Hubble, bubble, toil and trouble, witches flying and kids causing trouble! more importantly, october signifies that squash and gourds are now in full flow as the cooler winds start to bite and thoughts of winter menus become a warming reality. A whimsical look at the humble pumpkin and its’ relatives in hope of securing a fate that goes beyond Halloween…
Large melons! Have I got your attention now? That’s what the Greeks called pumpkins – pepon to be precise if ancient Greek is your thing, that’s until the French got hold of it and changed it to pompon, how very renaissance! The good old Brits rewrote pompon to pumpion before the American colonists of yesteryear rebranded it as the word we all know today as pumpkin. Genetic testing has shown that gourds originated in Asia, but were eventually grown throughout Africa, Polynesia and the Americas. It is speculated that they made their way to America carried across the Bering Strait and by floating on ocean currents.
Pumpkins and gourds are part of the squash family and believed to be some of the oldest known crops, dating back 10,000 years or more if we look at ancient Mexican history. Since squashes are gourds they were most likely used as containers and utensils because of their hard shells when dried out. A hard shell gourd, once dried out can last forever and is essentially a soft wood, the seeds and flesh only later became an important part of the diet in both South and North America.
It was the Native Americans who used squashes for a multitude of uses, weaving dried strips of pumpkin into mats, long before Hollywood was extolling the virtues of the pumpkin pie! To begin with, the colonists were not very impressed by the Indians’ squash until they had to survive the harsh winters of Virginia and New England, at which point they adopted squash and pumpkins as staples. Squashes were baked, cut and moistened with animal fat, maple syrup, and honey which led to the creation of that all American dessert ‘pumpkin pie’ when the colonists started slicing off the pumpkin tops, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey, then baked it in hot ashes.
The Native Americans also roasted or boiled the squashes and pumpkins and preserved the flesh as conserves in syrup. They also ate the young shoots, leaves, flowers, and seeds, which is not dissimilar to what we see in restaurants today. Squashes come in many different shapes and colours including tan, orange, and blue. There are many kinds which are all part of the Cucurbitaceae family (genus Cucurbita). The terms pumpkin, winter squash, and summer squash have been applied to fruits of different species in this family, or as we know them summer and winter squashes.
Summer squash are thin-skinned and bruise easily like courgettes, they are more typically the smaller, sweeter and more tender plants. Summer squash are moister as they contain more water than winter squash and only last for about a week in the refrigerator before they begin to soften and wrinkle, due to their skin thickness.
Winter squash, on the other hand have hard, thick rinds and are much drier, containing much less moisture than summer squash – think butternut squash. They are sometimes so hardy that you may find yourself needing a hammer as well as a knife to cut one in half. This thick skin allows longevity and you can keep winter squash fresh in cool, dark places for one to three months. The squash is very versatile, while some require cooking, others, like courgettes, can be eaten in every conceivable way; raw, sautéed, grilled, steamed, boiled, broiled, baked, fried, microwaved or freeze-dried. Easily puréed for soups, cakes, pies and some quick breads, it can be spiced up and added to rice pilafs, cubed and grilled on skewers, added to stews and made into famous dishes like ratatouille and pumpkin pie. Served alone or as a side dish, the diverse flavours of squash can lend itself to any occasion or table.
A pre-starter of braised snails, potato and parsley left us in no doubt of Aiden's Michelin aspirations. Bold, meaty snails that blended well with the rich creamy puree. The starters or I should say, beginning of frogs legs Kiev and squab pigeon with cherries, pistachio and violet mustard followed with impeccable timing between courses. This was my favourite dish of the day, not just because it resembled an elegant work of art, but the squab breast and confit of leg was cooked to perfection which was multi-textured delight that was complemented well with the flavours of pistachios, violet and cherry dust.
"An interesting point is that all squashes and gourds are actually fruits and not vegetables, only used like vegetables as they are not sweet and also as far as we are aware, there are no links to witches eating them in October!"
I guess we should mention Halloween and the historical association the pumpkin has with the 31st October! People have been making jack-o-lanterns every Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed ‘Stingy Jack’. According to the folklore, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. In keeping with his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for the drinks (sounds like a few people I know), so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy the drinks. Once the Devil did as he was bid, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket alongside a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form.
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother or seek revenge on Jack for one year and should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. Soon after when Jack died, as the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavoury character into heaven. The Devil, who was upset by the tricks Jack had played on him, kept his word and did not claim his soul and would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as ‘Jack of the Lantern’, and then over time, simply ‘Jack O’ Lantern’.
As the myth became part of popular culture in Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets were used. It is believed that immigrants from these two countries took the Jack O ‘Lantern tradition with them when they went to the United States, where they soon found that pumpkins were perfect to make Jack O’ Lantern.
Myths, devils and Halloween aside, the squash family still provides us with a great source of food, especially through the winter when we eat more hearty, warming dishes. The choice is superb and varied, beautifully formed squash that would look good on any menu, in any restaurant.