kitchen firsts: pasta with butternut squash, spinach, and bacon
We’ve been trying a variety of new pasta combinations lately, and this one, tossed with roasted butternut squash, wilted spinach, crumbled bacon and parmesan, really won me over. I’ve never cooked with butternut squash before, partly because they are sort of big and intimidating-looking (I didn’t realize we could use up a whole one in one dish), but also because Stephen professes to hate them, along with other orange things like sweet potatoes, yams, and all other winter squashes. It hasn’t ever bothered me that I couldn’t cook these things for Stephen, but when I saw a recipe for pasta with butternut squash that also featured bacon, parmesan, and spinach, I thought that maybe, just maybe, I could convert him to embrace the squash.
In the end, I did manage to get him to eat the squash, but I totally failed in the task of tricking him into liking it! However, we all agreed that the overall effect of the dish was delicious, and I think it actually speaks well for the flavor combination that Stephen ate the stuff even though it was speckled with the dreaded orange cubes. For those of us who are fans of, or at least ambivalent regarding butternut squash, the roasted little cubes of squash are a lovely contrast in flavor and texture to the rest of the dish– sweet, crisp on the outside, and then soft and warm on the inside. Yum! The spinach adds a nice boost of green (and of course you could substitute a different green, like chard, if you like), the parmesan gives it a comforting nutty cheesyness, and the bacon, while optional, gives it a little something extra (but can of course be omitted for a vegetarian version). Toss it all with some perfect al dente linguine and you’ve got yourself a meal with a little bit of everything. The step of roasting the squash lengthens the time required to bring this dish to the table, but it brings out such nice flavor and texture that it’s totally worth it, and you can make use of that roasting time to do your mise en place, pre-cook the bacon, and get the pasta cooked. All in all, this dish was totally worth it for me, even on a weeknight, and I hope you try it too!
Pasta with Roasted Butternut Squash, Spinach, and Bacon
Adapted from Autumn Gatherings, by Rick Rodgers
1 small butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled
1 T olive oil
1/2 lb linguine
2-4 strips bacon, chopped (optional; if omitting, replace with an additional 1 T olive oil)
1 small onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
5 oz baby spinach, washed
2/3 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees, and begin by preparing your butternut squash. Trim a little less than an inch off of the top and bottom of the squash, then use a vegetable peeled to remove the hard skin. Cut the squash in half, lengthwise, then scoop the seeds and pulp out of the rounded end with a spoon and discard. Cut the cleaned, peeled halves into small cubes; the smaller you cut them, the faster they will roast. We like to do a 1/2 inch dice as it roasts relatively quickly and retains a good ratio of crisp roasted outside to squishy inside, but you can cut it as large as 1 inch dice cubes if you prefer. Place the cubes in a roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet, toss with 1 T olive oil to coat, and season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven to roast until they are crisp and lightly brown on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30-45 minutes, tossing occasionally.
While the squash roasts, chop your onion, garlic, and bacon, and wash the spinach. Cook the bacon over medium heat in a large pan until browned to your liking, then take the pan off the heat and remove the bacon to a plate to drain, reserving the bacon drippings in the pan (if you are making this without bacon, simply use a tablespoon of olive oil in place of the bacon grease when it comes time to cook the onion, garlic, and spinach).
When the squash cubes are about half way done, place a large pot of salted water on to boil for your pasta, and when it comes to a boil, cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve a small amount of pasta water (about 1/2 cup is plenty) so you’ll have the option of loosening your sauce.
As the pasta is nearing completion and the squash is finishing up, return the pan with the bacon drippings to medium heat and add the onion, cooking until it is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until it’s fragrant, about a minute, before adding the spinach and stirring to wilt. Drain the pasta when it’s al dente and return it to the dry pot, and remove the roasted butternut squash from the oven when it is golden brown. Toss the pasta with the spinach mixture, butternut squash cubes, and half of the parmesan cheese, loosening slightly with the reserved pasta water if you wish. Serve the pasta in shallow bowls, then garnish with the remaining parmesan and the cooked bacon. Enjoy!