ovenproof dish, season, cover and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes or until tender, then remove and blend in a food processor.

Put the rest of the squash in a roasting pan, spoon over the olive oil, season and roast in the oven for about 20-30 minutes, turning them every so often, until cooked.

Cut 4 rectangles out of cardboard just slightly smaller than the middle section of the tarts, wrap them a couple of times with tin foil and place in the centre of the tarts.

Bake the pastry for about 8-10 minutes or until the edges are golden, then remove from the oven. Remove the foil rectangles and spread about a tablespoon of the squash purée in the middle of each tart. Don't put too much in; save what's left as a dip or sauce. Then arrange the cooked pieces of squash on the purée and place the nuggets of cheese on top. Reheat the tarts for about 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, roughly chop the cobnuts and mix in a bowl with the herbs and olive oil. Serve the tart on warmed plates with the cobnut dressing spooned over.

Spiced autumn squash soup with fried halloumi

Serves 4

Autumn squashes make a great silky soup. The orange and yellow squashes are more visually appealing, so ask your greengrocer for his advice on colours and flavours or buy a butternut squash which will give guaranteed colour and flavour.

1 small leek, roughly chopped
1 small onion, roughly chopped
1 medium chilli, chopped
A couple of good knobs of butter
1kg squash, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
1litre vegetable stock (or good quality cube)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the topping

1tbsp pumpkin seeds, lightly toasted
1 small red chilli, trimmed, finely chopped
1tbsp chopped coriander
1tbsp olive oil
150g halloumi, cut into rough 1cm chunks

Gently cook the leek, onion and chilli in the butter until softened. Add the squash and stock, bring to the boil, season, then simmer for 20 minutes. Blend the soup in a liquidiser until smooth; strain through a sieve. Fry the halloumi in a little oil until lightly coloured; drain on kitchen paper. Mix the pumpkin seeds, chilli, coriander and olive oil together. Reheat the soup; adjust the consistency with a little vegetable stock or water if necessary. Check the seasoning and serve with a spoonful of the pumpkin seed mixture and the fried halloumi.

Squash and wild mushroom salad

Serves 4

Squashes and mushrooms make a terrific salad. I've used pumpkin seed oil here which has a fantastic green tint; but rapeseed or olive oil will do just as well.

1 squash weighing about 1kg, or a selection
A few sprigs of thyme or oregano
4-6tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
150-200g wild mushrooms, cleaned and cut into even-sized chunks
A couple of handfuls of small salad leaves
For the dressing
1tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
1tsp grain mustard
2tbsp pumpkin seed or rapeseed oil
2tbsp vegetable or corn oil

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Prepare the squashes by peeling the ones with tougher skins, halving and de-seeding them (leave the skin on the tender ones). Cut them into even-sized pieces and transfer to a roasting tray. Season and scatter the thyme over, then spoon over a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Roast for about 20-30 minutes, turning every so often, until tender. Meanwhile, heat the rest of the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the mushrooms on a medium heat – seasoning them and turning them as they are cooking – for a few minutes until tender, then mix with the squashes.

Whisk all of the ingredients together for the dressing and season. To serve, arrange the leaves, squashes and mushrooms on serving plates with any cooking juices; spoon over the dressing.

Mark Hix will be cooking at the Feast of Dorset, Deans Court, Wimborne, this afternoon (see for details)

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