Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Winter Pasta with Butternut Squash

For a while, my daughter Maria, back from a semester in Italy, has asked about fixing pasta (she wants homemade pasta now, of course) dressed with butternut squash. At the same time we’ve been using butternut, a truly delectable vegetable, in a variety of autumn and winter dishes at Donderos’ Kitchen, our family deli and catering service in Athens, Georgia. Finally, it has been a while, with a chaotic family schedule plus the holidays, since I did a blog entry. So here is the confluence of the three themes: a recipe for pasta with butternut.

Butternut squash is, to me, the best tasting of all the winter squashes and pumpkins. Botanically butternut is a cultivar (selection) of the species Concurbita moschata, one of the most ancient species in the Concurbita family of pumpkins and squashes from North and South America. I grew butternuts successfully when I was a kid, which fact has no relation to the ancientness of the plant’s origin. Butternut, when fully ripe, has a rich yellow-orange flesh, a fine grain, and a sweet nutty flavor. I use it not only for American cooking and curries but also as the substitute for the flat, ribbed Italian “zucca” pumpkin (“zucchini” is Italian for little – or young – pumpkin) and the similar southern French “potiron” pumpkin in pastas, soups, and gratins. Look for butternuts with no green tinges in the skin, feel heavy and hard, and have a very dry, hard stem. When you peel them, by the way, there is a sort of sap that sticks to your hands, but it washes off.

This colorful pasta celebrates winter in appearance and flavor. It serves as either a lunch dish on its own or as a pasta accompaniment for a meat or fish dish. The recipe serves six. A rich white wine, particularly a chardonnay or gewurtztraminer, goes well with this.

Pasta with Winter Vegetables Tim

1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, cut in narrow strips
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 medium butternut squash
1 medium stalk broccoli
1 small onion
1 large clove of garlic
2 tablespoons flat parsley, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil for frying plus 2 extra tablespoons for dressing the pasta 1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
A pinch of sage, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
12 ounces (3/4 pound) short pasta, such as gemelli, bow ties, or penne
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan or Romano cheese plus extra for serving

Prepare the vegetables and keep each type separate: Cut the dried tomato into narrow strips if not already cut. Soak them in the wine. (Do not drain before using.) Peel squash, scoop out the seeds with a spoon, and cut the flesh into 1/2-inch cubes. Cut off all but 1 inch of the broccoli stem. Cut the broccoli top into 1/2-inch flowerets, each with a tiny piece of stem. Peel, halve, and slice the onion lengthwise 1/4-inch wide. Mince the garlic. Chop the parsley coarsely, discarding the stems.

Cook the “dressing” before boiling the pasta. Bring a very large pot of water to the boil. Add a teaspoon of salt and keep the water hot. 15-20 minutes before serving time, heat the olive oil in a large frying pan. Briefly fry the garlic until fragrant but not browning. Add the onion and stir and fry until limp. Add the cubed squash and stir and fry until just tender, adding a little water if sticking to the pan. Add the broccoli and several tablespoons water plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir and fry the vegetables until the broccoli turns dark green (about 50-60 seconds). Mix in the dried tomatoes and their soaking wine plus the oregano, pepper and sage, if used. Cook for a half minute, stirring very frequently. Taste a piece of vegetable and add salt if necessary. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley.

Bring the hot water back to a fast boil over high heat. Add the pasta and stir immediately with a long fork so the pasta does not stick. Stir frequently during cooking. Beginning after a few minutes (cooking time depends on the pasta used), remove a piece of pasta, cool it under running water and bite into it to test for tenderness. The pasta should be cooked just until it loses any crunch in the center. Drain it in a colander, shaking it well to remove the water. Do not rinse it with running water. Pour it into a large pasta bowl along with 2 tablespoons olive oil plus the cooked vegetables and the grated cheese. Using two large spoons, toss lightly to mix. Taste and if not salted enough, sprinkle on some salt and toss again. Serve with a little more cheese sprinkled on top plus extra to accompany.

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