One of the things I love most about cooking is that there's always a way to elevate what you're making.

A subtle technique used in just one step or on one ingredient — like roasting or marinating, or waiting a little longer to stir the pan — can make a huge difference in your end product. Because it's the season of carbs, I'm using these chilly winter months to perfect my pasta, polenta and risotto techniques.

Most of the week, I cook dinner in a hurry, so I end up skipping some of the finer details. For example, all the food magazines and cookbooks I read say you're really supposed to finish cooking pasta in the sauce you'll be serving with it — and that you should add some of your liberally salted pasta water to the pan as well. This tiny extra step creates a bit of starchiness in the sauce that makes it cling better to the pasta, which ups the ante on the whole experience.

In this recipe, roasted butternut squash first disintegrates in a pan loaded with crispy sausage and aromatics — then the starchy water makes the whole thing a bit more homogeneous and the perfect habitat for your nearly cooked pasta. It's a simple enough recipe that you can make it on a weeknight, even with the all-important, subtle, extra step.

Roasted butternut squash and sausage pasta with sage


6 sweet Italian sausages, casings removed

1 large butternut squash

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 shallots, sliced thin

4 to 5 dried sage leaves

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil (for roasting squash, then cooking in pan)

1 pound pasta (I used basic penne), plus 1 cup pasta water


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Halve or quarter squash and remove seeds. Rub with olive oil and salt. Roast squash one hour until soft; let cool before handling.

Once squash is cool, peel skin and chop roughly. (It will be mushy and that's ideal!)

Remove sausage from casings. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large saucepan on medium, add sausage, and break up so that you have chunks with a lot of surface area on the pan. Don't move the sausage for a while. Don't check it, don't flick it around, just let it sizzle. After around 10 minutes, you will have some crispy brown sausage — stir around in pan and break up even more. Add shallots and garlic and saute 3 to 5 minutes until soft, then add butternut squash and sage. Turn heat to low and stir until fully incorporated.

Make pasta; salt your water liberally. Drain pasta just before it's al dente; you are going to finish it in the pan with the sauce. When draining pasta, set aside 1 cup pasta water and add to pan with squash and sausage and stir. Turn heat back up to medium-low, then add pasta and cook 2 to 4 minutes, until done. Serve and enjoy.