Little Boy Green has recently been very curious about pumpkins. We have received a few squash in our veg bag in the past few weeks but given previous meetings of boy and pumpkin in a culinary context have been less than successful, we had not thought to reintroduce the two. However, pumpkins have been popping up in the books he's been reading, and all kinds of varieties of squash have also been growing for a while at his favourite haunt, the Spitalfields City Farm, leading to him requesting some for lunch. So pumpkins (squash) everywhere, but not a bite to eat! So out went the family on the hunt for some similarly sized squash to that we had hanging about in the kitchen. To my surprise they weren't as readily available as I had hoped, but it was mid-week so we weren't able to visit any farmers markets. Maybe the real glut is still ahead - we were surprised at having to hunt for squash in September... Despite not finding the abundance I was anticipating, we did end up with a very decent selection and I am sure that in a few weeks squash will appear on our local street market in great numbers.
Despite the variety we were able to find, I treated each squash as one and the same: I cooked them all in the same manner and for the same amount of time. I was inspired by a Syrian dish that is a favourite in my parents' household, kousa mehshi (stuffed zucchini). Unlike zucchini, these squash are fairly resilient even if they vary in size and much easier to core and stuff. I did overcook them as bedtime duty took longer than I had expected/ hoped and they came out blistered but very delicious, and the pumpkin was melt-in-the-mouth soft. The black Venus rice variety that we used (a wild rice) was selected primarily for aesthetic reasons, but it turned out to be a tasty decision. All of the stuffing rice left over from making the dish went down a treat with Little Boy Green as a separate meal mixed with some butter beans. The rice is so good, you could just stop there and not bother with the squash and sauce (but you didn't hear that from me!).
The sauce is tomato based and the most "authentic" component of the dish. It is tart, sweet and garlicky, and a great accompaniment to the squash. The flavour profile of the sauce (namely, its distinct tartness) really harks back to the Levant, and it tastes distinctly non-European. I think it is absolutely delicious, especially with naturally sweet vegetables like squash, but possibly also beetroot, turnips, yam or sweet potato.
While this recipe is straightforward and pretty simple to prepare, it does require a fairly long cooking time and a three-step process. The rice is first cooked and then stuffed into the squash which then needs to be baked. The stuffed cooked squash is then served in a sauce that is separately cooked. The kousa mehshi recipe that my mother sent me is a one pot wonder, but I was afraid to cook the squash in the sauce as I was concerned that it would have dulled the vibrance of the varieties that we used, and then I left it in the oven too long and the colours went from vibrant to burnt... I am, however stubborn enough to believe that the method proposed below is best. (Next time will see me vindicated with the pretty colours - stay tuned on Instagram.)
Among the squash varieties that can be found (locally) include: kabocha, red kabocha, sugar pumpkin, red kuri and buttercup. We picked what was appealing and had a bowl-like shape. Beware, though: as Halloween approaches supermarkets will begin to stock carving pumpkins, these are grown primarily for that purpose and are typically not as tasty as those grown to be eaten.
- 4-6 squash (depending on size)
- 1 cup wild or brown basmati rice
- 1 medium onion
- 3 3/4 cup water, divided
- 2 tbsp vegan bouillon
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 cup tomato passata
- 1 tbsp ground cumin (powder)
- 1 tbsp pomegranate molasses
- 4 large garlic cloves
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Salt to taste
- Finely dice the onion and put in a pot with 1 cup of water and 2 tbsp of bouillon and cook, uncovered until the onion has softened and a paste has formed.
- Add the rice and 1 3/4 cups of water, and the tomato paste, bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 45-50 minutes depending on the variety used. When ready, the rice should be cooked but al dente (with a bite) and have a risotto-like consistency, wet but not watery. If the rice is not cooked, add 1/4 cup of water and continue to cook for another 5 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let rest, covered, until ready to use.
- Season to taste
- Slice the tops of the squash off roughly an inch (2cm) from the top and scoop out the seeds and fibre.
- Stuff the squash and return their tops to tightly close in the rice.
- Bake in a preheated oven at 180C for 1hr. To test if the squash is cooked through, pierce the squash with a toothpick. It should slide in and out easily, if it doesn't, then cook for a further 15 minutes.
- Finely dice the garlic, or use a garlic press, and place in a pot with the tomato passata, 1 cup of water, cumin and 1 tsp of salt and cook, covered for 15 minutes.
- Remove from heat and mix in the pomegranate molasses and lemon juice.
- Season to taste.