ISSUE 43  |  Lessons from Japan

Garden-to-Table: Spiced Squash for Two

October 31, 2014 1:30 PM

BY Marie Viljoen

The funny thing about growing your own produce is that suddenly the October-November obsession with pumpkins and squash makes sense.  North America is overflowing with them.  

How best to eat squash? Hard to choose. But if you’d like addictive Spiced Squash for supper, read on for step-by-step instructions:

Photography by Marie Viljoen for Gardenista.

Above: It’s only when you have watched your own crop mature from tender green pinpricks, through the endless days of summer, into the solid handful that you cut from its yellowing stalk, that you really appreciate this reward at the close of the growing season.

Above: It took an impulse buy from a seed catalog to turn my own container gardening mind to thoughts of autumn’s super-fruit. I had bought miniature watermelon seeds, harvested perfect little watermelons in summer, and suddenly realized that if this was possible, so were pumpkins. Or in my case, squash posing as pumpkins.  Pots do have their limits.

Above: Enter the Gold Nugget Squash (I bought mine from Botanical Interests, along with a gang of summer squash seeds, for kicks).  After planting late in May, I picked the first perfect, 1-pound squash in October. Under its tough skin was a beautiful layer of green. I roasted that first one without peeling, in thin slices that we ate entire, skin and all. Nutty, sweet. More followed.

Above: Plant your own squash seeds beyond all reach of cold nights (which will stunt the plants’ growth), and keep them in full sun. Their pots should be relatively roomy, at 16 and 18 inches or more diameter and at least as deep.  Sow three seeds per pot and thin out to the strongest plant over the next weeks. 

Above: As the season stretches and the plants’ enormous, prickly leaves develop, their watering needs will increase. When the top quarter-inch of soil is dry, soak thoroughly (allow water to run from the drainage holes).  Harvest when the fruits are plump and stalks are beginning to wizen.

Above: What follows? These are the months of roasted squash with pinches of brown sugar and squeezes of lemon; soup laced with reduced orange juice, spiked with toasted coriander, and topped with crisp sage leaves; puréed squash sweetened with trails of maple syrup and kept in check with fresh lime juice, and of bourbon cheesecake swirled with cinnamon.

Above: Growing up in South Africa, we often served squash and pumpkin as a sweetened side dish with Sunday lunch. They also typically accompany farm-style dishes: think roast lamb, slow-cooked venison, and chicken pies. To satisfy my craving for this comfort food, I developed a riff on a Turkish dessert, with cubes of pumpkin poached very slowly in sugared water till silky-soft, but still retaining their shape. I head off pure sweetness, veering away from dessert by adding a sour element and a spice combination that turns a tooth-aching candy into a more complex side dish. And yes, it does go very well with turkey, especially if you send the bird into the oven with pomegranate molasses and sumac. It’s also wonderful stirred into a risotto (though it will lose its shape, of course). This very plateful pictured, I just wolfed, all on my own. You’ll see why. Try and eat just one piece.

Spiced Squash

Serves 2

There is no oil in this recipe. The squash is so soft and satisfying that nothing more is required for richness.


  • 1 pound peeled and cubed Gold Nugget squash (or butternut, or pumpkin)
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 ounces brown sugar
  • 1 fresh lime leaf (or 1 dried Persian lime, or a piece of lime zest 2 inches long)
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice 
  • Large pinch ground cumin (less than 1/4 teaspoon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground sumac
  • Salt
  • Pepper

In a saucepan that can accommodate the squash in a single layer, bring the squash, sugar, and water to a boil, with the lime or lemon leaf. Lower the heat and continue cooking very sedately for from 20 to 30 minutes, or until the water has almost evaporated. Shake the pan gently every now and then to prevent the squash from sticking to the bottom. 

When the liquid starts to turn syrupy, add the lime juice, the large pinch of cumin, and the sumac. Shake the pan gently again and tilt to spoon the juices over the squash pieces. Season with salt and pepper, and taste. Cook some more until all the liquid disappears, taking care not to scorch. 

Transfer the squash to a serving dish (use a spatula, so the squash is not…squashed– it is very soft). Eat at once.

Yearning for more squash? For our other favorite recipes, see: