Food and Drink: Make room for the winter squash: Roasted, fried, buttered or baked, squashes are sweet and satisfying cold-weather fare

A friend has just returned from America, where she was bowled over by the phenomenal displays of winter squashes. Spoilt for choice, she and her companion spent an entire hour in one grower's yard, choosing the most beautiful example as a present for their hosts. What size? What colours? Plain or striped, streaked or spotted?

Such exuberant displays are rare here, although last year I did see one that took my breath away. That was in the village of Slindon, near Arundel in Sussex, where Ralph Upton's fascination with these startlingly varied and colourful fruit-vegetables is more than evident.

Greengrocers and supermarkets (and many wholefood shops, too) have recently realised that the collective term 'winter squashes' means more than just giant pumpkins, once sold only for making jack-o'-lanterns, and are pioneering other varieties.

A winter squash is the edible fruit of a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, one that ripens during the autumn, with a hard rind, usually yellow to orange flesh, and excellent storage potential. Squashes vary in size from the one-portion 'munchkin' or 'sweet dumpling' to pumpkins that weigh 60lb or more.

The traditional British pumpkin and other giants tend to be watery with relatively insipid flavour. Good for soup, provided you season well, but otherwise best reserved for lantern-making. For most cooking purposes, I prefer small and medium-weight squashes, with their denser texture and sweeter flavour.

My current favourites are the fairly widely available butternut squashes (yellowy skinned, with a buttery nutty taste, as the name suggests), crown prince (silvery-blue skin and sweet, bright orange flesh) and onion squashes (intense orangey-red skin, sometimes streaked with pale salmon, with an intense chestnutty taste). There are plenty of others, and they can be used interchangeably.

Unless you are making soup or using the squash in a stew, boiling is a dud option as much of the flavour leeches out into the water, leaving an insipid soggy mush. Baking produces far better results.

Tiddly squashes, ideal as a first course or as a cute accompaniment to the main course, can be left whole, or the top sliced off, seeds and central fibres scooped out to be replaced with a generous knob of butter or slurp of cream, salt, pepper, herbs or a scraping of nutmeg. With the lid back on, they should be roasted at 180-200C/ 350-400F/Gas Mark 4-6 until tender.

Bigger squashes can also be baked whole, ideally at 170-180C/325-350F/Gas Mark 3-4 so that they have time to cook through. If you want to use them as containers for stews or soups, empty out the inside and wrap in oiled foil so that they don't scorch too much. For purees and mashes, cut the pumpkin up into large chunks. Discard innards, but leave the skin on and wrap in oiled foil. Cubes of squash, trimmed of skin, are delicious roasted around game or a joint of beef.

Winter Squash and Thyme Puree

A simple puree, enriched with lots of butter and the earthy scent of thyme.

Serves 4

Ingredients: generous 2lb (1 kg) wedge of winter squash

2 1/2 oz (70g) butter

1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, or 1tsp dried thyme

1 clove garlic, crushed

salt and pepper

Preparation: Remove seeds and loose fibres from the wedge of squash, but leave the skin on. Wrap in oiled foil and bake at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4 for 45-50 minutes until very tender. Unwrap and, when cool enough to handle, scrape out all the flesh and mash thoroughly with 1oz butter, salt and pepper. Shortly before eating, melt the remaining butter in a small pan and add the thyme and garlic. Infuse over a low heat for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, gently reheat the squash mash, and turn it into a warm serving dish. Raise the heat under the butter until sizzling and immediately pour over the mash. Serve straight away.

Squash Escabeche

Sliced thinly, squash is delicious fried. It can be eaten hot, but this cold dish of fried squash, scented with cumin and coriander seed is even better.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lb (675g) winter squash

6tbs olive oil

1tbs white wine vinegar

juice 1 orange

1/2 tsp each coriander seed, cumin seed and black peppercorns

salt and pepper

Preparation: Peel the squash and remove seeds and fibres. Cut into slices no more than 1/4 in thick. Fry them slowly, in two batches, in the olive oil until lightly browned and tender. Transfer to a shallow dish, together with the cooking oil. Crush the spices roughly in a pestle and mortar, then place in a pan with the vinegar and orange juice. Bring to the boil and pour over the pumpkin. Season with a little salt. Turn gently and leave to cool. Serve as a side dish or hors d'oeuvre.

Ragout of Squash

This red, gold and orange stew is not terribly sophisticated, but it is warming and comforting on a cold day.

Serves 4

Ingredients: 1 onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 stems celery, sliced

2tbs olive oil

14oz (400g) prepared weight squash or pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 1in (2.5cm) cubes

8oz (225g) sweetcorn kernels (not tinned), thawed if frozen

14oz (400g) tin of tomatoes

1tbs tomato puree

1 dried red chilli, snapped in half

1tsp dried oregano

pinch of sugar

salt and pepper

Preparation: Cook the onion, garlic and celery gently in the olive oil until tender, without browning. Add the pumpkin, stir, and cook for a few minutes more. Add all the remaining ingredients, bring up to a simmer and cook gently for about 30 minutes until pumpkin is tender. Stir occasionally and break up the lumps of tomato with the back of the spoon. If necessary, add a little water as it cooks to prevent burning. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, with rice or buttered noodles.

Turkish Candied Squash

Forget pumpkin pie - this is the winter squash pudding. It is very sweet, so a little goes a long way. It can be made with pumpkin, but I've had better results with butternut squash or crown prince.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 2lb (1kg) wedge of winter squash

8oz (225g) caster sugar

4fl oz (120ml) water

to serve:

Greek yoghurt, creme frache or whipped cream

4oz (110g) walnuts, roughly chopped

Preparation: Discard skin and seeds, then cut squash into 1in (2.5cm) chunks. Layer with the sugar in a wide saucepan and pour over the water. Cover tightly and cook over a very low heat for about 1 hour, turning the squash very carefully every now and then. Towards the end of the cooking time check the liquid level. If it is copious, uncover and boil down to a thick syrup. Cool until tepid in the pan. Spoon into individual dishes and chill. To serve, top with a spoonful of yoghurt or cream and scatter with walnuts.

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