Stuffed gem squash with savoury mince

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Stuffed_gemsquash2 Remember the excitement of a new relationship?  That wonderful time when you’ve just met somebody special and you are just mesmerised by every new fact you discover about them, and how you agonise over the things you do not yet know about them?  Awww, how adorable, he likes science fiction.  OMG, what if he has dirty toenails??!  etc etc ad nauseam.  Well, one of the big questions for me when I meet people (and particularly when I met Nick!) was what will his cooking be like?  In other words, would his “cook to impress meal” be a microwaved ready-meal, beans on toast or something a lot more interesting?  Now I had been to his place before for dinner, before we were actually an item and that time, he and his housemate had done a venison roast – a promising debut, but all the side dishes had been cooked by a friend of theirs, so I still wanted to see what he would do on his own.  In the interim, I hosted a dinner party at my house, ostensibly for a group of friends but in fact purely for Nick’s benefit (!!).  So I can say with certainty that the first meal I cooked for him was fresh fish (butter bream in South Africa – heaven knows what it is called in the rest of the world!) served two ways: topped with tomato and onion stew and cheese (also known as pizza fish) and  topped with spinach and feta (also known as spanakopita fish ;-))

And so it came to pass that things progressed and I received a dinner invitation to his house.  By myself!  Oh joy!  Oh rapture!  I turned up at the appointed hour, floating on a cloud of perfume and happiness, not caring by that stage if he fed me cuppa soup and two-minute noodles.  But wait:  our boy has an ace up his sleeve!  Once we had chatted and had a glass of wine, we finally sat down to our first dinner a deux and with a flourish he produced… stuffed gem squash.  Clever clever clever.  Not too girly, but definitely a cut above your standard meat-and-potatoes (or, God forbid, beans on toast!).  By this stage, non South Africans are askign what the hell is a gem squash.  Well, let me tell you – it is probably the thing that South Africans abroad crave the most, second only to biltong.   In fact, when my half-sister emigrated to France in the 1970’s she missed gem squash so much that she smuggled a packet of seeds into France wth her and planted them in her garden there, just so that she could have a steady supply.

As I discovered when I arrived in the UK, squashes aren’t that big over here.  OK, so maybe they’ll carve a pumpkin at Halloween, but apart from that, you coudl say that the squash family (including things like butternut, kabocha/acorn and gem squash) have not made it big in the UK.  At first I thought it was a northern/southern hemisphere thing, but in the US, squashes of various descriptions are very widely eaten.  In the end, I think it may be a climate thing.  Squashes are generally like heat and cannot tolerate frost and many types simply don’t grow that easily over here.  Consequently, they have always been viewed as something rather exotic and best avoided by those with conservative palates!  Some of my English friends still view dishes cooked with butternut squash with a huge degree of suspicion and declare them to be “an Antipodean thing”.  But having said that, at least butternut is now available in pretty much every supermarket, while gem squash is available reliably at Waitrose and sporadically other supermarkets.  Hurrah!

Gem_squash So – on to the technical stuff.  Gem squash originated in Central America and belongs to the botanical genus Cucurbita, which includes melons (!) and can be subdivided into Cucurbita maxima (Hubbard squash and buttercup squash); Cucurbita mixta (cushaw squash); Cucurbita moschata (butternut squash); and Cucurbita pepo to which gem squashes belong, together with most pumpkins, acorn squash, marrows and cucumbers.  More generally, though, squashes are categorised as summer or winter squash, which has little to do with their time of availability, but rather their time of harvesting and degree of maturity at harvesting.  WInter squashes are generally left until the end of summer before they are harvested, making their skin tough and making it possible to store them for consumption at a later date.  Summer squashes, on the other hand, are picked when they are still young and tender.  They need little or no cooking (e.g. zucchini) but don’t keep as well as winter squashes.  Included in this family would also be the wonderful pattypan squash (also called scallop squash – Edible Tulip has a gorgous picture) which was a staple food back home but not something I’ve seen generally available in the UK :-(

Now gem squash falls into the summer squash category, but I must say that the gem squashes vary greatly in terms of how thick their skin is – I guess this is a function of how early or late they were picked.  The ones we get in we get in South Africa (often sold by the roadside in 5 or 10kg bags!! And sooooo cheap!) tend generally to be pretty thick-skinned and once cooked, hold their shape.  Over here, however, they live up to their description and the skin is often soft enough to eat once cooked.  On the other hand, in South Africa we get baby gems – approximately the size of ping-pong balls and cooked in the blink of an eye.  You just eat the whole thing, no mess, no fuss – and they are SO sweet and delicious.  (I think these may be available elsewhere labelled as “8 ball” squashes?).

OK, I hear you ask, that’s all fine and well, but what do you do with a gem squash?  The labels in the supermarkets over here will tell you to peel and quarter the gems, scoop out the seeds and roast with olive oil.  And yes, you can certainly try that.  But personally, if I can avoid peeling a squash then I will!!  Here are some other ideas:

  • You can do what my dad still does to this day:  slice the squash in half around its equator, boil (or steam or microwave) until the flesh is soft enough to scoop out the pips easily, add a knob of butter in each hollow, mash the flesh inside the skin and season with cinnamon sugar.
  • Alternatively, if the idea of sweet vegetables is off-putting to you, try the same idea but with sea salt, black pepper and thyme.  I have even mashed mine up with a balsamic dressing which worked well.
  • Prepare and steam the squashes as above, then fill each hollow with a spoonful of vegetables of your choice mixed with pesto and serve (also ideal as a vegetarian meal).

Or you can serve them the way that Nick first served them to me – filled with savoury mince :)

GEM SQUASH STUFFED WITH SAVOURY MINCE (serves 2)

Ingredients:

400g lean mince (I have used beef, turkey and pork and all work well)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
about half a tin of chopped tomatoes
a splash each of soy sauce and worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
a pinch each of basil and thyme
1 slice of bread, crumbed
grated cheese for topping

Method:

Prepare and steam the gemsquashes as above (one squash per person).  While they are cooking, fry the onion and garlic in a little olive oil until soft.  Add the mince and fry gently until cooked.  Add the chopped tomatoes, the sauces and seasonings – taste to see if anything else is needed.  Chopped chillis can also be added if your taste runs to spicy.  When the meat mixture is heated through, place the gem squash halves on a baking sheet and scoop out the pips, leaving the flesh.  Fill the hollow of half with the meat sauce, sprinkle with grated cheese and top with breadcrumbs.  Grill until the cheese has melted and the crumbs are browning, then serve with a big green salad and wait for your guest to fall hopelessly in love with you.

:-)

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  1. says

    Mmm Yum! When I was in South Africa for a month last summer stuffed gem squashes were my favourite dish. we had them with chickpeas, onion and lots of cheese, I just loved it!

  2. says

    LOL! It’s not just men who the way to the heart is through the stomach? Sounds very yummy. My Tesco has recently been getting in more than the usual pumpkin, acorn and butternut so I shall have to check it out. A dollop of golden syrup in mashed squash is a favorite of mine so I will definitely try your dad’s recipe out too.

  3. St.Claire says

    The good old gem squash, fondly referred to in my South African childhood home as the sqaushy. Evberybody’s favorite as we were growing up. I must admit I do miss it out here in the states and the butter squash I substitute it with is not bad, but it is not that gem squash. My mom filled it with a mince smoortjie and topped it with cheese. That’s how I now do the butternut squash. Wow Jean this brings back memories.

  4. Ivor says

    Mmmm, I’m missing home now :( Nice to see you blogging, amongst other things, about SA. Really like your blog. Do drop in on mine sometime.

  5. Yorkshire Soul says

    I love butternut squash, it has a great wintery flavour, not too dissimilar to late season roasted parsnips, they do all seem to be imported into the UK though. Sweet potatoes too, mmmmm, gently roasted sweet potatoes with proper pork chops (plenty of fat, rind still on).

  6. Red Dog says

    Have started growing gems after 18 years in Oz. At last found seed grown by our local organic lady. Most of our friends think they are the small inedible melons that grow on the side of the road. So i do not have many takers. I am carrying out an education program though – will win in the end. RD

  7. Arionrhod says

    Well, hello! I just found this page because I was googling for , yes you guessed it: gem squash. I’m in Arizona. Does anyone have or know where I can get hold of some gem squash seeds in the US? I am dying for some and cannot get hold of any seed here. Help!!!

  8. says

    Hey, thank you for an awesome article. I am from Durban but have lived overseas (UK and now Australia) for almost 9 years. When I go back the first things I have to get my hands on are a cold Amstel, a stick of biltong and a gem squash. I have been thinking about gem squashes a lot lately and explaining to my English girlfriend how, when we go to SA together, we will have them. Then, to my surprise, we were in our local vegetable market and there they were! Smaller and harder than their South African counterparts but gems nevertheless! So I did a quick Google search and found your entertaining blog which also reminded me how to cook them (I left SA at 19 and hadn’t done much cooking!). Thanks again!

  9. kanre lesto-smith says

    Please please please can anyone tell me if they know of somewhere in the UK or website than I can get Gem Squash!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I MISS It and this recipe has made my mouth water. Any help will be appreciated. I am in the midlands in Stratford Upon Avon.

  10. George Frost says

    Love the things and miss them terribly. I have some seeds and planted them last spring. (I live in Southern Spain so reasoned that they would grow well). Disaster, grew to half size then rotted. Perhaps I watered too much. I remember them in our back yard in Zim just growing out of the seemingly dry packed earth.
    So can someone advise me how to grow them, soils etc. I have hoarded some seeds so would appreciate any help.
    Thanks in advance.

  11. Duncan says

    Live in Melbourne, Australia, have seeds but no instructions on how, when, etc to grow, can anyone help. Mouth watering stuff!!

  12. Nikki says

    Oh yes – I definitely rank gem squash as one of my most missed foods. I’ve searched in vain for it here in the States. I managed to find hubbard squash one year, but alas, no gems in sight. I buy the little acorn squashes though and cook them the same way – cut in half and baked or boiled – but they’re not as sweet.

  13. megan says

    Just curious: I have heard that the Gem squash has absolutely no nutritional value……… Is this true.

  14. Tom says

    I bought some Gem Squash seeds from W.Robinson & Sons, Sunny Bank, Forton, Nr PRESTON PR3 0BN U.K. Tel:01524 791210.
    I have sown them this year and am experiencing something of a glut. The only problem with them is that the spread all over the place and take over the veg patch. Mind you they are WONDERFUL!

  15. Elaine says

    Abel & Cole (www.abel-cole.co.uk) sometimes include gem squash in their organic fruit & veg boxes. Some came in the box just today! If you’re not on a box delivery system, I presume that you can order them solo from Abel & Cole as well. Thanks for the suggestions on how to cook them…I had no idea what to do.

  16. Keith says

    Free seeds!
    If you live in the USA, send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope, and I will return it with about 20 gem squash seeds. The seeds are saved from our current crop.
    Keith Meintjes
    3440 Wormer Dr
    Waterford, MI 48329
    USA
    We have done this for the last five years: Save seeds to plant the following year.
    And, if you need instructions: To grow (and cook) Gem Squash, follow any guidelines you may find for Acorn Squash.
    Offer expires March 31, 2007.
    Keith

  17. Keith says

    Since making the offer, I have received one or two requests a week. This week, three. All requestors get a few dozen seeds. I have plenty of seeds left.
    I actually do not care if you live in the USA or not. Just get me an envelope with sufficient USA postage stamps to reach you. Maybe the Customs will catch it, maybe not.
    What is great are the letters that people enclose with their requests. Seeds have gone to Alaska (short growing season, but 24 hours of sun!), to all kinds of ex-pats of Southern Africa, and to some who were visitors to ZA. Today, I even had an e-mail from Australia asking, not for seeds, but for growing directions.
    To harvest the seeds: Leave the squash on the vine until the vines die back. (Or, buy mature squash that are not all green but have a touch of yellow / orange colour on their skin.) Halve the squash, and scoop out the seeds before cooking. Rinse the seeds to remove them from the squash strands. Dry the seeds at room temperature for a couple of days, then store them in a resealable plastic bag.
    Keith

  18. says

    Gem Squash Seedlings

    Of the twenty gem squash seeds that I planted a couple of weeks ago, six of them sprouted. It doesn’t seem that the rest are going to sprout, so as of now I have six gem squash seedlings. I’m going…

  19. charlotte blanch says

    hello there,
    hopefully will have a bumper crop of gem squash next month… got seeds in SA last year and planted them late this spring( in ADKS mountains of NY ) if anyone wants seeds , pleae contact me .
    charblanch@hotmail.com

  20. patty says

    I am english, married to a south african and living in the Rhode Island I was given 1/2 a packet of gem squash about 4 years ago, I planted them this summer and my garden has been overrun with delicious gem squash, I will be saving some seeds for next year. I planted so many, not sure if they would germinate, but they went gangbusters and grew over the lawn for yards!

  21. Victor Steane says

    Hi there,
    I’m a Rhodesian ex-pat and amazed to find so many others missing gem squash. I have tried butternut squash, but find it rather bland in comparison.
    I managed to get some seeds many years ago, but as they were so valuable to me I hoarded them like gold bullion and sadly they are now inactive. Thanks to comments from others I will now pursue replacements aparrently available in the UK.
    I do miss them very much (as well as boerewors but don’t hold out much hope for that item as well).

  22. david morris says

    oh what can i say didnt god do well to give us gem sqaush the vegetable from the gods best cut in half the seeds scooped out boiled in water for 10 mins a little butter and black pepper

  23. Kim Nicks says

    Is there any way to still get gem squash seeds? I live in So Cal. and have not been able to find any. Thank you.

  24. Susan Henry says

    I ate the first gem squash of the season last night, from seeds that came by mail from SA….oh they were so good! I had forgotten how good they are!
    As for Boerewors, I have a local butcher make it for me…the Canadians cant get their tongues around the word, so it is politely called South African sausage!! Even the locals are eating it now. The smell of it cooking on an open fire reminds me of braaivleis at the beach!

  25. Wendy Morley says

    Hi, I found some gem squash (or jam squash as my brother Peter used to call them when he was little and we lived in Hilton,near Maritzburg)on Sunday on my way back from Toowoomba, S.E.Queensland at Tomatoland! I was so excited as i haven’t seen any in Australia since emigrating nearly 14 years ago! I will plant the seeds and hopefully have some luck or buy seeds which I see now are available from some suppliers here in Australia. thanks for your intersting blog and great ides for cooking gem squash. I like them cooked in microvave, scooped ou seeds and then fill with cooked peas and a blob of butter. Lots of happy childhood memories there.
    Wendy

  26. MaryAnn says

    I have just today received 2 gem squash in my organic veg box from Riverford. (riverfordnorton.co.uk. They deliver to most of England.

  27. Leslie Goodale says

    Hi Everyone!
    Loved comments, didn’t know there was such a following for gem squash, as a Calgarian supply is very limited, to one month a year(imported by SA butcher shop).
    I was introduced by daughter-in-law ( an Aussie raised in SA). She is visiting parents in Aussieland and I would love to prepare and freeze the 8 gem squash I bought today before she returns next month.
    Wondering if I can cook and freeze like pepper squash or not.
    looking for boerewors! take heart we found some in small towns across the prairies (in Canada). Apparently there are a number of women who make it in their communities when they can’t buy it. Suggest you contact SA communities or if really desperate, we found our supplier through a SA doctor. Good Luck hunting! Leslie Goodale

  28. says

    My sister in SA has sent me gem squash seed (I’m in UK), which I grow every year. I never split the gems before boiling but pierce the shell at the equator. Once cooked I scoop the seed and discard and put the flesh into a collander and drain for half an hour. Then i put it back into a pot with some butter, salt, pepper and a tin of drained sweetcorn. Mix it all together until the butter has melted and either serve or freeze.
    I also split gems at the equator, scoop the flesh, put in a dab of butter, a little salt, pepper and nutmeg. I place them into vacuum bags and seal like that – uncooked. To cook, microwave or boil in the bag.
    I also grow Cape Gooseberries in the UK, if anyone is interested.

  29. Amanda Lishman says

    If you are in Australia you can buy the seeds from the Diggers Club in Melbourne. They do mail order heritage varieties of plants and seeds. this is the address http://www.diggers.com.au/gardenHerons.shtml I do not have any financial interest in the company I just buy seed formy garden from there. I bought Gen Squash out of curiosity as lots of South Africans I know comment on them. I know have rampant vines and found your site googling when to pick them!

  30. Jean says

    A great way to serve gems. Remove pips and steam. Once cooked fill with tinned sweetcorn, top with grated cheese and a sprinkle of aromat. Place in oven to warm through and if necessary grill for a couple of minutes to brown top. It is very moreish.

  31. Jennifer Taylor says

    Just bought a lovely gem squash in the African Delights shop on Mowbray Road at Lane Cove. Also stocked up with boerewors, biltong, green fig and watermelon konfyt and Cape Gooseberry jam.
    The gem squash will be stuffed withj savoury mince and topped with cheese.
    Yummy!!!

  32. Jennifer Taylor says

    Just to wet your appetite – also available at African Delights are koeksusters (I freeze them) and melktert, as well as droewors and sosaties!!