Thursday, March 17, 2011

redemption! butternut squash and portobello multigrain pasta

Butternut squash and portobello multigrain pasta

I have a confession.  Until last night, I was terrified of butternut squash.  Every fall, when butternut squash is plentiful, flavorful, and inexpensive, I stock up, vowing to make lots of purees, soups and roasted vegetable salads all winter long.  There's just something about a butternut squash puree that reminds me of my mother’s kitchen.

However, despite my alacrity at the market, I get impatient and cowardly when it's time to face the beast.  I lug the squash home and set it on my counter.  I think about the best strategies to attack the giant gourd so that it yields the maximum number of those requisite peeled and chopped one-inch cubes.  I turn the squash several ways, putting a knife to where the globe-shaped base meets the cylindrical part.  (Does anyone know what the technical term for this is?  I just call it the shaft.)  My knife meets the tough, dull rind.  I spend minutes debating the options in my head.  "Should I peel first?  No, it couldn't possibly matter, I'm just making puree with the insides.  Okay, time to cut.  No, not that spot, let's try a different way.  No, that won't work either."  I grow impatient and frustrated.  Eventually, I tuck it away in the pantry and look at it for weeks (or months - butternut squash has a long shelf life), until I youtube some cooking videos and muster up the courage to just get it over with.  And that, my friends, is how I found myself with three pounds of butternut squash in March.

My batting average for butternut squash dishes is pretty mediocre, but considering all the prep work, they are huge PITAs. (Whitney and I are using this acronym a lot now, y’all clever readers can guess what it means.)  I have made multiple varieties of butternut squash soup and puree.  Butternut squash and apple.  Butternut squash with creme fraiche.  Curried butternut squash.  But sorry, no matter how excited I try to be about it, butternut squash soups and purees are just not that interesting!

My most valiant, but most traumatic, butternut squash attempt was a made-from-scratch butternut squash ravioli I made for my then-boyfriend.  Let me tell you – that was a true labor of love – and I will never, ever do it again.  It was pretty much a dealbreaker for my relationship (with Mr. Butternut Squash, not the boyfriend.)  First, I prepared the roasted butternut squash puree, which is a feat in and of itself (see prepping and dissection of the butternut squash, above).  Then, I made the dough from scratch and by hand.  At this point, it's probably worth mentioning that, since I lack a stand mixer, rolling pin, and pasta machine, I could have chosen to use wonton wrappers like a normal person.  But I'm a glutton for punishment.  I spent far too long carefully mixing, kneading, folding, and repeating, all the while thinking, "There is absolutely no way Giada's bony little arms can knead pasta dough.  She obviously has Mario Batali do it for her between takes."  At last, the dough was ready to be rolled thin, which I did with a wine bottle, and cut into long, wide ribbons using a sharp knife.  Next, I painstakingly spooned the puree onto dough, folded the dough over to make square pouches, and sealed and sliced off each one.  I repeated until I had two dozen slightly-misshapen ravioli.  After sealing off the last sucker, I promptly crumbled onto the floor, wiped my brow, and thanked God I had time to wash the blood, sweat, and streams of mascara off of my face.  The ravioli was imperfect, but overall it was delicious and straight from the heart.

That’s cute and all, but it's just so much less painful to make butternut squash ravioli from a package.  However, I think there's still something charming and romantic about a homemade butternut squash pasta, it just has to be manageable.  After months of searching for the perfect recipe for a rematch of the battle of the butternut, I found this one.  This recipe is not too difficult, and best of all, it does not require rolling your own pasta or bastardizing an Italian classic with foreign noodle sheets.  And, it comes from Mark Bittman, who I deeply admire for his cooking, writing, and general epicurean knowledge.

I found the recipe on epicurious, though it recently appeared in the January 2011 issue of Bon Appetit.  The glaring problem is that the recipe calls for 8 ounces of lamb, and I am the 40-day Vegetarian!  So, I made some modifications.  I subbed 8 ounces of portobella mushroom tops, which were on sale at Safeway.  Conveniently, they have a meaty texture and consistency, so when chopped into small pieces, they were a great choice to mimic the lamb.  (Note:  I said mimic, not replace.)   Also, I didn't even bother with the cilantro.  A butternut squash and mushroom combination screams out one herb to me - SAGE.  So that's what I used.  Also, Bittman calls for a kasseri or hallumi cheese - but they were each about $9 for a very small wedge, so I settled on a grated parmesan.  If you do choose to use a stronger, more exotic cheese, just remember that a little bit goes a long way.

The final product is a decadent, rich pasta dish that is totally healthy, relatively guilt-free, and 100% delicious.  It's the kind of heartwarming pasta that sticks to your soul and not your thighs.  The cinnamon gives it a lovely, earthy heat, one that I think pairs quite nicely with the sage.  Honestly, I didn’t even miss the meat!  This one is definitely a keeper.  The recipe serves four, so cut it in half if you want to woo someone special but don't want the sore arms or frustration that comes along with a homemade ravioli.    

Butternut Squash and Portobello Multigrain Pasta, the 40-day Vegetarian Way adapted from Mark Bittman 
Serves 4

2 pounds butternut squash (about 5-6 cups), peeled and cubed 
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
8 ounces portobello mushroom caps, chopped into very small pieces
3 large garlic cloves (or about 2-3 teaspoons)
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup canned chopped tomatoes, with added puree  (from 28 ounce can)*
2 cups vegetable broth
8 ounces multigrain pasta
1/2 cup chopped sage
1/2 cup parmesan cheese

1.  Preheat oven to 450°. Peel and cube squash or used a precubed package.  Toss with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Roast until tender and brown around edges, using metal spatula to turn occasionally, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven.
2.  Heat additional olive oil, about one tablespoon, in deep, large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and onions; sauté until soft and fragrant, 7 to 8 minutes. Add garlic, cumin, cinnamon, and cayenne; stir 1 minute. Stir in tomatoes, then broth and bring to boil, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce heat; simmer until mixture thickens, about 5 minutes. Stir in squash. Season with salt and pepper.
3.  Cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions.  Drain, reserving 1 cup cooking liquid.
4.  Return pasta to pot. Add mushroom mixture, half of sage, half of cheese; and toss. Add reserved cooking liquid by 1/3 cupfuls to moisten to desired level. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer pasta to bowl or plate. Sprinkle with remaining sage and cheese. 

*Note:  I didn't have canned chopped tomatoes in puree, so I used a 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes that I pulsed in the food processor a couple of times.  That works fine, but it is a little watery, so I bulked it up with a little bit of canned tomato paste.  I wish I could tell you how much, but I didn't measure.  Maybe 2 teaspoons?  Because it was a little on the watery side, I added only about half of the broth.

So, dear readers, I've talked your ear off today and now I want to hear from you.  Have you had any epic failures in the kitchen that have scared you from cooking with that ingredient ever again?  If so, what ingredients are to blame?  Maybe I can find an easy way for you to prepare it! 


  1. All of my experiences in the kitchen have been epic failures. However, I think that your blog has inspired me to change this. Not only do I despise the grocery store... but I also fail at cooking. Then again, I suppose I've never put that much effort into it. As a meat-lover AND an animal-lover... I am inspired so much that I might just give this vegetarian thing a try... again. Happy eating... and can't wait for more entries and recipes that you have to share!

    Peace, Love, and Paw Prints

  2. Try jalapeno and cumin with butternut squash.