In this new monthly feature Rosie Birkett discovers the joys of a seasonal ingredient. She kicks off with warming autumnal squash
Gourds always seem to me ultimate harbingers of autumn, having grown and swelled through the heat of the year, finally ready as the leaves turn the same colour as their skins and the nights draw in. After rather impatiently watching my squashes get plump and bulbous over the summer months, from humble beginnings as spongy-leafed seedlings, it’s exciting to finally be cooking with them.
The joy of growing squash and pumpkin yourself is that they are reasonably high-yielding (if you keep them well-fed and watered), and you can get experimental with varieties, making a move away from the classic butternut – though of course, this has its place too.
If you’re buying them, it’s well worth trying to seek out some more exciting varieties. I particularly love acorn and delicata for their intensely sweet and honeyed flavour. Spaghetti squash is also worth nabbing if you can find it. So called because, once cooked, its flesh pulls apart into fine strands resembling spaghetti, it’s wonderful tossed with butter and herbs and served on the side of a pan-fried chicken breast or halloumi steak.
Once you’ve got your hands on a squash or pumpkin, you have a meal or three at your fingertips. Their sweetness lends them the virtue of being good in both savoury and sweet dishes, and don’t, whatever you do, discard those glistening seeds as they can be rinsed and crisped up in the oven with some salt, chilli powder and sesame seeds, or pan-fried with a glug of rapeseed oil until they pop – a perfect topping for a salad with the flesh, or simply an addictive snack.
Oven roasting is by far my favourite technique for bringing out the sugars in the squashes and caramelising their meat. If cut small enough, you can pan-fry it, and this works well for something like a risotto, but nothing beats the crispy-edged, toffee sweet meat of an oven-roasted slice in my mind. Peeling is an utter chore, so avoid doing it – most squashes will roast beautifully when cut into wedges with the skin on, and once cooked, it can easily be peeled.
Peeling is essential though if you’re making a soup or purée. For a soup, try combining the sweet meat with the smoky spice of chipotle chilli, and plenty of butter in a purée will make it perfect for stirring with eggs, sugar and warm spices like cinnamon to fill a crispy pastry case for pumpkin pie. Follow the Italians’ lead and plump for some fried sage leaves to accompany squash or pumpkin in savoury dishes, as no other herb works quite as wonderfully as this woody, savoury leaf.
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