What is the dish that you associat with your earliest food memory? I love to think of what children long for, drinking cocoa by the fire after school like in an Enid Blyton story. In the classic Robert Louis Stevenson poem Young Night Thought a boy dreams of a procession of exotic characters marching past his mind’s eye as he falls asleep. My procession of nursery favourites would include dhal with spinach paneer from India, plum jam dumplings for the Austrian/Swiss Germans, pasta with pancetta and peas for those Italian bambini, vetkoek with mince or mieliepap with tomato onion sauce for us South Africans and roast chicken for almost everybody.
Strangely, I don’t have anything that comes to mind. When I think of all the favourite dishes of my childhood I am struck by their wild variety. It wasn’t as if my mother made the same thing every Sunday so that I could say make THAT again! In fact, it was almost the opposite- once she made something a few times, she made it so well, she hardly ever repeated herself!. This means that there isn’t really a single dish I can think of as my ultimate comfort food.
But when I dig really deep I remember gem squashes. It was a firm favourite from as long as I can remember. The tough, deeply dark green rinds were cut in half with a bread knife while still raw and then steamed in a metal basket that folded up like a robotic flower. The cavities were seasoned with salt and a curl of butter, then filled with creamed sweetcorn and topped with grated yellow Cheddar cheese and baked in the oven until golden and bubbling.
It’s amazing to think of the simplicity and restraint of such food through a child’s eyes. Keep the seasoning simple. Serve a little piece of chicken here, a cherry tomato there. And all you really want is that little gem squash half. The combination of savoury with sweet and creamy and the rich umami hit of cheese is actually really good, and therefore seriously underrated because it comes in the guise of a clichéd, almost kitsch side dish. Gem squashes made this way really is one of the most fun vegetables for children to eat.
Now you must know that there are two types of gem squashes. There’s the buttery, pale yellow kind with stringy flesh. Sometimes you can even see the way it radiates out, like the rings of a tree. This type tastes quite satisfying in a bland sort of way, it’s fun to get all the flesh out with a spoon and dangle the bits into your mouth. But the second kind is the superior one: here the flesh turns an autumnal orange once cooked. The flesh is smooth and nutty and sweet. This time your spoon scrapes every last morsel out of the shell. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the skin itself is soft enough to eat. It was almost like a party trick of mine, to devour the whole gem squash, shell and all. Similar to apple peel, it has a certain satisfying flavour that contrasts with the texture of the melting squash.
The difference between the two types of gems squash must have to do with age, like all gourds, those that are left to mature off the vine gain a real depth of flavour. I once kept a butternut squash on top of my fridge for a month and it tasted so sweet and nutty baked with rosemary salt and cumin. All this talk of peel reminds me of pumpkin, which may be the more popular cousin of Ms Gem Squash but regrettably seems to live in the shadow of the aforementioned popular Mrs Butternut. The small acorn squash or giant boer pampoen with the grey green skin is absolutely gorgeous cut into half-moons and baked with cinnamon sugar. The rind is the best bit by far as the soft sweet flesh gets an added texture profile with all the chewy caramelised bits.
All this makes me suddenly remember the following story. I have no way of verifying this, but my mother loves to tell the story of my first word. We were visiting some distant relatives and I was sitting on someone’s the lap, greatly interested in the hustle and bustle of preparations for supper. As everyone sat down, I made a grab for a platter of roasted pumpkin on the table. In my frustration when none was passed to me I blurted out: “Pampoen!” and was promptly handed a solid wedge for my efforts. Yes, my obsession with food runs deep- my first word was not Mamma or even Pappa, but pumpkin!
My love for pumpkin didn’t wane with time. I especially loved pampoenkoekies (pumpkin fritters) as a child despite that my mother never really making them very well. They were often a little scorched and once I even found a whole slimy seed embedded in one. But this didn’t stop us making them, often serving them as a special treat with soup on a Sunday night. Traditional pumpkin fritters are made with pumpkin puree and eggs and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar while still warm. They are especially lovely as an accompaniment to robust dishes such as lamb or bobotie. You can also serve them for dessert, slathered in homemade caramel sauce. I once even found a recipe containing crushed ginger biscuits, which inspired me to add some ground ginger to the cinnamon. Nowadays, baking powder is added to the batter so the fritters puff up, similar to beignets of New Orleans.
To be honest, I don’t really look down on the butternut, I just struggle to get a good, well-ripened sweet one. In fact, I once had an unforgettable butternut dessert at a Thai restaurant. The butternut was slowly poached in coconut cream and palm sugar and flavoured with lemon grass. This caused the outer layer of the squash to almost become sealed like a second skin. I was 14 years old and had spent a rather frustrating evening at the opening of my uncles’ art exhibition. Many dishes were brought to the long table that evening, but each and every one contained copious amounts of chilli (because it’s my uncles’ favourite). My tongue was on fire. All I managed to eat was a morsel of whole baked sweet and sour fish which was almost completely devoured by the time it reached me. At least it had some perfectly steamed jasmine rice to accompany it. So by the time dessert at last arrived I was entranced (and rather relieved) by the magically transformed sweet butternut.
It’s quite strange to think about it, as my uncle – a poet and an artist – is often is associated with the symbolic pumpkin from his cycle of satirical/metaphorical poems. These span an impressive 50 decades as he writes a new poem on or around his birthday in September. In one of these he writes (in Afrikaans): “Alas… somewhere there must be an old pumpkin lying pot bellied and yellow on a tin roof, although she may only be a gust of wind that prevents our dreams from lifting the shingles and flying off to the moon…”
Let our ode to these humble squashes continue for evermore.
Roasted gem squash soup with corn fritters
This is a new invention of mine, inspired by the comforting trio of squash, corn and cheese. I used cubes of my favourite cheese: Wyke mature cheddar to enrich the soup. Make the fritters just before serving them.
For the soup:
4 gem squashes, cut in half (8 halves)
2 leeks or shallots or 2 sticks celery
1 clove garlic, finely sliced
3/4 T butter
+- 1 cup white wine of white wine vinegar
½ litre home made chicken stock
2 T natural vegetable stock powder
White pepper and celery salt, to taste
20ml cream or coconut cream
For the fritters:
4 ears of corn, kernels cut off
1 large free range egg
1 lire canola oil
1 cup self-raising flour, 1 cup plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk, with a knob of butter
Cayenne pepper and salt, to taste
Begin by placing a scrap of butter in each gem squash half and sprinkling with ground white pepper and celery salt. Bake in a preheated oven (180 degrees) for half an hour to 40 minutes until tender.
Meanwhile take your soup pot and fry the chopped celery or shallots and garlic in butter until fragrant and transparent. Add a dash of white wine or vinegar and reduce. Add the chicken stock and stock powder. Allow to simmer gently.
Remove the squashes from the oven and cool slightly. Scrape out the flesh and add to the soup along with the cream. Simmer for 10 minutes before blending til smooth.
To make the fritters, preheat a small pot of canola oil. Cut the kernels off the cobs with a sharp serrated knife and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with cayenne pepper and salt. Gently heat the milk and butter until the butter is melted. Do not boil. Add the warm milk to the corn before sieving over the flour and baking powder. Mix with a wooden spoon to combine.
When the oil is hot, drop tablespoonfuls of batter in, two at a time, taking care not to make the fritters too big. They may need to be turned over with a slotted spoon to brown evenly.
Drain and serve immediately alongside or on top of the hot soup, into which you have stirred small cubes of mature Cheddar cheese.