Penne with Butternut Squash, Sage, and Bresaola (or: This is How You Write About Food, Mr. Buford)

I made this for dinner tonight. I've made it before, but I don't make it too often because it is time consuming (about an hour and a half from start to finish). There's a bit of prep work involved and different tools and pans you have to dirty up, but it was my first dinner back after California and this is just the ultimate in comfort food for me; it's what I wanted to sit down and unwind with after these past 10 days. This dish combines my favorite elements of food: pasta, squash and sage, and little bits of salty meat. It's a homey comforting dish and there's enough going on that it's interesting, but not exhausting to eat. My favorite meal: the kind you can curl up with (along with a good book). Enjoy!

This recipe is adapted from the Williams-Sonoma Pasta cookbook. I have had great success with many of their dishes. A hint for this dish in particular, don't chop as you go; prep everything ahead of time.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 5 shallots, minced (I used 1/2 a medium white onion)
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced
  • Large pinch of ground allspice (or if you prefer, freshly ground nutmeg)
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • Generous splash of balsamic vinegar
  • 1 pound penne rigate
  • 8-10 (depending on how well you like the taste) fresh sage leaves, julienned
  • 1/4 pound thinly sliced bresaolo or proscuitto, cut into narrow strips (I have used both in the past, but actually used bacon [4 slices] this time, to good effect)
  • 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a Dutch oven (do NOT, as Williams-Sonoma alternately suggests, use a Pyrex unless you heat your chicken broth first; it may explode on you as it did once to me) over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the shallots and cook until softened (3 to 4 minutes). Add the squash and allspice and season with salt and pepper. Sauté for 2 minutes. Add the broth, reduce heat to medium-low, cover and simmer until the squash is fork tender (8 to 10 minutes). Don't stir the squash vigorously; you want the pieces to keep their shape. Turn off the heat and add the vinegar. Adjust seasonings if necessary.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Generously salt the water, add the pasta and cook until al dente (11 minutes). I add the pasta after the chicken broth has been added in the other pot, so it is done at the right time, which should be a couple minutes before the squash is ready.

Drain the pasta well. If using bacon: in the pasta pot brown the bacon, drain onto towels and pour off the fat. Pour on the squash mixture. Add the sage and bacon (or other meat) and toss gently. Mix in a bit more than half the cheese and serve, passing the remaining cheese at the table.

Serves: 4 to 6, depending on the size of the stomach

The elements of this dish work perfectly together. The penne catches everything in it's ridges and there is a great mix of textures: the slight firmness to the al dente pasta, the soft give of the squash, the chew of the meat. There's the traditional Italian interplay of the salty, sweet, and acidic elements (which I learned of from Mario Batali via Mr. Buford); each ingredient contributes to the dish. Sage and squash are a traditional combination, but their perfection is just heightened in this dish - perhaps from the slight hint of the vinegar, which lingers in the back of your throat. A delicious dish and sadly, my only accomplishment for the day. As the Italians say: Buon appetito!