Ode to Autumn Salad

When I’m in need of some build me up butternut therapy I go into roasting mode with a butternut squash and make it into a salad – it works wonders served warm or cold.

“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” John Keats, Ode to Autumn.

The generosity of Autumn can boost our mood – whether walking through autumnal woods or sitting down to a mellow feast of colours and flavours.

In the northern hemisphere the autumnal equinox around 22nd September each year marks the beginning of Autumn. The word equinox derives from the Latin meaning equal day and night and is the transitional point at which the equator is closest to the sun and northern and southern hemispheres are illuminated equally.

Autumn is typically marked by customs and festivals that focus on being thankful for the season’s role in food production and the harvesting of crops. Birds migrate, the coats of animals thicken in preparation for winter chill, autumn leaves turn, conkers are the stuff of duelling and harvest festivals symbolise sharing and redistribution of resources. In the 2020 UK Coronavirus context this took the form of food parcels, food banks and neighbourly acts, as food inequalities were exposed. Making the most of home-grown produce and a hunkering down for winter became a preoccupation for many as lockdown hibernation set in.

There are three memories that I associate with Autumn and re-live each time that season comes around. The first is my mid-September birthday making me a child of autumn. The second is the balmy air and luminous light which I associate with early university days in Yorkshire learning to live independently for the first time. The third is being taken to a pumpkin patch in Seattle with a dear friend, Roberta Barry, and her adopted grandchildren – sliding in the mud, filling sacks with orange pumpkins and going home to carve out spooky-faced lanterns and bake big pies.

Whether visiting or virtual, a food market or festival is always a treat for the senses and worth a meandering mooch. Wells may not be on your doorstep, but it’s worth seeking out equivalent celebrations of local produce wherever you are.

Probably one of the earliest wild foods to be cultivated, pumpkins (or curcurbita) date back to 10,000 BC and have become the stuff of folklore and fairytales. They make a colourful display set out on any market stall.

Recipe for roasting
Roasting brings out the best of the caramelised sweetness of pumpkin or squash and the recipe that follows is a quick and easy way of doing that.

Set your oven to 200 degrees C as you start to prep the squash. Take a generously sized butternut squash, give the outside skin a good scrub, rinse and cut in half longways. No need to peel.
Scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon. These may be roasted in the oven with a drizzle of oil, then added to the salad or used as a garnish for other dishes.
With the flat side of the squash securely on the chopping board cut into half moons of about 2 cm thickness.
Put 3 x 15ml (table) spoons olive oil, 5 or 6 roughly chopped sage leaves, sprinklings of salt and pepper and a generous pinch of chilli flakes onto a baking tray or casserole dish.
Add an onion sliced into wedges – red, white or even some whole shallots.
Add the juice and zest of half a lemon (or a couple of roughly chopped preserved lemons) with several whole garlic cloves to the roasting tray and roast for 45 minutes.

Ringing seasonal changes
That’s the basis of the roasted squash dish, but you can ring the changes in numerous ways. One option is to finish off for the last 10 minutes in the oven with a pack or can of brown lentils and a crowning glory of chopped or crumbled halloumi, goat’s cheese or feta.

Alternatively, cavolo nero and red rice can add a depth of colour to this vivid and hearty dish.
On a recent Belazu cook-along via Zoom I tried this vegan version with the addition of kale, preserved lemons and chickpeas. The butternut squash was marinaded in Urfa chilli paste before roasting (instead of the oil, herbs and spices) and so was infused with zingy warmth.
Works well with a tahini and yogurt dressing, either served on the side, drizzled or slathered and is a great addition to a seasonal feast of salads or tapas plates large and small.

However you choose to make it your own this serves up an Autumn equinox, warms the cockles, puts a spring in the step and joy in the heart. All you need is some good company and right now it might be your own. Enjoy and take pleasure in the small things 🙂