Sorry tomatoes, we had a great time this summer but you are already no more than a distant memory. Squash have caught my eye, their colors and shapes as varied and fascinating as autumn leaves.
The first to distract me from your plump sweetness was the courge de Nice, an astonishing vegetable (or, technically, fruit) which starts out as tender, deep green trompette zucchini before swelling to monster proportions and finally turning orange. To appreciate its subtle flavor I blend it into a smooth soup, thickening it at the end with a mixture of egg yolk, crème fraîche and olive oil.
Next came the potimarron, a round, pointy-tipped squash whose deep orange flesh is often flecked with green. Its name translates as "chestnut squash" because its dense, not-to-sweet flesh is reminiscent of roasted marrons. The potimarron is a challenge to prepare for a soup (though well worth the effort) but, once roasted, its peel becomes soft and edible.
This morning on the market stands, butternut squash jostled with the round, ridged courge musquée - a meatier French version of the American pumpkin - and beautiful pale blue-green squash from the potimarron family.
I'm never entirely sure when to use the word courge, potiron or citrouille, but it's some consolation that the market vendors seem similarly confused. Courge (winter squash in English) is a more general term that encompasses the potiron and citrouille - the latter of which seems to refer to American-style orange pumpkins.
I bought the pumpkin pictured here - a relative of the courge musquée, I think - to try a recipe for tian de courge. Tians are named after the round, double-handled earthenware dishes in which they are cooked, and I often make these vegetable bakes with Swiss chard, zucchini or tomato and eggplant in summer. Tian de courge is another Provençal classic that I hadn't explored in depth.
In the first recipe I tried, diced raw pumpkin was slowly baked with rice, herbs, garlic and a little flour. With its breadcrumb topping, I could imagine this dish being deliciously caramelized and indeed it did have some toothsome crunchy bits. But the rice and the mace I had used instead of nutmeg took over, leaving the pumpkin in the shadows, and the flour was unnecessary.
The remaining piece of pumpkin wasn't enough for a second attempt, which proved fortunate. When I picked up another chunk from Mme Luciano, a producer based near Villefranche sur Mer, she told me her secrets to making a great tian de courge.
"We produce a lot of squash," she says, "so I need to find many ways to use them. I always precook the squash in a frying pan, never in water, with a minimum of olive oil. Then I mix the cooked squash with rice, parmesan, nutmeg and eggs. You can add a little cream but it's really not necessary. Sometimes, for a change, I bake it in a pie crust."
Using these instructions it was easy to perfect my tian de courges. For extra flavor and color I topped it with Provençal breadcrumbs, which are one of the few things I keep in my freezer (along with a bag of blueberries, homemade chicken stock and little balls of leftover pastry that will probably end up in the bin). But ordinary breadcrumbs would be fine too. Feel free to vary the recipe by adding garlic, different herbs or little pieces of fried bacon.
Tomatoes, in case you think I've abandoned you for good, this pumpkin thing may be just a passing infatuation. I doubt that I'll resist your flamboyant charms next summer.
This is my first entry to Weekend Herb Blogging, an event that I'd heard and read so much about but never got my act together to enter. This week's host is Pille of the fascinating Estonian food blog Nami Nami.
Tian de courge
1 kg pumpkin or squash flesh, peeled and diced (about 2 lbs)
1 tbsp olive oil
50 g short-grain rice, such as arborio (2 oz, 1/4 cup)
50 g freshly grated parmesan cheese (2 oz)
2 large free-range eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg
Provençal breadcrumbs (see recipe)
Olive oil, for drizzling
In a large frying pan, cook the pumpkin in the olive oil with a sprinkling of salt until it softens and starts to disintegrate, about 20-25 mins. If there is a lot of liquid left towards the end, raise the heat to let most of it evaporate, but the pumpkin doesn't need to be very dry.
Meanwhile, precook the rice for 10 mins in boiling salted water, drain and set aside. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl.
Place the cooked pumpkin in a large bowl and combine with the rice, parmesan and salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. When it has cooled slighly, mix in the eggs quickly so that they don't scramble. The mixture might seem on the liquid side, but don't be alarmed. Pour it into an oiled gratin dish, top with the Provençal breadcrumbs and a generous drizzling of olive oil, and bake at 180 C (375 F), preferably on the convection setting, for 35 mins or until set. Serve warm, with a salad or as an accompaniment to meat.
I originally used these for breading rack of lamb, but soon found myself sprinkling the leftovers onto all sorts of baked and roasted vegetables.
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley, the leaves picked from the stalks
Leaves from 4 good size sprigs of thyme or rosemary
2 cloves garlic, peeled
100 g dried bread, such as baguette (3 1/2 oz)
2 tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the breadcrumbs: In a food processor, blend together all the ingredients except the olive oil. Add the olive oil and blend until the breadcrumbs are soft and green, adding a little more oil if necessary. Season well with salt and pepper. Keep airtight in the refrigerator or freezer (in a plastic bag or jar) until you need them.