Thursday, January 5, 2012

Friends and Pasta Chase the Chill Away

In the Pacific Northwest, January means short gray days of bone-chilling dampness and rain. The winds have been howling unusually hard here for the past few days, even blowing the grill all around the deck.

We shouldn’t complain, I know. It’s not snowing.
And there is certainly a unique beauty in the austere landscape.

When it’s cold outside, all the more reason to light the fire and invite friends over for a glass of wine and something soul-warming. Which is exactly what we did last night.

Dreaming of summer produce and sunshine, we took inspiration from Mario Batali’s Winter Caprese Salad in Molto Italiano for a simple antipasto, served with homemade whole wheat rosemary flatbread.

Next, came a bracing winter salad with grapefruit and pomegranate seeds, tossed in a grapefruit balsamic vinaigrette…

…followed by two pastas. A classic pasta Bolognese for the meat-lovers...

…and a hearty winter vegetable-inspired pasta with roasted butternut squash, brown butter sage and toasted hazelnuts.

The pasta and wine chased away the chill. We just got an email from a friend who was here last night who said her cheeks still hurt from laughing. That’s the sign of a good dinner party. 
The butternut squash pasta was an on-the-fly experiment, which breaks all the rules on never making something for your guests you haven’t made before (not to mention, don’t even have a recipe for). But it sounded good. And how can you really go wrong with those ingredients?
While it sounds decadent, this pasta dish is actually quite healthy and balanced—high in fiber and rich in other good-for-you nutrients. Butternut squash is a powerhouse food, loaded with beta carotene and Vitamin C, both potent antioxidants. Hazelnuts are rich in monounsaturated fat—a “good” fat that can help to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol—Vitamin E, and other beneficial phytochemicals—carotenoids, flavonoids, and proanthocyanidins, to be exact. 
The browned butter adds an incredible nutty richness to the dish, so please don’t leave that part out. Butter has gotten a bad rap over the years, but a little butter is not going to hurt you. In fact, your body needs fat to absorb the 
carotenoids and fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A, D, E, and K. 

You can omit the crumbled bacon on top, if you wish, but if you're not vegetarian, it adds a nice salty bite. 
We did take notes as we were cooking, so here’s the recipe.

Roasted Butternut Squash Pasta with Sage, Brown Butter & Hazelnuts
1 butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
14 ounces fresh spaghetti (preferably whole wheat)
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon fresh sage, chopped
2 tablespoons roasted hazelnuts, chopped
2 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Toss butternut squash with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet and roast until soft and caramelized, about 25 minutes.

Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil. Cook pasta one minute less than the package instructions. Drain, reserving pasta water. 

Place a large thick-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add butter and sage and cook until butter is just beginning to turn brown and smells nutty. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the cooked pasta to the pan, along with the butternut squash and hazelnuts. Begin to turn the pasta in the pan until all of the ingredients are incorporated and the pasta is coated with the butter. 

Add some of the reserved pasta water to the pan, about ¼ cup at a time, to loosen the sauce and give the pasta moisture. You’ll probably use about 1 cup of the reserved pasta water. 

Pour pasta into a serving bowl and top with reserved crumbled bacon. 
Serve hot, and enjoy eating a wholesome dinner with those you love.

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