Halloween season has begun, but I confess that for me the scariest aspect of the holiday is the pervasiveness of pumpkin spice.
Not just in lattes (what a terrible thing to do to coffee), but we now have pumpkin spice Cheerios and even pumpkin “french” fries (which I’m told McDonald’s is selling in Japan — go figure). Apologies to those who decorate with dried cornstalks and pumpkin-spice-scented candles at this time of the year, but I believe it’s time to call a halt to it. On behalf of growing legions of pumpkin-spice skeptics, I’m proposing a deliciously fragrant, tasty, filling pasta dish with plenty of pumpkin, yes, but not a trace of pumpkin spice to be found.
Recipe from “The Four Seasons of Pasta” by Sara Jenkins and Nancy Harmon Jenkins.
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You could make this with any kind of pasta, but short, stubby shapes are best. Fusilli, penne, garganelli or maccheroni, for instance, will marry with the sauce in comforting ways.
Be sure to choose an eating pumpkin or a hard winter squash instead of a jack-o’-lantern for this dish. Some varieties to look for include wonderful rouge vif d’Etampes (an exotic name, but it’s widely available in farmers markets); pale cheese pumpkins (so-called because they look like old-fashioned farmstead cheddars); dark orange kuri pumpkins; or hard winter squashes such as easy-to-find butternut, buttercup, acorn, and the giant favorite Hubbard. Asian kabocha, with its deep, bright orange color, also is a standout on autumn tables. You’ll need about 2 ½ pounds of peeled and trimmed squash — about 3 pounds of raw, uncut squash — to make 4 cups of grated squash.
Toast the pumpkin seeds by setting them on a baking tray in a 350 F oven for about 10 minutes, or until they start to brown and turn crisp. Be careful not to burn. As soon as they are ready, turn them out on a board. When cool, chop coarsely with a knife and set aside.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings
2 1/2 pounds peeled and seeded pumpkin or winter squash
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
4 or 5 large leaves fresh sage
2 garlic cloves, lightly smashed with the flat blade of a knife
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds, coarsely chopped
About 1 pound (500 grams) short, stubby pasta
1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana padano cheese, grated
1. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil.
2. While the water is heating, grate the squash on the largest holes of a box grater. You should have about 4 cups of grated squash.
3. Gently heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet. Fry the sage leaves until crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain on a paper towel and reserve.
4. Add the garlic cloves to the oil, raise the heat slightly and cook, turning and flattening the cloves with a spatula, until the cloves are brown and have thoroughly impregnated the oil with garlic flavor. Remove the browned cloves and discard.
5. Raise the heat to high and add 1/3 to 1/2 of the shredded squash to the pan. Toss and stir the squash continuously, as if you were stir-frying, for 3 to 4 minutes, seasoning with salt as you toss. The squash strands will soften and give off a bit of moisture, and some of them will brown and crisp in the hot oil. Don’t wait for the squash to brown thoroughly — it should retain texture and not be cooked to a soft mush.
6. Remove the batch of squash and repeat with the rest of it. When all the squash is done, combine it all in the skillet and stir in the pumpkin seeds. Turn the heat down to very low or set the skillet in a very low (200 F) oven.
7. Add salt to the rapidly boiling water and toss in the pasta, stirring to mix it well. Cook, following package directions, but start to test the pasta at least a minute before the package indicates it should be done.
8. Check the squash mixture at this point. If it seems a bit dry (some varieties are dryer than others), add a ladle or two of the pasta cooking water and mix it in over low heat to render the squash “sauce” creamy.
9. When the pasta is done, drain well and immediately transfer to a warm bowl. Mix the squash mixture into the pasta, adding the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and the grated cheese. Toss to mix well and crumble the sage leaves over the top, adding a liberal amount of freshly ground black pepper.
10. Serve immediately, passing more grated cheese.
Main photo: Pumpkins aren’t just for pie this time of year. The gourds also work well in a hearty pasta dish. Credit: Copyright 2017 Nancy Harmon Jenkins