Take advantage of the Autumn harvest

Squashes are something of a neglected vegetable, which is a pity when you consider that they are almost as good a source of vitamin A as carrots

Courgettes, cucumbers, melons, marrows, pumpkins and squashes all belong to the cucurbit family of vegetables and at this time of year the shops and markets are full of them. Some are used for decoration only, but most members of this family are edible.

The two main types are summer squash and winter squash. With year-round availability these terms are no longer very helpful but it is useful to know that summer squashes are, in general, small, quick-growing, with thin skins, soft seeds and pale flesh. Courgettes are characteristic of this type, as the pumpkin is the perfect example of the winter squash with its tough, much darker rind and flesh and hard seeds.

Summer squashes, when young and tender, require no peeling and quick cooking. Cook them as you would courgettes and match them with other sunny summery flavours such as tomatoes, basil and garlic. Winter squashes are usually peeled before being cut up in chunks and cooked, at their best baked but they can also be added to stews and soups.

In Britain, squashes are something of a neglected vegetable, which is a pity when you consider that they are almost as good a source of vitamin A as carrots, and are often just as sweet and firm. Yet they are far more versatile too, particularly the larger ones that can serve as a cooking container as well as a basis for an exciting dish. Think about a squash soup, spiced up with lots of good flavours from herbs and nutmeg, enriched with a little meat and served in the hollowed out rind. And the elegant little custard marrows or patty pan squash make an attractive dish when stuffed and baked.

American cookery books are far more adventurous. I came across a delicious recipe for a baked squash pie in which mashed winter squash is flavoured with ginger, lemon juice and crushed aniseed.

Pumpkin is perhaps the best known of all the winter squashes, and like them native to the American continent, but has been grown in Britain since the sixteenth century. These hard-skinned, brilliant orange vegetables can grow to an enormous size; one specimen weighed in at 125 kilos.

Most Read

Usually they are more manageable: ‘pie pumpkins’ can be found at around 3 kilos and the variety Jack-Be-Little is tiny, usually no more than one kilo. Even so, many pumpkins are larger than the average household might want unless a pumpkin lantern is required and so it is often sold by the piece. If buying it by the piece, check that the orange flesh is firm, not fibrous.

As well as the traditional pumpkin pie, filled with spices and brown sugar, pumpkin makes a delicious soup, particularly when cooked in the shell, and is also extremely good peeled, chopped into chunks and cooked in rich meat stews in the South American fashion.

Because pumpkin contains a great deal of water and cooks down to about half its bulk, boiled or steamed are less preferable cooking methods; I prefer to cut or break the pumpkin into chunks, remove the seeds and any fibre, and bake it in the oven until tender. That way the flesh does not become waterlogged and the flavour is concentrated.

Pumpkin can also be made into delicious chutneys and preserves, as in this week’s recipe, which is fabulous as a filling for pancakes, and also spooned over rum and raisin or vanilla ice cream.

Pumpkin jam with rum, honey and vanilla

(Makes about 4 lbs/2 kilos)

1.5 kilo pumpkin, rind and seeds discarded

1 litre water

2 vanilla pods

Juice of 2 lemons

2 tablespoons clear honey

1 kilo jam sugar

125 ml rum

Cut the pumpkin into pieces and then slice it very thin. Put it in a non-reactive saucepan with the water, vanilla pods and lemon juice. Cook for 10 minutes, until the pumpkin is just soft, but not collapsing – you want to try to retain the nice thin slices. Add the honey and sugar, stir until the sugar has dissolved then boil for 10 minutes before adding the rum. Continue boiling until setting point has been reached then remove the pan from the heat. Take out the vanilla pods, and when cool enough to handle halve them, then split each half in two. Scrape the seeds back into the am and stir to distribute them. You can put a piece of vanilla pod in each hot sterilized jar before you spoon in the jam. Seal the pots and label them.

�Frances Bissell 2012