Pumpkins and Winter Squash
I love this time of year when the sun is still bright and local farm shops are selling a glorious cornucopia of pumpkins and squash piled outside in glowing heaps. Along with boots and sweaters, falling leaves and the first frosts, they are a symbol of the changing season and exciting cold-weather cooking
To clear up potential confusion about the difference between pumpkins and winter squash, the round flat-bottomed smooth varieties with orange skin are usually thought of as pumpkins; everything else is a winter squash. They have a seed-filled cavity, corky stems and tough inedible skin, whereas summer squash – courgettes, for example – have tender edible skin and no cavity.
The choice is amazing, ranging from chubby palm-sized babies to monsters so heavy they leave an impression in the soil. Some look like spinning tops, some are torpedo-shaped, others have graceful swan-like necks. The colours are stunning – fluorescent oranges, deep forest greens and paint box yellows.
These glorious fruits have far more potential than Hallowe'en lanterns or transporting Cinderella. They can be baked, roasted, stuffed, puréed or fried, used in cakes, puddings and tarts, and served either as an accompaniment or a main dish.
Choice of cooking method depends on texture and flavour (see 'Varieties' below). Pumpkins tend to be watery and disintegrate easily; squash are firmer. They may be smooth or stringy, moist or dry, and the flavour may be savoury, bland or overwhelmingly sweet.
My favourite way with squash is to roast chunky segments with olive oil, thyme sprigs and plenty of black pepper – delicious with roast pork or turkey, or whizzed up into a colourful and fortifying soup as in my Roasted Squash and Chilli Soup.
Also immensely pleasing are baby pumpkins stuffed with couscous or freekeh, chopped onion, broad beans and walnuts, and baked until softly steaming
The puréed flesh of 'Crown Prince' or 'Onion Squash' makes an excellent filling for ravioli; or work it into yeast dough for the most deliciously moist and colourful bread.
Dense-fleshed varieties are good in casseroles and stir-fries. West Indian cooks make a hefty stew with squash, beans, chillies and sweet corn, while the Japanese dip wedges into tempura batter and fry them. Also good are cubes fried in olive oil until slightly brown. Add thinly sliced garlic, a pinch of dried chilli flakes and toss for a few seconds before showering with fresh coriander.
If all this has whetted your appetite and you want to experiment, go for the smaller varieties, weighing about 2–3kg. They are less daunting to prepare before cooking, and also more convenient to store. As long as the skin is undamaged you can keep them for 2–3 weeks at room temperature (but not in the fridge), or 2–6 months in a dry airy shed.
Varieties to look for
• 'Baby Bear', medium-sized orange pumpkin, recognisable by dark green stalk.
Moist, slightly stringy flesh, excellent for pumpkin pie and cakes. 'Hull-less'
seeds good sprinkled over salad or soup.
• 'Crown Prince', large, round, slightly flattened. Blue-grey skin, deep yellow flesh, very sweet smooth flesh. Good roasted or puréed. Use as a filling
• 'Delicata', elongated, striped ivory green skin, honey-flavoured moist flesh.
Excellent for pumpkin pie and cakes.
• 'Jack Be Little', small, round, orange skin, sweet sticky flesh. Lovely stuffed, baked and served whole.
• 'Kabocha Green', large, round, dark green skin. Lovely chestnut flavour.
Dense, dry flesh. Use for stir-fries and casseroles.
• 'Onion Squash' or 'Uchiku Kuri', medium-sized onion-shaped, bright orange
skin, smooth moist flesh. All-purpose, good for sweet or savoury dishes.
© Christine McFadden, October 2015