It was a firm, fairly underripe cantaloupe that I cut into too early that first made me wonder if squash and melons could be related. The seeds, the colour and denseness of the flesh, the not-yet sweet smell…it suddenly all added up and I was amazed I’d never made the connection before. A quick Google search corroborated my inkling – squash, pumpkins, cucumbers and courgettes are all part of the Cucurbitaceae or gourd family, hence their physical similarities.
Learning this fact made me wonder if the flavour pairings that work well for either melons or squash would work well by turns on the opposite side of the family tree too. So, for example, it’s well established that roasted butternut squash works beautifully with feta, and it turned out when I tried it earlier this summer that feta is also great a great flavour partner to fresh melon – try slices of watermelon or cantaloupe topped with crumbled feta, chilli flakes and torn mint and you’ll see what I mean.
That successful experiment was the motivation for my next experimental gourd pairing, this time taking the classic Italian summertime starter staple of melon slices with parma ham as the starting point for a squash salad.
I roasted slices of a Crown Prince squash that we bought at the Parliament Hill Farmer’s Market at Hampstead Heath yesterday and then draped over thin slices of cured ham (I used Serrano) while the squash was still hot so that the fat would render out slightly and cloak the squash with its fabulously rich, salty flavour.
ROASTED SQUASH & SERRANO HAM SALAD
This dish is ideal for the chillier days of autumn when you don’t need to go straight to root veg winter stews yet but still need a bit of warmth and substance to your salads, and it works just as well as a seasonally appropriate starter as it does for a delicious autumnal meal. Just make a pot of bulgur to serve alongside it if you’re having it for a light dinner or weekend lunch. It’s a new stalwart for autumn days.
Serves 4 as a starter. Pair with sides for a light meal
Half a Crown Prince squash (or similar), seeds removed and sliced into slim but long slices (imagine the way you would slice a melon, but just go about half as thick for each one)
6 small onions or large shallots
Generous swig of olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Dash of Tabasco
Pinch of fennel seed
8 slices of Serrano ham
Handful of woody herbs – thyme or a few sprigs of rosemary would be nice
2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar, plus more to drizzle
1 ball of buffalo mozzarella
Preheat your oven to 200°c. Place the squash slices into a large baking tray. [They’re a bit tougher and not as tasty as pumpkin seeds, but you want to roast the seeds, rinse them in salted water, pulling off the squash fibres, then drain and roast till golden]. For the onions, slice off the centimetre at the bottom of each then peel all the skin off upwards so that you’re still left with an elegant tip at the top. Cut each one lengthways into quarters. Nestle the onions amongst the butternut squash slices and drizzle the lot with olive oil. Add salt and pepper and some fennel seed. Roast until the squash are tender. Remove from the oven and drizzle two tablespoons of red wine vinegar over the roasted vegetables. Arrange the squash slices either on one big plate or on individual serving plates. Drape over the slices of Serrano ham while the squash is still hot (it won’t look as beautiful when the fat melts but it will taste amazing) and add the herbs and chilli flakes. Splay out the layers of the roasted onion quarters so that they look like petals. Tear the buffalo mozzarella ball up and dot over the salad. Finish with a tiny splash more red wine vinegar and serve while the squash is still slightly warm.