We often don't even realise we live in paradise, do we? Not to blow my own horn (we've had enough of that during the World Cup, right?), but us South Africans are a damn lucky bunch when it comes to food. Sure, it's a tad difficult to track down tofu (nevermind different types of tofu), and I've given up looking for plantains, but we're actually blessed with a wide variety of fabulous fruits and veggies all year round. Sure I might not stumble upon fresh berries as often as I'd like, but when it comes to the more exotic fruits, we can pick and choose to our hearts content - passionfruit (we call 'em grenadillas), pineapple, plums, mangoes, papayas and litchis are all par for the course.
I never gave this any further thought until I googled the history of the humble gem squash*. Who knew it was unique to our shores? Goodness, we had them almost every night growing up, simply cut in half and steamed, then my mom scooped the seeds out (or left them in if it was a young squash) and placed a knob of butter in each hollow before serving it alongside the usual potatoes, oven baked chops and a side of whatever other veggies she fancied on the day. We would scoop the tender, pale-yellow flesh out of the shells and sometimes even eat the shell too if we were lucky enough to get one that was soft enough (again, usually the young ones). The flavour was mild and unassuming, in hindsight, perfect to support stronger accents, though my mom never explored that avenue.
She (and us) were more than happy with the status quo and it was something that I simply accepted.
To be truthful, ever since I left home, I've never had gem squash again. Not because I didn't like it, but in my mind there were so many other, more versatile (read: more recipes available) members of the pumpkin family around, that it seemed silly to return to the dependable old supper standby. But my veggie box suppliers had other plans. And I'll have you know I wasn't exactly excited about seeing the familiar dark-green balls in the box amidst the spinach (again?), cabbage and corn. I mean honestly, can you blame me?
But use 'em I had too, because it just seems so ungrateful, so incredibly wasteful to throw them away. I gleaned inspiration from everyone's favourite - butternut soup - and resolved to attempt something similar with gem squash. I couldn't go wrong, could I? Especially when my mind wondered again in the direction of spicy accents and I spied the jar of harissa paste (thanks Pesto Princess!) in the fridge. A few other spices and a tin of coconut milk later and, as they say, the rest is history.
And the verdict? Tasty? - sure, dependable? - definitely, comforting? - without a doubt, but boring? Nope. Not boring. Not boring at all. In fact, I think I might've judged the old standby a tad too soon.
*If you want to know a bit more about gem squash, Jeanne from Cook Sister! did a fantastic post about the origins of gem squash, how to grow your own as well as a few recipe ideas.
Harissa Spiced Squash Soup
A Creative Pot original
Serves 6, as a starter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp minced garlic
1 1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
4 gem squash, cooked
1 small butternut
1 1/2 tbsp harissa (I use Pesto Princess)
3 tbsp sugar
400ml coconut milk
1 cup water
1 cup plain yoghurt
salt, to taste
fresh fennel, to garnish
1. Heat oil in a medium sized pot, then add garlic, cumin and turmeric and briefly fry (we're talking a few seconds) to release the fragrance.
2. Scoop the flesh out of the gem squash and butternut, discarding the seeds and the butternut peel. Reserve the gem squash shells for serving (optional).
3. Add squash to the pot, then stir through harissa and sugar. Top up with coconut milk and water, stirring again to combine, then allow to cook for 15 - 20 minutes to meld the flavours.
4. Stir yoghurt through then gently re-heat. Adjust seasonings to taste, then serve in the gem squash shells for a novel starter, garnished with fresh fennel and accompanied by toasted pita.
If you are not lucky enough to live in South Africa and cannot lay your hands on gem squash by other means, the best substitute would be summer squash or zucchini. Though, I would use the yellow zucchini, just for aesthetic purposes.
Full disclosure: Pesto Princess was kind enough to send me some of their wonderful pestos and pastes to try, free of charge - amongst these was the harissa paste. They however did not ask or pay me to feature their products in a blogpost. To be fair, they didn't have to - their products have long been a firm favourite in our house, with their bold flavours and natural ingredients. If you haven't tried them, do so, I can almost guarantee you'll be bowled over.