Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shiitake is an easy vegetarian meal that feels totally "meaty". Browned sage butter takes it over the top.
The making of - Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shiitake
I took a little time off last month...holidays and travel kept me pretty busy so I thought, why not take a bit of a vacation from the world of blogging and just relax. That is, relax as much as one can when they are still responsible for most of the meals being served in the house.
Most? Unless we are eating out, I guess you could make that all.
Brian and I took a little vacation to Cancun, where we enjoyed the sunshine while relaxing, seeing interesting sites, and meeting interesting people.
Who liked to play with their food, or at least the condiments. Quite entertaining.
We ate more street tacos and ceviche than I had ever had in my life! So fresh and simple and delish! It reminded me that, food doesn't have to be fancy to be good...a motto I cook to.
I also was able to have lunch with my handsome eldest son and gorgeous granddaughter at a lovely restaurant, George's on the Cove, situated on the rustic coast of La Jolla, southern California.
It was a perfect day to sit on the terrace, enjoy the sunshine, crashing surf, easy conversation, and a great meal.
But back to the making of portion of the story
One of the menu items at Georges is a pasta dish that used a butternut squash puree as the sauce, which was then topped with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, a bit of Reggiano Romano cheese, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. I've been trying to incorporate more vegetarian dishes into my daily eating, and while I don't like mushrooms, the dish sounded intriguing. Both my son and I ordered it. Me with no mushrooms. Chris, with his, plus my mushrooms, please.
It was good. And it got my mind to working on how I could easily make this at home AND how could I make it even better.
So that's what I set out to do, and that's what I did.
The "Ingredients" (sans butter, butter likes to not show up for photos)
It's always funny to me that while all pasta is made of the same ingredients, each shape seems to taste different. Or maybe it's the shape that fools our brain into thinking it tastes different.
I do know that certain shapes of pasta work better with certain presentations. While the dish was served with linguine in the restaurant, I wanted to use a tubular pasta that would hold the rich roasted butternut squash sauce on the inside, as well as the outside; so I chose penne rigate - its ridged outside making it perfect to hold the rich, thick, sauce.
You could use another tubular pasta such as ziti, rigatoni or penne.
Salting the Pasta Water
When cooking the pasta, do salt the water, but don't over-salt it. We are going to reserve some of that pasta cooking water to thin our roasted squash puree, so you don't want it overly salty. About 1 tablespoon, or slightly more, to a large pot of water should salt it nicely.
I remember once at a very nice restaurant I ordered a pasta dish, just pasta with basil pesto. Simple fresh flavors. OMG - it was SO salty I couldn't eat it. So I sent it back telling them it was just too salty. They remade it. It came back ... too salty.
I told them it was still too salty - and the waiter looked at me like I had grown a third eye as he explained the chef was very careful NOT TO ADD any salt to my plate.
"Did he use the pasta water to thin the sauce?" I asked.
"Yes" was the answer.
"Well then, I think he over-salted the pasta water," I said. And yes, when chef tasted just the pasta water, it was WAY too salty.
So lightly salt your pasta water. Give it flavor. Don't throw the whole ocean at it.
I love the flavor of butternut squash, not only one of the most common squashes available today but also one that helps fight obesity while delivering 437% of your daily requirement of vitamin A. At only 82 calories per serving, with zero fat, it helps fill you up with a good dose of fiber.
Butternut squash is so versatile, you can steam it, boil it, roast it, mash it, or in this case, make it into a sauce to flavor the pasta. If you were only making the puree, you could simply steam, microwave, or boil the cubes. Because I have both chunks of squash, as well as the puree, I roasted.
The one thing I don't like about butternut squash?
Peeling it. Butternut squash is an oddly shaped vegetable, with a very thick skin. The easiest way I have found to prepare butternut squash is to cut it in half through the middle, separating the top from the bottom, remove the seeds, then cut each half into quarters, and peeling the skin off with a sharp knife or Y-style peeler. Then cut into proper pieces...OR
Sometimes you just have to love convenience.
While the cubes are not ½ inch, they are easily made into uniform ½ inch pieces. Remember you need a consistent size for even roasting, so get them as close as you can to bite-sized. Half will go into the puree, half will go into the dish.
After roasting, puree half of the squash in a blender or food processor with some of the reserved, not too salty, pasta water, until you get the consistency of a thick tomato sauce. You want it fairly thick. We can always use some of the water to thin it down once we get it into the skillet to finish the dish.
My most favorite hated subject.
I don't like mushrooms. I blame it on Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup and all the recipes they wrote for all the magazines and on all their soup cans back in the 50's and 60's when fresh mushrooms were few and far between. Canned mushrooms were the staple of the day, and they were horrible, in my mind's eye...akin to eating dirt while chewing on your tongue.
I know that we've come a long way baby, and today's mushrooms are "delicious". However, as soon as I bite into their spongy texture and taste that "fresh earth", my mind says, NO, just say NO.
But I do cook them well. According to my husband and sons, all mushroom lovers, I cook them very well.
Shiitake mushrooms have a smokey flavor. A symbol of longevity in Asia due to their health benefits, shiitake mushrooms have been used in Chinese medicine for more than 6000 years. Mushrooms are unlike most organisms in that they are a fungus, not a plant. A fungus has no roots, no leaves, no flowers, and no seeds. It simply grows from the moisture and microcosms in the dirt.
Sorry, I'm still not feeling the love.
I think, when it comes to mushrooms, there are two camps. Those that LOVE LOVE LOVE them and those that don't. Not too many in the "take them or leave them" camps.
Mushrooms act like little sponges when it comes to cooking them. In other words, if your pan is not hot enough, if your pan is not large enough, if you use too much oil, butter, or other, then you will have little sponges that soak up the fat, not little mushrooms that brown in the fat. So when looking at the pan to use for your mushroom sauté, choose one that seems slightly too large, rather than just right. We can use this same skillet to finish our dish, so you won't have an extra pan to wash.
Make sure your skillet is hot. My mother always showed me the best way to find out if a pan was hot was to drip a drop of water onto the surface, if it sputtered, it was too cool, if it danced across the service and then disappeared, it was just right. So a large hot pan, get your oil and butter hot, then add the mushrooms and quickly cook until they are brown and tender.
The Sage Butter
Finish a dish with a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. That's a fine idea, most of the time, but I thought this creation needed something a bit more ... tasty. Finishing. Richer.
Sage and butternut are delish together. Browned butter is delish on both butternut and mushrooms (or so I'm told) and sage...well...what's not to love with that and mushrooms? So I made a small amount of browned sage butter to drizzle over the top, and it was, over the TOP. Such a small, simple step and it added so much umami richness.
While this step is at the bottom of the actual recipe, I like to make this first. Allowing the sage leaves to sit in the butter while everything gets ready for the love it will add, just allows it to develop its love further. Heat it up before you drizzle it over the top.
And it's just a drizzle. Flavor, not fat.
Put it together, and what have you got? A hearty, meaty, vegetarian meal. With or without the mushrooms, it is delish!
Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shiitake
Wine Recommendation: With the rich meaty flavor of the mushroom, and the roasted squash, a lightly oaked chardonnay, that has been put through some malolactic fermentation works nicely with this dish.
Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash and Shiitake
- 1 pound butternut squash peeled, seeded and cut into ½ inch cubes
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil divided
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups sliced shiitake mushrooms or another mushroom of choice
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter divided
- 8 ounces Penne pasta or other tubular pasta
- ½ cup finely chopped shallot or onion
- 2 tablespoons sliced fresh sage leaves
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese
- Chopped fresh parsley optional
- Heat oven to 425°F. In a large bowl, toss the squash cubes with 1 tablespoon of oil and a large pinch of salt. Pour onto a baking sheet, spread to a single layer, then roast for 20 - 30 minutes, or until soft, stirring occasionally to brown them evenly.
- While the squash is baking, bring a large pot of water to a boil; add the penne and cook, according to package directions, until al dente. Remove ⅔ cup of the cooking liquid. Drain the pasta and set aside.
- Place half of the roasted squash into a blender or food processor, along with half of the reserved cooking liquid, process until smooth. It should look like thick tomato sauce. Add additional reserved cooking liquid until desired consistency is reached.
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, large enough to hold the mushrooms without crowding, (you can later use this for the pasta, so pick a large skillet) heat 1 tablespoon oil along with 1 teaspoon butter, when hot, add the mushrooms and cook until lightly browned and tender. In another small skillet, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons butter over medium heat, when hot, add the sliced sage leaves, cook until the leaves and butter are lightly browned - do not burn the butter.
- Remove the mushrooms from the skillet and set aside. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil, add the shallot and sauté until tender, about 2 - 3 minutes, add the squash puree and roasted squash cubes; cook until hot. Add the drained pasta and mushrooms; toss until well heated and coated with the sauce. Add more pasta water if the sauce seems too thick. Divide the pasta and squash into 4 wide bowls. Spoon the browned sage butter and leaves evenly over the top. Finish with grated parmesan and parsley, if desired. Season with freshly ground pepper.