Pumpkins

P
Every morning when I see the gardeners coming in with baskets of freshly picked vegetables and herbs, I feel thrice blessed. Beautiful salad leaves, zucchini blossoms, a myriad of little leaves, misuna, mibuna, texel greens, orach, rocket leaves, sorrel and a variety of edible flowers for delicious salads. We still have some broad beans, beetroot, several varieties of kale and rainbow chard. The heirloom tomatoes are tailing off now as are the cucumbers, still there’s lots to choose from. I’m a hopeless photographer but I often feel like grabbing my camera to record the bounty. Today the impulse was irresistible when I saw Eileen manoeuvring a wheelbarrow full of pumpkins and squash up from the greenhouse. A myriad of shapes and sizes – Little Gem and crookneck squash, hubbard, turks turban, acorn, delicata, butternut squash, several huge pumpkins, a few Jack o lanterns’ and a variety of gourds. They looked like a glorious ‘still life’, Eileen and Kay arranged them in clusters on the window sills, along the shelves and piled them into wonderful pyramids in the centre of the dining room and serving tables. They looked so stunning sitting on the crimson leaves of the Virginia creeper and the Actinidia Kolomikta.

The whole school looks as though it was decked out for a Thanksgiving celebration

Almost immediately the displays prompted the inevitable questions what’s the difference between a squash and a pumpkin, how do you cook them, how do they taste, which pumpkin is best for a particular recipe.

Well having consulted a number of sources I’m still not totally clear about what exactly constitutes a squash or a pumpkin. Of all the families of fruit and vegetables I’ve come to the conclusion that pumpkins and squashes must surely be the most confusing. Not only are there hundreds of varieties but some go by a multitude of names.

Roughly they seem to divide in to Summer squashes and pumpkins and marrows and winter squashes and pumpkins and edible gourds – botanically speaking they are all members of the cucurbitaceae family, which also includes cucumbers, melons and decorative gourds. The majority of the summer squash are native to Central America and Mexico, while many of the winter squash originated in the Argentine Andes. Squash grows in both bush and vine forms, both are easy to grow and a few plants will provide you with enough squash to share with all your family and friends.

The blossoms of all squash from courgettes onwards are edible and delicious. The golden petals look wonderfully exotic in green salads. For a really impressive first course stuff each blossom with a little soft goat cheese or Mozzarella and a dab of pesto and perhaps a morsel of sun blushed tomato. Twist the tops of the petals together to seal, dip in a light batter and fry quickly. Serve immediately while they are crisp and plump. 

Squash or zucchini blossoms are a favourite filling for quesadillas in Mexico, serve with salsa.

Its usually better to harvest the male blossoms (the females have the fruit on the end), but be sure to leave a few on the plant to ensure pollination. 

For optimum flavour don’t harvest winter squash until we’ve had a cold snap, as with swede turnips a touch of frost enhances their sugar content. Winter squash harvested unblemished will keep in a cool dark place, eg a garage or garden shed, for up to 6 months.

Nutrition – Somehow I’d always supposed that squash and pumpkins weren’t up to much nutritionally but on the contrary, apparently a study done at the University of California at Davis, found Winter squash to be among the most nutritious vegetables, rivalling cabbage, carrots, spinach and potatoes. They are a tasty source of complex carbohydrates and fibre and provide iron, niacin and potassium. The orange flesh is high in beta carotene, the source of Vitamin A, the more orange the flesh the higher the content. Don’t forget to dry the seeds, add them to breakfast cereals, breads or simply sprinkle them with sea salt and nibble to your hearts content. 

Best flavour Squash

Butternut squash - smooth pale tan skin, longish neck, excellent flavour and texture.

Acorn – named for its shape, dark green skin is most common but it also comes in shades of orange and cream.

Delicata – another of my favourites – green cream, yellow and orange stripes, try to find small ones – dry, sweet tasting flesh, great for baking and stuffing.

Hubbard – an old favourite, shaped a bit like a spinning top, pale green to bluey-grey, dull orange flesh, good for baking, roasting, soups or add chunks into Winter stews.

Spaghetti marrow – an oval shaped pale yellow squash with flesh that forms long spaghetti like strands when its cooked. Bake or boil, serve with a gutsy Bolognese type sauce, or a garlic and parsley butter.

Little Gem – a dark green/black tasty little squash the size of a cricket ball, mature in early August and can be stored till Christmas. The deep yellow flesh is moist and sweet. They can be boiled whole and eaten with butter and cinnamon. Very popular in South Africa.

Turks turban, easy to recognise, so beautiful you’ll be reluctant to cook this vividly coloured squash – its good but not quite as tasty as some of the other varieties.

Beef and Pumpkin Stew

Serves 6
1½ lb (700g) stewing beef
olive oil
8oz (225g) onion
8oz (225g) carrot
8oz (225g) pumpkin
8oz (225g) parsnip
salt and freshly ground pepper
½ pint (300ml) water or beef stock

Cut the meat into 1½ inch (4cm) chunks approx. Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan, toss the meat in the hot pan, transfer to a casserole, then toss the vegetables in the hot oil and add to the meat. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper, add ½ pint (300ml) water or beef stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 45 minutes – 1 hour.

Serve with fluffy mashed potato or colcannon

Granola

A toasted grain cereal.
Serves 20

12 ozs (340g) honey
8 fl ozs (225g) oil eg. sunflower or arachide
1 lb 1 oz (370g) oat flakes
7 ozs (200g) barley flakes
7 ozs (200g) wheat flakes
3½ ozs (100g) rye flakes
5 ozs (140g) seedless raisins or sultanas
4 ozs (110g) peanuts/hazelnuts, or cashew nuts split and roasted
1oz (25g) pumpkin seeds toasted
2¾ ozs (75g) wheatgerm and /or millet flakes
2 ozs (55g) chopped apricots and or chopped dates etc. are nice additions too

Mix oil and honey together in a saucepan, heat just enough to melt the honey. Mix well into the mixed flakes. Spread thinly on two baking sheets.

Bake in a moderate oven 180C/350F/regulo 4, for 20-30 minutes, turning frequently, making sure the edges don't burn. It should be just golden and toasted, not roasted!

Cool and mix in the raisins or sultanas, roasted nuts, toasted seeds, chopped dates, apricots and wheatgerm. Store in a screw top jar or a plastic box, keeps for 1-2 weeks.
Serve with sliced banana.

Stuffed Courgette Blossoms with Goats Cheese, Pesto and Tomato Fondue

In the Summer we grow courgettes (zucchini) in both the Kitchen garden and the Green Houses they produce hundreds of canary yellow blossoms. The female flowers produce the fruit but we use the male flowers in our salads, as a container for sauces and in soups. They are also utterly delicious stuffed with a few melting morsels, then dipped in a light batter and deep fried until crisp and golden. 
Serves 6-8 

Batter (excellent for fish fillets also) 
140g (5ozs) plain flour 
1: tablespoons olive oil 
Water
1-12 egg whites
Sea salt 
Sunflower oil for deep frying 
12 - 16 courgette flowers approx.

Filling 
175g - 225g (6 - 8ozs) fresh Irish goat=s cheese (I use St Tola, Crogan or Ardsallagh, each wonderful but different) 
3-4 teaspoons Pesto 
3-4 tablespoons Tomato fondue 

First make the batter. Sieve the flour into a bowl, make a well in the centre, pour in the olive oil, stir and add enough water to make a batter about the consistency of thick cream. Allow to stand for at least 1 hour if you can. 

Just before cooking, whisk the egg whites to a stiff peak and fold into the batter. Add salt to taste.

Heat the oil in the deep fryer until very hot. Remove the >thorns= from the base of the courgette flowers and the stamens from the centre. Hold a courgette flower upright, open slightly and carefully. Put about 15g (2oz) goat=s cheese, 2 teaspoon pesto and 1 teaspoon of Tomato fondue into each. Twist the tip of the petals to seal. Dip in batter and drop into the hot oil. Fry on one side for about 2 minutes and then turn over. They=ll take about 4 minutes in total to become crisp and golden. 

Drain on kitchen paper and serve immediately - just as they are or with hot Tomato Sauce or a little extra Tomato fondue. 

Creamy Winter Squash Soup

– from James McNair’s Squash Cookbook, published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco
He usually prepares this soup with pumpkin, other winter squash such as ‘Buttercup’, ‘Butternut’, or ‘Hubbard’ can be used with excellent results.
Serves 6

To prepare an edible serving bowl, cut off and reserve the top of a large whole squash of the same type used to prepare the soup. With a spoon, scoop out the seeds and stringy portions, replace the top, and wrap the stem with foil to prevent it from burning. Place in a shallow pan containing about ½ inch of water and bake in a preheated oven 350F/180C/gas 4, until the pumpkin is tender but still holds its shape, about 1 hour.

4 tablesp. unsalted butter
1 cup (4 oz) chopped leek, white part only
½ cup (2oz) chopped shallot
1½ lbs (700g) pumpkin, or other winter squash, peeled, cleaned, and cut into 
½ inch chunks, or 3 cups pureed cooked pumpkin or other winter squash from about 1½ lbs (700g) raw squash.
1 quart homemade chicken stock or chicken broth
1 cup (8fl.ozs) heavy whipping cream or light cream
1 cup (8fl.ozs) freshly squeezed orange juice
½ teasp. ground ginger
salt
freshly ground white pepper
crème fraiche or sour cream
chopped toasted hazelnuts for garnish
minced orange zest for garnish

In a large heavy saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the leek and shallot and sauté until very tender and golden, about 8 minutes. Add the pumpkin or other squash and chicken stock or broth. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer until the squash is tender, about 30 minutes. (If using pumpkin or other squash puree, simmer about 15 minutes.)

Working in batches, transfer to a food processor or blender and puree. Place in a clean saucepan, add the cream, orange juice, ginger and salt and pepper to taste. Place over medium heat, stirring frequently, until hot; do not boil. Carefully pour into baked pumpkin shell if desired (see above). Ladle into preheated bowls, add a dollop of crème fraiche or sour cream, and garnish with toasted hazelnuts and orange zest.

Note: To toast hazelnuts, place in a shallow pan in a 350F/180C/gas 4 oven, stirring frequently, until the nuts are golden under their skins. Transfer to a plate to cool. Rub nuts between fingertips to remove skins.

Foolproof Food

Wholemeal Bread with Pumpkin Seeds

Makes 1 loaf or 3 small loaves
400g (14 oz) stone ground wholemeal flour
55g (3oz) white flour, preferably unbleached
1 level teaspoon bread soda, sieved (Bicarbonate of Soda/Baking Soda)
1 teaspoon salt
25g (1oz) pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon honey
1 egg, preferably free range
1 tablespoon arachide or sunflower oil, unscented
425ml (15fl oz) buttermilk or sourmilk approx. (put all the milk in)
extra pumpkin seeds to scatter on top

Loaf tin - 9 inches (23cm) x 5 inches (12.5cm) x 2 inches (5cm) 

Preheat oven to 2001C/4001F/regulo 6.

Put all the dry ingredients including the sieved bread soda into a large bowl, mix well. Whisk the egg, add the oil and honey most of the buttermilk. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in all the liquid, mix well and add more buttermilk if necessary. The mixture should be soft and slightly sloppy, pour into an oiled tin or tins. Scatter some pumpkins seeds on top. 

Bake for 60 minutes approx, or until the bread is nice and crusty and sounds hollow when tapped. Cool on a wire rack.


Hot Tips

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Sweet and Simple – The fruit company Fyffes have recently launched a range of fresh fruit packs, sliced apple, sliced apple and grapes, and seedless grapes. Designed to appeal to busy people and concerned parents looking for a healthy addition to the school lunch box. Available nationwide €1 per pack. An idea for the ‘trick and treaters’ this Hallowe’en.

The popular and weekly tv programme ‘The Restaurant’ in which a celebrity prepares a three course meal for three well known food critics, is one of the nominees for Best Lifestyle Prgoramme.

Sarah Raven’s Garden and Cookery School in East Sussex – offers a huge variety of courses in gardening, keeping livestock, flower arranging, cooking – in a wonderful location – with guest chefs like Mary Berry, Antonio Carluccio, Monty Don – special courses running up to Christmas – festive flowers and wreaths, deck the house ……. For details contact 0845 050 4849 – email: school@thecuttinggarden.com   for a brochure. 

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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