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'Off the Books': One-Pot Spicy Squash Stew

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Katharine Reeve Katharine Reeve | 10:11 UK time, Monday, 7 November 2011

Seasonal, affordable meals cooked from scratch. It’s the holy grail of modern home cooking, and yet how many of us manage this every day? At the end of a busy day, the last thing we want is to spend ages following complicated recipes, full of ingredients we’d have to buy specially.

So, unless you’re a fully-fledged domestic goddess with plenty of time on your hands you can forget regular home-cooking, right? Well, not quite. Why not take a leaf out of your grandmother’s book and commit to memory a repertoire of basic meals – off the recipe book. These basic dishes can be customised to suit your family’s taste, budget, fridge contents, as well as the season.

One-pot stews

Spicy squash stew


Stews make good use of seasonal vegetables, and what better in the autumn than the squash, with its burnt orange colours and warm flavours. Using just one cooking pot – a heavy-bottomed pan – you can quickly create a welcoming meal and have fun experimenting. You can play with herb and spice combinations, adding meat or fish to ring the changes.I make double the quantity of this squash stew to save time the following evening, when I'll add prawns and some mangetout.

There are, of course, pitfalls to one-pot cooking. The 'chuck it all in' approach can lead to bland or confusing flavours. You can guard against this by focusing on a star ingredient and building complementary flavours around it. (Take fennel, so often the bridesmaid as an accompanying vegetable, it can take centre stage when backed with potato, cream and garlic in a smooth winter white soup. Some combinations such as scallops with lime and red chilli are tried and tested, others can come about by happy accident such as star anise ice cream.)

Err on the side of caution with chillies until you’re used to judging the likely heat. The aim is more spicy than hot, which means it suits everyone (including my fussy thirteen year-old). Also beware the one-note dish – there’s a risk of perhaps too much creaminess in the combination of squash and coconut milk. Counter this with texture - crunchy spring onion slices - and a touch of sharpness from lemon juice, or perhaps green peppers.

Spicy Autumn Squash Stew
Serves 4

2 tbsp sunflower oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 small red chilli, very finely chopped (or dried red chilli flakes, to taste)
1 red pepper, cut into short strips
6 spring onions, sliced diagonally
1 tsp ground coriander
1 medium butternut or red onion squash, peeled, deseeded, and rough cut into 2cm/1in pieces
2 handfuls cherry tomatoes, halved
400ml/14fl oz coconut milk
½ lemon, juice only
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
small bunch coriander, leaves and stalks chopped separately

1. Heat the oil in a a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the onion, garlic, chilli, red pepper and spring onions and cook gently for about five minutes until soft.
2. Add the ground coriander and cook for a minute then add the squash, coriander stalks, and tomatoes. Cook this for a further five minutes.
3. Add the coconut milk and simmer, partially covered, for 15 minutes or until the squash is tender.
4. Add the lemon juice, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and sprinkle over the coriander leaves. Serve with white or brown basmati rice


  • Substitute sweet potatoes for the squash and half a 400ml/14fl oz can chopped tomatoes for the cherry tomatoes
  • Add green pepper and half a 400ml/14fl oz can drained chickpeas
  • Add 3-4 skinless chicken breasts, cut into chunks
  • Add about 200g/7oz prawns, a handful of mangetout, and a dash of fish sauce

What's your favourite one-pot stew to riff on?

Katharine Reeve teaches food writing and publishing at Bath Spa University, and is the co-author of the Rough Guide to Food.


  • Comment number 1.

    I recently made one with beef shin (in large chunks, dusted in seasoned flour, seared in rapeseed oil), half a bottle of red wine, same amount of beef stock. Simmer for at least two hours, then add the veg according to cooking time (potatoes, parsnips, carrots, celery, cabbage) and continue to simmer until it's done. The liquid cooks down to a gorgeous, thick gravy, the meat falls apart. Yum.

  • Comment number 2.

    This looks great - and perfect for customization with whatever roots find their way into your kitchen. Do you ever have the stew without potatoes and serve with baked potatoes - that would be v good.

  • Comment number 3.

    "Why not take a leaf out of your grandmother’s book and commit to memory a repertoire of basic meals – off the recipe book."

    Have we really reached the stage of non-cooking where people need to be told this?

    Surely this is what all half-competent domestic cooks have done since the dawn of time?

    I find the idea that people would need telling rather sad - but I agree, if they do, stew is the place to start; short of boiling it dry, hard to go too far wrong.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Sue

    Non-cooking is something that is part of our culture (just look at supermarkets where the vast majority of us shop - they offer predominantly processed/ pre-prepared food).

    I think people do need encouragement to cook regularly; to see that it is do-able and enjoyable. Given that lack of time is often one of perceived problems, the repertoire approach can help as it's a speedier way of cooking from scratch than focusing solely on recipes.

    I suspect that there are many of us who feel our repertoires need to be developed - I've spoken to many home-cooks who feel a real lack of confidence in the kitchen and want help getting started. There can be a real lack of basic knowledge around food - how to ensure cakes rise; how to make sure your scones are not burnt or flat. Stews are a good place to start a repertoire - as are sauces and soups, and tarts can be a fun way to learn how to put flavours together.


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