Sybil Kapoor on how the Cucurbita genus—that’s squash to you and me—has come to define different eras of modern cookery
There are certain vegetables that define an era and perhaps none more so than those that belong to the genus Cucurbita—in other words, courgettes, squash and pumpkins. The vegetable marrow, for example, epitomises the 1970s. Its portly shape evokes the alternative world of The Good Life and poverty-stricken students surviving on nut cutlets and rice stuffed marrows. The courgette was then still a recherche vegetable that occasionally sneaked its way into a dinner party via a dish of ratatouille, cooked by an enthusiastic reader of Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David.
Baby squash, such as tiny crooknecks and green and yellow patty pans, however, are as 1980s as oversized shoulder pads and puffball skirts. Nouvelle cuisine may have pioneered their use in Britain, but before long no party or restaurant menu was complete without a colourful accompaniment of blanched and buttered miniature vegetables with a heavy emphasis on the baby squash.
In contrast, the millennium was defined by the popularisation of weighty, hard-skinned squash, such as butternut, kabocha and turban. Golden chunks were roasted and mixed into salads with nuts and feta, while smaller pieces found their way into quiches, stews and risottos. It became remarkably hard to escape eating their sweet, nutty-flavoured flesh.
Captured the zeitgeists
It’s difficult to know why squash have so often captured the zeitgeists. In the early 13th century, when there were fewer vegetables to choose from, no monastic garden was complete without its pumpkins. These were a form of coarse-textured gourd far removed from the fine flavoured pompion (pumpkin) that was introduced from France, and the many squash that made their way here from the New World after the 16th century.
As is so often the case, the New World novelty of the squash family made them highly fashionable, and tables of the rich would include luxuriously spiced and layered sweet egg custard pies of pumpkin, currants and apples. Such combinations still taste delicious, especially when flavoured with lemon, cinnamon, ginger or nutmeg. Fine textured butternut squash or the even finer tasting blue skinned, orange fleshed crown prince squash is perfect for such dishes.
Some aspects of cooking never change. Thus, hard-skinned squash and pumpkins were demoted from fashion-conscious kitchens as soon as they became a cheap staple for the rural working classes. This was partly due to the fact that they kept well through the winter months, but perhaps equally important, they must have tasted unbelievably sweet to those who rarely ate sugar. As with many foodstuffs eaten by the working class, such as blackberries, they may not have been written about very often, but they must have been appreciated. After all, the recipe for pumpkin pie was carried all the way to America.
Worthy but unglamorous
Squash might have remained a worthy but unglamorous vegetable, had it not been for some enterprising Italian plant breeders. In the early 20th century they developed small, thin-skinned marrows through hybridisation—known as zucchini in Italian and courgettes in French. These tender new varieties soon became popular in America as homesick Italian migrants started to grow and cook them in the 1920s.
Britain being Britain, it took another 50 years for the courgette to be taken seriously here. Why would you want a dainty sweet-tasting zucchini, when you could eat cheap blanched slices of marrow bathed in a béchamel or tomato sauce? In truth, the courgettes on sale in the late 1970s were still quite large and had a more bitter profile than their equivalents today.
Happily, as a result of these different trends, we can now cook all manner of squash. These range from immature or soft-skinned fruits (summer squash), such as courgettes, patty pans, custard-marrows and marrows, to hard-skinned varieties (winter squash), including acorn, little gem and turban squash.
Lush, flavoursome flesh
From a cook’s perspective, many of the different varieties of soft-skinned squash are interchangeable, just as hard-skinned squash can easily be swapped around. There are variations: some can be sweeter than others, some more watery or fibrous. For example, among hard-skinned squash, kabocha tend to be more fibrous, whereas West Indian pumpkins have lush, flavoursome flesh.
Often, these differences depend on the growing conditions as well as the variety. The best strategy is to cook whatever you like the look of—it’s hard to go wrong. Nibble a small piece of raw squash flesh, and you will then be able to accommodate any sponginess of texture or underlying bitterness when you cook. All squash act like sponges and will absorb whatever flavours you choose to add.
Slices of courgette or crooknecks can be brushed with oil and grilled, before being marinated in a thyme, lemon and garlic vinaigrette. Chunks of courgette or patty pan squash can be fried in a (relatively) dry sautéed shallot, tomato and cumin sauce, then simmered with a little extra water. Both recipes taste good hot or cold.
Hard-skinned squash can be transformed into tempting savoury baked custards, spiked with roasted garlic, cayenne pepper and parmesan, or blitzed into velvet-textured soup. One of my favourite squash soups is made with sauteed onion, garlic and bramley apples, chicken stock and creme fraiche. It can be spiced with curry seasonings or left plain. Always add a little acidity in the form of sour cream, creme fraiche or lemon to counteract the sweet umami intensity of the soup.
Any squash can be fried or turned into fritters. All taste good with chilli, garlic, fresh herbs, piquant cheeses and spices, such as cumin, turmeric, garam masala and coriander. Acorn and little gem squash are small enough to be stuffed and baked if you remove their seeds. They both have a delicate taste and soft, pulpy flesh.
Ironically, one of the most delicious recipes dates back to the marrow’s much-maligned 1970s heyday: marrow and ginger conserve. The diced marrow becomes translucent as it cooks, soaking up the ginger and lemon syrup. Eat it straight from the jar, while wallowing in nostalgia.