, , , , , , , , , , , ,


I am not even using the word “squash” in the title of this recipe because it’s not fair. People see that word, and they think baby food: stringy, overcooked, bland… they think “I hate squash.” My 14-year-old son has certainly uttered those words before, and he came back for seconds of this pasta.

Instead of squash, think about the word “butternut.” Now that’s more like it. This pasta is creamy, buttery, smooth, and nutty. A little kick from smoky cayenne amps up both color and taste, and the natural sweetness of butternut (squash) is the perfect foil to the savory garlic and fennel of Italian sausage.

This pasta is also a great way to start the new year, especially after weeks of holiday over-indulgence. This isn’t the kind of food that wreaks of diets and deprivation, but rather the sort we should really be eating every day: balanced, tasty, and nourishing. It is a warming, hearty helping of fiber, vitamins A and C, potassium, and heart-healthy omega fatty acids. You can also opt for turkey Italian sausage and skim ricotta to keep it lower in fat, or add even more fiber and vitamins with whole wheat pasta. I eat it because it tastes good, but I enjoy it more because I know it’s good for me.


Creamy Butternut and Sausage Pasta
makes 8 servings

2 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1″ chunks
1 1/4 lbs. bulk Italian sausage (mild or spicy based on your preference)
1 lb. rigatoni or other large tube- or shell-shaped pasta
2 tsp. coarse salt + more for pasta water
1 tsp. paprika
1/4 tsp. cayenne (adjust to preference)
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
3 tbsp. roasted walnut oil (see Recipe Notes, can substitute olive oil)
3 tbsp. real maple syrup (can substitute 2 tsp. turbinado sugar — do not use artificially flavored pancake syrup)
1 tsp. dried thyme (or 2 tbsp. chopped fresh)
1 tsp. dried basil (or 2 tbsp. chopped fresh)
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 c. grated Parmesan or other favorite hard cheese + more for serving
1/2 c. creme fraiche, heavy cream, or ricotta (your choice)
a few ladles of pasta water, about a cup

Oven 425F. In roasting pan, toss squash cubes with walnut oil, maple syrup, salt, pepper, paprika, and cayenne. Roast for 40-45 minutes, stirring once halfway through, until tender and caramelized on the edges.

While squash is roasting, boil pasta in salted water in a large stockpot. (Quick tip: heavily salted water is key to avoiding bland pasta. I use about a tablespoon of coarse salt for every pound of pasta; the finished noodles taste more flavorful, not salty.) Cook for a minute or two less than pasta package directions indicate, as you’ll be cooking it further in the sauce later. I used pipe rigate from World Market, but any large pasta will do. Tube and shell shapes are ideal because in stirring, they stuff themselves with the thick, chunky sauce.

Multi-tasking alert: while the squash is roasting and the pasta is boiling, crumble the Italian sausage in a large skillet and cook on medium-high heat. As sausage begins to brown, add thyme, basil, and garlic and cook two minutes more. Total cooking time will vary depending on water/fat content of your sausage; mine takes about ten minutes. Drain sausage well on paper towels. Finish by feeling generally efficient and handy in the kitchen for doing three things at once. ;)

Reserve a few ladles full of pasta water, then drain pasta and return to pot. (Pasta water already contains starch and salt, which make it the perfect liquid to add to pasta sauce.) Add cooked sausage and roasted squash, including the scented, brilliant orange oil from the bottom of the roasting pan. Stir in Parmesan and whatever you chose as your creamy element (creme fraiche, cream, or ricotta) and warm through over medium heat. Add pasta water as needed to make a rich, creamy sauce; you’ll need more if you opted for ricotta. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as desired. I serve mine with a sprinkling of extra cheese, a mixed green side salad, and a chunk of whole wheat bread.

Recipe Notes + Tips:
Have I mentioned lately how much I love roasted walnut oil? It is all the best of walnuts — complex, nutty flavor and a heart-healthy punch of omega fatty acids — without the bitter aftertaste. It goes beautifully with leafy greens, root vegetables, and squash, as well as pork and chicken. You won’t find a better partner for strongly flavored cheeses ranging from Parmesan to Stilton. It is perfection with roasted beets and feta, or added to honey mustard vinaigrette, but its uses are hardly limited to the savory. I love the subtle nuttiness it brings to chocolate cake and banana bread; the scent of a few drops warmed in the pan transforms pancakes and french toast. Roasted walnut oil also compliments fruit, especially citrus.

I use La Tourangelle Roasted Walnut Oil, and it can be purchased at some grocery stores, T.J. Maxx (if you get lucky), the La Tourangelle web site, or in 3-packs on Amazon. Regardless of the brand, I have learned from experience that it is vital that the bottle say “toasted” or “roasted” walnut oil; walnut oil pressed from unroasted nuts has none of the scent, warmth, or flavor.

Roasted walnut oil is one of those pantry-building ingredients that will amaze you with its versatility. It responds well to higher heat, and it can be substituted in equal measure in recipes calling for canola or olive oil. Obviously it should not be eaten by those with nut allergies, and I never make gifts with it unless I have already asked the recipient about food sensitivities/allergies. Assuming that doesn’t apply to you, try it and let me know what you think. :)