Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Tis the season for things shaped like bells. Cue the butternut squash.

Officially known as cucurbita moschata, butternut is a type of winter squash. Butternut squash have a pale orange flesh and a sweet, nutty flavor. Because they grow for longer and are harvested later than summer squash, they typically weigh between a hefty two and five pounds. And like your mamma always told you, being mature means having a thick skin. Butternut squash have a hard outer shell that you won’t find on summer squash like zucchini. This is one personal issue I have with cooking with these giants of the squash world; hacking away at a hard butternut squash with my biggest knife leaves me frustrated, sweating, and fearful for my fingers.

But the results of cooking up some butternut squash are worth it, especially at this time of year. In a season that is a veritable vegetable wasteland, butternut squash provides a burst of bright color and flavor, as well as an important dose of cancer fighting beta-cryptoxanthin, an orange-red carotenoid easily found in summer produce like red peppers, papayas, and peaches. Stress smoking through the holidays? Studies have shown that benzoapyrene, a carcinogen in cigarette smoke, induces vitamin A deficiency. Luckily butternut squash is high in vitamin A and can greatly reduce your risk of emphazema.

I’ll admit that by the time April rolls around, I feel like I never want to see another cup of butternut squash soup. Every restaurant in New York seems to rely on this old standby, and most of them add so much cinnamon and nutmeg I feel like I’m slurping down some puréed pie. Maybe one winter I’ll play soup Santa to my local restaurants, leaving quarts of winter minestrone, curried cauliflower stew, and pasta fagioli on their doorsteps.

I’m also not about to throw some bits of butternut squash in a pan with some parsnip and some potatoes and pretend that everyone in the world isn’t disappointed with “roasted root vegetables.” At least I’d throw some parmesan on there. At least I’d roast the squash and then put it in a risotto or a lasagna. At least I’d simmer it in a curry or drizzle it with a spicy chili sauce. Chefs of New York, here is your 2011 resolution: free the squash (and cut the crap with bacon. It’s not better on everything.)

Paccheri Pasta with Butternut Squash,
Spinach, Pine Nuts and Goat Cheese

One of the most difficult transitions from college to the “real world” (as real as living in a house in Brooklyn with five of your friends while getting a second liberal arts degree can be) was living without a dining hall. For their sustenance, most of my friends relied on take-out dinners. There are definitely enough noodle shops and thai bistros and hummus places between Harlem and Park Slope that I could have brought a new dish home with me every night. But I like to cook, and our house in Brooklyn was blessed with a real kitchen, so I forwent La Taqueria’s Del Mare burrito (most of the time) and opened my cookbooks.

The nearest grocery store to our house was a pretty sketchy Key Food, which a friend in my Italian class tellingly nicknamed Schifood (pronounced skee-food because schifo in Italian means disgusting or crappy). As a result I did most of my shopping at a gourmet deli/asian market called Sea Land (these hybrid institutions are one of the reasons I love New York.) It was there, after a particularly grueling day of trying to get the freshman of Columbia University to care about their writing skills and probably failing, that I allowed my hungry, tired self to walk into the forbidden section: frozen foods.

There I saw an item that I had never seen before- Cascadian Farms organic squash puree. I looked at the back of the box. No sugar. No preservatives. Nothing but pureed squash. Well this is great! I thought, and quickly purchased the squash, a bag of spinach, and a log of goat cheese. Something good can come of this.

And something good did happen. I heated the squash and sautéed the spinach, then mixed in a generous amount of goat cheese and some toasted pine nuts. A squeeze of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, some salt, some pepper, and of course some red pepper flakes. (Nothing I ate while living in Brooklyn was exempt from my beloved spicy flakes, a nod to ye olde dining hall). The mixture looked saucy so I tossed it with some pasta. The puree of the squash made a delicious, perfectly textured sauce with a hint of sweetness. The spinach and the pine nuts got trapped in the holes of the rigatoni, creating little pasta packages of goodness.

Best of all, it is incredibly easy to make this dish for one person. If you have left over sauce, you can reheat it and put it on some good, toasted bread to make a crostini, or you can just serve it on the side of some grilled sausages or chicken. Or, if you're like me and you can devour a mountain of veggies in one sitting, then this makes one giant portion which you will eat alone in your room so that your roommates won't look on, shocked, at the size of your dinner. A last note: if you'd like, you can obviously make the squash puree from scratch. It won’t take long and if you’re feeling ambitious or you’ve just been to the farmers market, you can make a big batch and turn the rest into, well, soup.

Serves four (or one, with leftovers)

5 ounces baby spinach
2 cups squash puree (either homemade or frozen like Cascadian farms)
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tbsp olive oil
2.5 ounces goat cheese (about half of one of those small logs)
½ tsp spicy red pepper flakes
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt, pepper
4 portions paccheri pasta or rigatoni gigante (getting this pasta makes the dish extra amazing, not only because eating jumbo sized pasta is fun, but because the sauce really gets trapped in there. But if you can’t find these shapes, regular rigatoni or jumbo shells will do.)
parsley (optional)

To make squash puree:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the stem off one large butternut squash. Halve the squash and get rid of the seeds and any pulp. Put the squash cut side up on a baking sheet lined with tin foil. Bake the squash for 40 minutes, or until it is very tender when you insert a fork into the flesh.

When the squash has cooled, peel it and put the flesh into the food processor. Pulse until the squash is a smooth puree. Set aside.

Put the pasta water on to boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions.

If using frozen squash, cook it in the microwave according to the directions (about four minutes).

In a large sautee pan, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the spinach and cook until wilted.

Turn down the heat to medium and add the squash puree, pinenuts, and lemon juice and mix well.

Crumble the goat cheese into the squash mixture and stir until combined. Add the salt, pepper, and pepper flakes to taste.

Add the cooked pasta to the sautee pan and stir to combine. Drizzle with another tbsp of extra virgin olive oil and add the chopped parsley as garnish (or don’t if it’s a hassle.)

Serve warm.

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