Make room for squash


Winter squash might be a bit of a chore to peel and chop, but once roasted it’s a versatile and delicious vegetable, writes DOMINI KEMP 

THERE ARE CERTAIN ingredients that I’m very fond of that tend to be cooked a lot at work, but not at home. Butternut squash is absolutely delicious, ubiquitous on our menus, but it’s just a bit of a pain to peel and chop. I look at recipes for it and go “yum”, but rarely does it make the leap from shelf to basket.

Maybe it’s because it’s coming to that time of year when we all make a bit more effort with food as we start to feel the rumbling urge to cook for people. Or maybe it’s flicking through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new vegetable book (River Cottage Veg Everyday) that forced me to stop being such a ninny and get on with a version of his roast butternut squash salad.

Perfect for this time of year, it’s one of those salads that can be a starter or main course. To ease up on the prep, you can roast the butternut squash the day before and simply re-heat it in the same roasting tin in a hot oven for five minutes, so all you are left to do is saute the mushrooms, mix the lettuce with a bit of vinaigrette and crumble some cheese on top. Hugh F-W uses blue cheese, but I prefer the mellow saltiness of a good sheep’s or goats’ cheese, such as Knockdrinna, St Tola or Fivemiletown. Most children will eat butternut squash quite happily because of that fantastic combination of sweet and salty.

I drizzled the squash with some Highbank apple syrup, which you will find in good deli stores. If you can’t get this fantastic Irish apple syrup, some agave or honey or maple syrup will do. But the Highbank product is great for drizzling over all roast vegetables as it’s not too sweet, but just helps the caramelisation take a little more hold.

The veal dish is based on a few different recipes from a nice new Donna Hay book, Fast, Fresh, Simple. The porcini dust is a fantastic thing to coat meat in, and would also be lovely with pork or steak. The veal cooked in about four minutes, but you do need to be a bit generous with lashing the butter into the frying pan when it’s cooking – a good knob per four escalopes should do it.

I served it with some soft polenta which is something I usually despise simply because you need buckets of butter, and possibly soft cheese, plus Parmesan, to make it vaguely edible. However, this recipe uses a combination of milk and stock, which actually worked a treat because you get the richness without pounds of fat. I still added a few spoons of mascarpone and some grated Parmesan, but even without these luxurious additions, when cooked with half milk, half stock, you get an impressive richness. If you get the quick-cook polenta, it really is like instant mashed potatoes.

Both dishes are great for dinner or a really nice Sunday lunch at this time of year, and the salad could easily make the leap on to your starter menu for Christmas day.

Roast butternut squash and mushroom salad

Serves four as a generous starter

1 butternut squash

Few sage leaves

50ml olive oil

Salt and pepper

Drizzle of Highbank apple syrup or honey or agave

Big knob butter

500g button-on brown mushrooms

4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

Good splash sherry or balsamic vinegar

200g mixed leaves (about four decent handfuls)

Approx 150g cheese (goat, hard or blue)

Heat an oven to 190 degrees/gas mark 5. Peel the butternut squash: if using a peeler, then leave it whole and peel it first, before chopping it. But if you find it easier to peel it with a knife, then I find the easiest way is to cut it in half, across the middle, so that you are left with one cylindrical shape, and one round shape. This means you can pare away the skin, keeping the squash flat and steady on a surface. The top half is easy to chop into bite-sized chunks. The bottom half needs to be cut down the middle so that you can scoop the seeds out (this is easier to do with a spoon) and then chop into chunks.

Once you have done this, put the squash in a roasting tin and generously drizzle it with about 50ml of olive oil, along with the sage leaves, lots of salt and pepper, and a drizzle of something sweet. Don’t overload the roasting tin. Do it in two batches if necessary as it will go a bit soggy if there’s too much in the tin. I roasted this for 45-50 minutes, even though the oven was quite high. But keep an eye on it. It may start to caramelise more quickly. What you’re looking for is tender squash and nice, caramelised, sticky bits in places.

When you’re close to serving, saute the mushrooms on a high heat with the remaining oil and a big knob of butter. You really want them to brown and not stew, so keep the pan on a high heat. Season well and add the sliced garlic. When you have quite a well coloured and dry mixture, add the splash of vinegar and let that bubble and sizzle away.

Toss the leaves in a light vinaigrette or even a nice flavoured oil (there’s lots going on, so the leaves need just a light dressing) and then plate up the mushrooms and butternut squash on top of the leaves. Crumble some cheese on each plate and serve.

Veal escalopes with porcini dust and soft polenta

Most packs of dried mushrooms are 20 grams, so three packs are required. All varieties of dried mushroom will work for this.

Serves 4

60g dried porcini mushrooms

3 tsp flaky sea salt

Black pepper

8 veal escalopes (about 90g each)

Olive oil

2-3 knobs butter

500ml milk

500ml water (plus 2 stock cubes, chicken or vegetable)

170g polenta

80g Parmesan, grated

2-3 tbsp Mascarpone

If you have a spice grinder or small processor, this will be much easier to do. Grind the mushrooms, salt and lots of pepper until it resembles a powder, with some chunky bits in parts. This took a while as my food processor is too big so it just kept whizzing around. Spread the porcini dust on to a large plate. Get the veal escalopes out and bring them up to room temperature while you get the polenta ready.

In a heavy-based saucepan, bring the water, milk and stock cubes to the boil, pour in the polenta and whisk as it thickens up. It will bubble away like hot lava, so keep a lid partially over it and keep whisking. If it’s getting too thick, chuck in a splash or two of water. Check the instructions on the polenta pack to see how long it needs to cook for. Some need 40 minutes, some cook in 10. Either way, don’t let it get too dry and remember it should be like smooth, very soft and slightly runny mash.

Heat the olive oil and a knob of butter until foaming and very hot, and fry the escalopes on each side for a couple of minutes. Transfer the first batch to a warm plate and fry the rest. Serve with the polenta, and some butternut squash if you have any leftover.