Much as I like those rustic baskets of decorative squashes artistically deployed in glossy-magazine kitchens, experience has taught me that such an arrangement in my confined scullery is only possible if I empty the contents fairly sharpish, into the pot and into myself. Before I trip over them and break a leg.
Pumpkins and squashes are a delight. They come with built-in life-affirming colour, velvety texture and a useful wallop of beta-carotene and, and their non-assertive flavour makes them the perfect candidate for pepping up with lively spices and winter herbs. I recall a memorable autumnal lunch at da Fiore in Venice - an intimate restaurant perched over one of the capillaries of the Grand Canal and resembling nothing as much as an upturned boathouse. I arrived by gondola, as you do, after a birthday tour of the lagoon, and it was some time before I got my sea legs. Once the room (and I) had stopped swaying, and I was able to look at the menu without turning a bit green, the baby pumpkin risotto with white truffle shone out like a beacon. A truffle of any colour is guaranteed to hit the spot, but until that moment, I had grievously underestimated the junior partner in this combination. Hallowe'en and interior decorators have a lot to answer for.
Since then, I have made up for lost time, roasting squashes with sage and chilli (a perfect match of flavours) halving and stuffing them with feta cheese or mozzarella and winter pesto and only arranging them decoratively until it's time to eat them. The soup below is a warm welcome home as autumn gives way to winter. It can be as mild or as spicy as you like. I like the lift of the chilli. Served informally in a mug, it makes a very satisfying lunch with a flatbread or two but since all good meals begin with a feast for the eyes, I can't resist camping it up in bone-china cups and saucers with little teaspoons for the amusement of my gueule even if I haven't any guests. They make a lovely contrast to the heartiness of the soup.
I'm on record as declining wine with soup because it's just too wet, but I'd make an exception here and uncork a fairly rich, not overly dry white. The more chilli you add, the sweeter the wine should be.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND COCONUT SOUP
- 750g butternut or acorn squash, or small pumpkin
- 2-3 banana shallots
- Whole salt and ground black pepper
- A splash of chilli-flavoured oil, or olive oil and a pinch of chilli flakes to taste
- 100ml white wine
- Bouquet garni of fresh thyme, sage and bay leaves
- 400ml can coconut milk
- 400ml chicken or vegetable stock
- Cream to serve
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6
I don't usually bother to peel the squash until it's cooked, and I save the seeds to roast as a chewy, nutty garnish. Both of these are a matter of choice.
Halve your squash and scoop out the seeds into a sieve. Rinse them under the tap to get of all the fibres and leave them to dry on some kitchen paper. Now cut the halves into large chunks or wedges and arrange in a roasting tin. Peel the shallots and cut each lengthwise into eighths.
Toss with the chilli oil, season well and roast for about 20-30 minutes until caramelised and tender. Towards the end of the cooking time, put the seeds in a small roasting tin, anoint with a bit of oil and season with whole salt and pepper and a pinch of garam masala if you like. Keep an eye on them and don't let them burn - they will brown and crisp quite quickly. Turn out onto a plate lined with kitchen paper, to absorb any excess oil.
When the vegetables are tender, let them cool slightly before removing the peel from the squash and cutting it into smaller pieces. Transfer to a saucepan with the wine, bouquet garni, coconut milk and stock. Simmer gently for about 30 minutes.
Cool, remove the bay leaves and any denuded stems, and liquidise in batches. Set aside until needed.
Reheat gently to serve in 4 bowls or 6 tea-cups with a little swirl of cream or a slick of chilli oil for seekers of extra heat. Sprinkle with the reserved seeds.