Thursday, September 3, 2009

Butternut Squash Pasta

The plethora of butternut squashes I have lying around drove me to try out this recipe, which for once I followed pretty much exactly (crazy, right? I mean, who does that?). It's from Cook's Illustrated January/February 2009 issue. And it is delicious!

Surprisingly, it only took me about an hour and a half, including prepping the squash and cleaning up afterward, even though I forgot to start the pasta early enough and spent about ten minutes on the phone with my mother-in-law in the middle of that. So time is reasonable, but the real test will be to see if the Darling Devoted Husband approves. He doesn't care for squash much, but there is also bacon!

First I had to seed, peel, and chop up the butternut squash. I'm getting a little faster at this, but I still wish there were some magic speed method:

Next you cook 4 slices of bacon, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/4 inch pieces in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes:

We have a bunch of fancy delicious bacon we bought from a fundraiser and keep it in the freezer, so I did have to remember to take it off, hack off four pieces, and let them defrost first.

Once crispy:

add 8 whole sage leaves:

to the bacon and cook until fragrant, about one minute:

Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer into small bowl, reserving bacon fat and bacon-sage mixture separately:

I had some silicone prep bowls I used for this step; I'm not sure what you would use otherwise. It's bacon grease, remember, so it will melt a plastic bowl that's not sufficiently heat-resistant, and you'll burn yourself handling a metal bowl. So be careful.

Return the skillet to high heat, add 2 Tbs. reserved bacon fat (I had more than enough, but if you used leaner bacon, Cook's advises you supplement with olive oil) and heat until shimmering. I'm not sure what that means exactly; the fat was already shiny. I'm sure it's something technical and I'm showing my ignorance, but whatever. I waited until it was not quite bubbling, and that seemed good enough.

Add 1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2 inch dice, in an even layer and cook, without stirring, until beginning to caramelize, 4-5 minutes:

Continue cooking, stirring occasionally until spotty brown, 3-4 minutes longer. Add 1 Tbs. unsalted butter and allow to melt, about 30 seconds. Add 6 scallions, sliced thin (about 1 cup), 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (ok, here is where I departed from the recipe: my nutmeg was not freshly grated. The horror!), 1 tsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, 3/4 tsp. pepper (the salt and pepper I just shook in without measuring; eyeball it), and 1 Tbs. minced fresh sage leaves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are softened, about 3 minutes. Add 2 cups chicken broth (they advise low sodium; I used some made from bouillon, certainly you could use vegetable, though to make this vegetarian you'd have to eliminate the bacon and its fat and thus most of the flavor) and bring to a simmer; continue to cook until squash is tender, 1-3 minutes longer:

Meanwhile, bring water to boil in large Dutch oven (ok, I just used a medium soup pot so it would boil faster) over high heat. Add 1 Tbs. salt (again, just shake some in) and pasta. Cook until just al dente (which is how I like pasta, but I cooked it a little longer to suit the DDH's taste. Plus, it was whole wheat pasta, which remains a little firmer even when cooked longer):

then drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water, and transfer back to Dutch oven. Add squash mixture to pasta (at this point, I dumped the squash into the soup pot and then everything back into the large skillet I had used to cook the squash, since there wasn't enough space in the soup pot); stir in 2 Tbs. Parmesan cheese, 4 tsp. lemon juice from one lemon, and reserved bacon-sage mixture, adjusting consistency with reserved pasta liquid (I didn't need any of this):

Serve with toasted sliced almonds and more Parmesan.

I forgot to bring almonds in when I ate it for lunch Wednesday, but man it was so good. I think Cook's Illustrated is correct when it advises, "Don't be tempted to use dried sage in this recipe." The balance of the squash, bacon, and sage was wonderful, and fresh sage adds a brighter flavor than its dried counterpart.

So there you go! A fancy, from scratch recipe that would be great to serve for company or a special occasion but which didn't take too much time and can be made ahead--I didn't eat any of it fresh but only reheated at lunch time. The DDH had a night class yesterday, so we're awaiting his verdict at lunch today. He hates rosemary, so I'm not sure how he'll feel about sage, and he's iffy on squash, but as I said, BACON.

This recipe is also a good illustration of one of my budget rules: Cook using food you have on hand. Unless it's for a special occasion, I try not to make meals for which I have to go out and buy more than two or three ingredients.

In this case, I had to go to the store yesterday for fresh sage and scallions--two highly perishable ingredients one tends to buy in small quantities (though fresh sage is freaking expensive, might I note, and I'm considering growing it myself next year). I have a bunch of butternut squash on hand because it's getting into butternut squash season and Bootstrap Farm has some excellent specimens; bacon and pasta are usually always around, and most of the rest are staples. Now, I think I used my last lemon, so the next recipe I make that calls for it, I'll need to buy lemon, but that's a staple around here. The Parmesan I don't usually have on hand but had bought it for another recipe a few weeks ago. If I hadn't had it, I probably would have omitted it or substituted another cheese, if possible.

This is part of why it was almost a shock that I followed the recipe pretty much exactly--I'm always substituting or leaving out ingredients that I don't have around. I plan meals around what I have on hand, and I plan what I buy around what's on sale or in season. Thus, this dish used butternut squash that's in season, my next planned dinner makes use of a bunch of beef stew meat I've got piled in the freezer that I bought on a good sale, and something soon will need to use a lot of tomatoes, because the plants have given one last crazy load before succumbing to the cooler weather. This prevents wasted money, wasted food, and wasted time spent constantly running to the grocery store. It's a pretty good system most of the time. ^_^

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