This week is probably the most beautiful one here. The woods, which are dark and green and gloomy in summer, and dark and bare and gloomy in winter, turn into a festive array of yellow, red and green. They manage to bring a little joy to the overcast days.
I am no fan of autumn. I never understood its charms when living in Italy: to us it is just the rain season. It can rain for weeks, with no breaks (this is happening right now in Italy. Looks like someone up there wants to wipe out all the dirt, which sounds like a good idea, actually; but the ones who get wiped away are never the right ones). In a place like the UK, where it rains most of the summer, autumn can be much sunnier than summer itself. It is a beautiful period. I still remember one poem by Emily Dickinson, which I happen to remember by heart: ‘The morns are meeker than they were.. ‘. I have good reasons for remembering it. When our English teacher made us analyse it for a test, the whole class, 30 reasonably well learned students, concluded it was about spring. How can you say something positive at all about autumn? Take 30 random Italian guys: we won’t understand a thing about autumn charms. The poem is very clear, but we were all so sure no one could speak about it in such terms, that we happily ignored all evidences.
With time, I have learned to appreciate this season’s subtleties. Every autumn I also rediscover squash, one of my favourite ingredients ever. The farmers market is bursting with beautiful squashes, but the famous butternut is not the best one around. The winner here is the small Hokkaido, bright orange, together with a very dense and sweet one with a thick and dark green peel, not unlike Kabocha. Also pumpkins are quite flavourful.
I try new recipes when I am so inclined, but I like squash so much that every time I develop a series of simple go-to favourites, which are what I cook most times, on a daily basis. I had years where most of the pumpkins would go in pasta (I love gratin pasta with savoy cabbage and pumpkin) or just mashed with garlic or shallots and some herbs. This year I often go for soups and roasted squash. With the roasted squash, I am pretty much settled around one salad I ate at Ottolenghi’s one unseasonably warm afternoon in March (actually, we had a picnic in Hide Park with it). The salad is so good I tend to forget exactly how good it is, until I prepare it again. It tastes so good, it has become one of my go-to dishes for inviting people at dinner: everybody loves it, and if you present it at a buffet, for some reason it is always the first dish to disappear. Its evaporation rate has been superseded only by profiteroles and pizza, but you have to work much more to produce the latter. The salad is very simple: roast squash, mix with chickpeas, add some caramelized onions dressed with turmeric and cumin, top with feta, coriander and lemon zest. Much, much better than what you probably think.
For soups I don’t have such faithfulness to one recipe. There are many tempting recipes to try, popping out like mushrooms when the leaves change their color. Last year, my go-to soup, also thanks to my limited kitchen facilities, was a subtly spicy squash soup with ginger and nutmeg. This year’s favourite is again to ascribe to the talented Mr. Ottolenghi. It is mexican inspired and it also includes corn, whose texture cannot be resisted. It is not the simplest soup ever but please, please to give it a try before the season is over. I used for it some turkish dried peppers, which I bought to use in this recipe (I am trying very hard not to link each and every of Heidi’s recipes, but honestly this is difficult). They are not very spicy, though they are full of flavour, so I added a couple of hot chillies as well.
The amounts given here will feed 4-6 people, but the soup keeps very well: I usually make it ahead and I am very happy with leftovers. Just make sure you don’t make it boil when reheating otherwise the yoghurt might curdle. I make it with Hokkaido, which is my new darling since when I discovered you can actually eat the skin. This cuts down the preparation time considerably. I usually make sure I buy an organic squash when I don’t peel it, just in case.
Sweetcorn and squash soup with dried peppers
4-6 turkish dried peppers (substitute with mexican dried peppers or just a mixture of smoked paprika, sweet paprika and hot chilli powder)
4 garlic cloves
3 celery sticks
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
vegetable bouillon, 1 tablespoon (or substitute with salt)
800 gr Hokkaido squash, seeded but not peeled, if organic (peel it if unsure)
200 gr frozen corn kernels
4+6 tablespoon yoghurt
Soak the chillies in hot water. Peel and roughly chop shallots and garlic, and chop the celery. Heat the oil on a thick bottomed pan (use your pressure cooker if you have one). Sautee the chopped vegetables for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat and add some salt, and let them soften up a bit. Meanwhile, cut the squash into chunks, and the soaked peppers in thin strips. Add coriander, cumin, bay leaves, lime leaves, squash, peppers and chilli to the pot. Add salt or vegetable bouillon and water. Close the lid if using a pressure cooker a nd cook for about ten minutes. Without pressure it will take about twenty minutes. Cook until the squash skin is soft. Using a hand blender puree everything with care. Taste and adjust seasoning. Don’t worry if it does not taste right yet, it will probably be too sweet. Add frozen corn kernels, and let them cook for a few minutes. Take off the heat, add 4 tablespoon of yoghurt and taste. It should be a bit sharp; add more yogurt, salt or chilli in case. Serve in bowl, squeezing in a lot of lime juice, and with an extra dollop of yoghurt and some chopped coriander for garnish.
Chickpeas, feta and roasted squash salad
about 600 gr squash (butternut or Hokkaido)
salt and pepper
400 gr cooked chickpeas (you can use canned ones of course)
1 medium onion
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
60 gr feta
handful of coriander leaves
grated zest of half a lemon
Preheat the oven to 200. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Deseed the squash and cut into 3X3 cm chunks. You can peel it now or after cooking; I usually go for after cooking since it is easier and the skin helps keeping a bit more moisture. Arrange the chunks on the baking tray, brush with a couple of teaspoon oil and scatter with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven until soft and with slightly browned edges. Peel the onion and slice it in 3 mm thick slices. Dry toast the cumin seeds on a non stick pan. Add a tablespoon of oil to it and then the onions, the turmeric and a good pinch of salt. Cook on medium high heat until soft and brown. (All this can be made up to a day ahead).
To assemble the salad: remove the skin from the squash. Don’t worry if you mash it at all. Put it in a bowl, mix in the chickpeas and mash it a bit more with a fork, while retaining some texture. Mix in the onions. Arrange in a pyramid over a flat dish, Ottolenghi-style (or just leave it in the bowl). Scatter chunks of feta and coriander leaves on top, then finish off with some lemon zest. It keeps well.