This is a love letter to my favorite fall food: Butternut squash.
It's filling. It's low in fat. It's a good source of Vitamins E, B6, C and A, Thiamin, Niacin, calcium and magnesium, potassium and manganese, according to Self-Nutrition Data. It's delicious, it complements whatever you cook it with, it thickens up sauces and soups.
Acorn squash is good, too, for all the same reasons. But there's something about a butternut roasting in the oven, filling your house with its aroma. It's forever tied in for me with the smell of leaves decaying, with wood smoke, with the crisp air of a day just on the peak of fall, right before we are chucked into another Northeast winter.
And you can make a puree and freeze it, and use it later for a sauce or a casserole or just as soup again. It makes a meal without meat. It's relatively easy to grow (I planted four this summer and got two squash, so I've been fortifying my harvest with storebought gourds). And it's cheap all fall and winter. I paid 79 cents a pound for it recently.
Over this past weekend, my husband and I made ravioli, something we only do about every six months and the first real meal we made together as we fell in love. Our first raviolis looked horrible; his roommate got us a ravioli press that Christmas.
Ravioli is so worth it to make. It takes a while, and it takes a while to get the hang of making pasta, but if you have a best friend or spouse or girlfriend or boyfriend with whom you work well as a team, this is a fantastic stay-home-and-drink-wine activity.
If you don't have a lot of time, I also included my puree recipe, which has endless variations. I listed several for you, so you can eat butternut squash through spring and not get bored.
NOTE: Before you start these recipes, roast your squash at 350 degrees for between 45 minutes and an hour. Halve the squash, scoop out the seeds, then rub salt, pepper and a liberal amount of olive oil on the halves before you put them in the oven. This will cook them through and leave you with squash meat that will bend to your will.
RAVIOLI FILLED WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH, RICOTTA AND SWISS CHARD
FOR THE PASTA
Two cups of flour
Two eggs and three egg yolks
1 teaspoon salt
FOR THE FILLING
Three leaves swiss chard, chopped fine
1 tablespoon diced onion
1-2 large cloves roasted garlic
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 medium-size roasted butternut squash
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
MAKING THE PASTA
(*This recipe is from "How to Cook Everything" by Mark Bittman. His pasta dough is way more forgiving than my mom's, so I am putting it in my own words for you here.)
1. Mix flour and salt together.
2. Pile the flour in the middle of the cutting board; make a deep depression in the middle and put in the eggs and egg yolks.
3. Stir the eggs gently into the flour, keeping the depression as deep as you can. When it starts to get too hard to stir, use your hands and knead the dough until it is smooth, yellow and tight.
4. Let rest for 30 minutes (make the filling in the meantime).
5. Cut a 1-inch strip from the dough; roll it into a thick rectangle with a rolling pin, then move to the pasta maker.
6. Feed the dough through the pasta maker setting by setting, starting with the thickest. (If you don't have a pasta maker, you can roll it thin with a rolling pin, but you're going to need some strong arms to get it thin enough). End between setting 2 and 3, or else the pasta sheets will be too thin.
7. Lay the sheet back on your cutting board, trim the edges so you're dealing with a long, squared-off piece of pasta and place thumbnail-size bits of filling down one side of the sheet.
8. Fold the sheet over the filling, then make ravioli shapes with a ravioli press (again, if you don't have a ravioli press, you can cut squares and press the ends together with a folk for a more rustic ravioli. Use some egg yolk as a glue between the sheets.
9. Cook the ravioli in a large pot of boiling water for one to two minutes, or until they start floating to the top. Don't overcook!
1. Skin roasted squash; smash it with your hands into a pasty substance with as few chunks as you can manage.
2. In a large bowl, mix together ricotta with the onion, garlic, herbs and everything else. Mix in the squash last.
My husband and I usually pair this ravioli with mushrooms sauteed in butter. We added some chopped Swiss chard this time, too. The nuttiness of the chard and the squash really complemented one another and filled out this dish.
ENDLESS BUTTERNUT / ACORN SQUASH PUREE
Serves 4-6 as an appetizer
The following is my basic pureed squash soup recipe. A lot of variation ideas follow the directions. Once you have a simple puree, it works fine as a classic soup, but there's about a million things you can do to it once it's prepared. (My husband just spreads cold puree on toast.)
1 acorn squash, halved and roasted
1/2 butternut squash, roasted
1 apple, roasted and cut into chunks, skins removed
1 clove roasted garlic
1 teaspoon each rosemary, thyme and oregano
1-2 cups milk or almond milk
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
Skin roasted squash and toss the meat into a large pot. Add the garlic, butter, milk, olive oil and herbs.
Use an immersion blender (or if you don't have one, an electric beater, or if you don't have that, a potato masher and wooden spoon) to puree all the ingredients together. If puree is too thick, add more milk. Let cook over low-medium heat, stirring occasionally, for up to an hour (this lets the flavors come together).
Serve. Or, move on and make one of these variations!
You can make this chorizo-butternut soup by adding 6 tablespoons sauteed ground chorizo and finely chopped onion.
You can bake it in the oven inside ramekins, and top it with a rich cheese like havarti or gruyere.
You can add a can of black beans, keeping them whole or mashing them just slightly, plus a teaspoon of adobo sauce for a spicy southwestern take.
You can add some roasted red peppers and puree them along with everything else for a thinner but bolder-tasting soup. The possibilities are really endless.
You can also turn this into a sauce by adding less milk and about a cup of shredded/crumbled cheese. I like to melt goat and bleu cheeses into it and pour it over pasta.
You can use the sauce in place of tomato sauce on a pizza, then top with gruyere or fontina cheese, plus some sauteed mushrooms and onions.
You can also use the sauce as a binder in a nice, cheesy fall casserole; grate some cheese, mix half-cooked pasta shells with the sauce and the cheese, top with carmelized onions and breadcrumbs.
Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour; keep the casserole covered half the cook time.
To reach Francesca Olsen:
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On Twitter: @FrancescaShanks