Every week, the kids and I make a journey to this fantastic little organic fruit and veg wholesaler just behind the city train station. Roo falls asleep in the car listening to Radio 3’s morning lull of sonatas and symphonies, and stays that way whilst his sister bounds around the warehouse with an empty fruit box filling it up with delights of her choice. This might be illegal (that I leave my son asleep in the car – not the bit about a human under 55 years old being exposed to Radio 3) but I park on the forecourt and watch him sleep as I shop. Plus, you must never wake a sleeping baby. Especially when buying aubergines.
Aside from dropping my car keys down the toilet at said wholesaler (with her little brother still asleep in a LOCKED car), this week’s excursion saw Zippy choosing a winter squash. She pulled out a darling little orange minikin, rolled it into her box, and then began her usual magpie activity of sneaking around the back of a giant box of cherry tomatoes before crouching down, nymph-like, to pop the little jewel-like fruits into her mouth. Sadly, it is only my child who appears to partake in (or rather had INVENTED) this activity, whilst the other small people who accompany their grown-ups to the store play games like ‘holding hands’ and the ever-so-popular ‘helping’. But, lucky for me, Ian (the grocer) turns a blind eye and I don’t have to embarrassingly count stalks before paying. Every time.
The other night we cooked the squash. I peeled and deseeded it, chopped it up, and roasted it simply in olive oil with a little sage (as it can be overpowering) and a generous couple of heaped teaspoons of one of my favourite spices, sumac. I discovered sumac when living in the glorious north east London village of Stoke Newington. Stokie – as it is affectionally known by the locals – has an enormous Turkish community and therefore a whole mezze of ocakbasis in which to indulge one’s appetite for grilled meats, vegetables and breads. Anyway, this deep-red and tangy-tasting spice is made from the crushed berries (or drupes) of the sumac shrub, and is incredibly popular in the middle east to add sharp lemon notes to a variety of dishes, including hummus, salads, kebabs and rice.
As the chill of the winter continues to draw on, I fancied a warming pasta and pulled out a box of orzo from the cupboard. (Orzo is a dinky grain-like pasta – meaning ‘barley’ in Italian, they also call it ‘big rice’ – and is just scrumptious in soups, salads and as a substitute for rice in risotto.) We had some feta in the fridge and, well, that’s about all we needed to make this very simple and very delicious dish.
A small squash (a butternut would work well here)
1 tablespoon tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
2 teaspoon sumac
Sea salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
250g orzo pasta (macaroni would suffice but orzo is infinitely better)
100g feta cheese (or any soft goats cheese will do)
1 tbsp coriander or parsley (or both), roughly chopped
Preheat your oven to 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4 and then peel, deseed and cube your squash. Place the squash in a baking dish and cover with the sage, sumac, olive oil, a good pinch of sea salt and a couple of cracks of freshly-milled black pepper. Stir the ingredients together (I used my hands, they’re much more effective) and put in the oven for 30 minutes – or until soft and slightly caramelised – checking and turning with a spoon every now and then.
In the meantime, bring a big pot of water to the boil on the stove. When the water bubbles, add a pinch of salt followed by the orzo and cook until tender (between 7-9 minutes). Whilst you cook the pasta, chop your herbs. Once the pasta’s cooked, leave draining whilst you complete the dish.
Once you have removed the squash from the oven add the tomato puree and lightly mash into the squash with a fork – this will be your pasta ‘sauce’. Add the orzo and freshly chopped herbs to this mix, and transfer to a serving dish. Finish by crumbling the feta cheese between your fingers and sprinkling over the pasta.