Tuesday 25 February 2014

Around a Squash in Eight Days

Last year's hot, sunny summer brought trouble and triumph to the plot - while our potatoes and salads struggled, our tomatoes and squashes had a glorious time and produced like crazy, and we're still eating some of those squashes now!

That's the biggest - a 'Musquee de Provence' squash, which is only just ripening (my fault, I think, for planting out rather late) and weighs a whopping 12kg! We're eating its smaller brother this week, and it's gorgeous - chestnutty brown on the outside, vivid orange on the inside, light and moist, and sweet with a slightly citrussy tang about it.

It's quite a challenge, getting through a whole squash that's more than a couple of kilos in weight, and once you've cut one open you know you have a limited time to finish it up! This is how we've been doing it so far:

Day 1 - Sunday: Sausage and Pumpkin Casserole - currently one of my favourite recipes ever, and previously featured on the blog here. It's packed with goodness and just tastes wonderful. If you haven't tried it, DO!

Day 2 - Monday: Vegetable Tagine and harissa couscous from an old blog post here.

Day 3 - Tuesday: Squash and Kale Tart, from this recipe in the Telegraph, as recommended by Jono from Real Men Sow a couple of weeks back. It's cheesy and aromatic and delicious, and I'll definitely be making it again. This first attempt was slightly on the soggy side - you need to drain the cooked vegetables very well before adding them to the tart!


Day 4 - Wednesday: Squash and Chorizo Pasta Bake, inspired by this recipe and then made up on the spot, by roasting chunks of squash, pan-frying chopped chorizo with red onion and lots of Swiss chard from the garden, seasoning with nutmeg, pepper and sage, then mixing it all up together with cooked pasta, a splash of milk and some grated cheese, and bunging it in the oven for a while. It was easy, very tasty and satisfying - though it took a while to make, what with having to roast the squash separately first.

Day 5 - Thursday: Squash and Stilton Pie, a lovely recipe which I adapted from a food magazine last year and will share with you now!

Squash and Stilton Pie
(serves 4 quite generously)
  • Preheat the oven to 180°C.
  • Sauté around 180g leeks and 180g cabbage in a little oil with a pinch of rosemary for 6-8 minutes, until soft.
  • Add around 480g diced squash and cook for 2-3 minutes.
  • Add 3 tbsps plain flour and stir in thoroughly, then add 400ml stock, stirring well, and simmer for another 10 minutes until the squash is cooked through. Remove from the heat.
  • Meanwhile, butter a pie dish (20cm diameter and 4cm deep is a good size), roll out two thirds of a block of ready-made pastry and line the dish with it. Roll out the other third to fit the top.
  • Into the vegetable mix, stir about 120g crumbled Stilton and another pinch of rosemary. Check seasoning, then spoon the filling carefully into the pie.
  • Brush the edges of the pastry with water and lay the pastry top over the pie. Crimp the edges with your fingers and cut off the excess pastry. Then brush the top with milk or beaten egg to glaze, poke a hole in the centre to let hot air out, and place in the oven for 20-30 minutes, until golden brown.
  • Serve with buttery mash and peas.
A photo of a wedge of pie is probably never gonna look that good, but here goes:

Day 6 - Friday: A couple of weeks ago we dined with some friends at Rabot 1745 in London - a new restaurant from Hotel Chocolat, featuring cacao as an ingredient in every dish! See the menu here - ooooh, it was good! Here is my cacao-marinated steak with root veg, white chocolate horseradish mash and red wine cacao jus...

Before our meal we each were served an amuse-bouche of delicious and sweet butternut squash soup, and though we could only guess what was in it, my friend Dave and I decided to try our hands at recreating it for lunch! We roasted chunks of squash, a wedge of red onion and two garlic cloves, infused some chicken stock with a star anise, then blended the roasted veg with the stock, grated in a little nutmeg, added some butter and melted in three squares of quality white chocolate! It was very nice - buttery and nutty with a hint of vanilla - and pretty close to the soup we were trying to imitate, though I'm planning on having another go at perfecting it... I always find squash soup recipes overdo the spices and don't truly make the most of the flavour of the squash - you'd think pumpkin actually tasted of nutmeg, ginger, allspice and cinnamon, the amount people add all the time! - so this is an approach I really liked to bring out the rich and sweet qualities of what should be the star of the dish!

Day 7 - Saturday: Well, I'd like to tell you I made something else new and exciting, but it was a long and tiring day and I really needed something easy to throw together... So we made another pasta bake (similar to Wednesday's) with frozen spinach, lots of sage, a handful of toasted pine nuts and oodles of melty cheese. Lovely jubbly.

Day 8 - A couple of days later I remembered I just had a few extra chunks of squash left from roasting the last wedge on Sunday, so I mashed it up and whipped up these cheesy squash fritters for lunch. They were yummy, but I'd use just a little less salt next time. And I should probably have served them with a salad instead of munching them down just on their own...

So there you go - that's how we get through a great big squash without boring everyone silly. When it's time to eat the 12kg one, though, I'll have to give some away - or have a big dinner party! (I make that enough squash for about 24 meals for four!)

We'll definitely be growing Musquee de Provence again this year, along with our reliable favourite Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato squash (still got one of those waiting to be eaten too), some Crown Prince (another new one on us last year and it really is as good as they say - such rich, sweet flesh!), Uchiki Kuri (which we've never succeeded with yet but I'm determined!), the rare Blue Banana, and whatever pumpkin seeds I've got left over from last year. With their versatility, variety, low maintenance plants and great storing ability, I just love winter squashes!

Saturday 15 February 2014

The Rain Came Down and the Floods Came Up...

Well there I was, all ready to throw myself back into this, and then...

Though most of St Albans is on a hill and in little danger of flooding, the River Ver cuts a valley round it and, like many allotment sites across the country, our site is on the land no-one else wanted - a floodplain that actually sits below the level of the river; a basin that just filled up when the river burst its banks last Friday. Being on such low ground, we're no strangers to a little winter flooding affecting a few plots in the bottom of the basin (see my previous post on how to deal with flooding), but this is a different matter - this week nearly every single plot was flooded, and some of them several feet deep!

Immediately I thought of all the things I should have done. I should have harvested my six remaining swedes and kept them safe at home. I should have made certain that my watering cans and buckets were secure, and labelled them with my name and plot number. I should have properly disposed of those half-empty paint cans and the Round-Up I misguidedly bought a few years ago, instead of leaving them in a corner and forgetting about them! But I was thankful, at least, that it was still early in the season and I hadn't yet started sowing potatoes, parsnips and broad beans! It was pretty horrible not knowing how long the flood would last, or what state the place would be in when it went down again - how much would have died, whether all our things would still be there and unharmed, whether all the soil life would have drowned.

By enormous luck of the draw, our plot is among the highest onsite - an island, in fact, among lower plots, and after three days we could reach it again, though the plots on two sides were still completely submerged and those on the other two sides still had some huge puddles. We gathered up our watering cans and some loose pots, though our bucket of fish, blood and bone seems to have floated away, and brought home some belongings from our storage bench (a drenched box of tissues and first aid kit got thrown away pretty promptly) as well as those containers of paint and weedkiller, which thankfully still had their lids tightly on - and we pulled some stray bits of timber out of our pond. We'll return again tomorrow, water-level depending, and start to pick up the debris!

The swedes and leeks look unharmed, and though I had thought that we were supposed to discard any crops touched by floodwater, the FSA website's advice is more lenient than I expected: 

"For fresh fruit and vegetables that are grown either for sale or for your own consumption:
  • You should throw away any produce covered by flood water if it is ready to eat, and is grown above ground, such as lettuce or strawberries. It is fine to eat produce that is growing above the water and not contaminated with flood water e.g. fruit on trees.
  • It is OK to eat produce that has been cooked, even if it has been contaminated by flood water this is because cooking will kill any harmful germs that might be present.
  • You should wait at least six months after the area was flooded, before harvesting any new fruit or vegetables from that affected land. This is to make sure that any harmful germs that might be in the soil from the flood water will not survive and contaminate the produce. You do not need to wait before planting new crops if the fruit or vegetables will be cooked before being eaten."
So it looks like we'll still be able to eat our winter crops if we leave them a little longer, wash them thoroughly and cook them well. To be honest, it's unlikely our floodwater has anything too terrible in it, but you just can't tell.

I wish I'd brought more of our tools home now, as the rain continues to come down and I know the water could easily rise again. One of our forks was already starting to show a little rust. And of course I'd like to get a move on with digging a new potato bed and prepping the soil for spring, but as long as this weather continues and the Ver remains a raging torrent, I think that the threat of flooding will remain, and the soil is unlikely to dry out to a useful degree.

So while I wait, I'm contenting myself sowing seeds at home: peppers in the propagator, leeks and artichokes and celeriac on the windowsill, and parsnips in pots in the garden. (They say you can't transplant parsnips, but last time I tried it they did amazingly well and were huge! I'll make a second sowing in the soil when I can too though, just in case - and 'cos I like parsnips!)

Of course, the disappointment and inconvenience we're suffering here is nothing compared to the misery those with flooded homes are going through. Let's hope this stupid weather comes to an end soon, and let's hope for a more responsible approach to the environment and its potential hazards in future.
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