PASTA WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND SAGE

Serves 4 to 6.   Published January 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.

Don’t be tempted to use dried sage in this recipe.

INGREDIENTS

4 slices bacon , halved lengthwise, then cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
8 large fresh sage leaves , plus 1 tablespoon minced (see note)
1 medium butternut squash (about 2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
6 scallions , sliced thin (about 1 cup)
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon sugar
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 pound penne pasta or other short, tubular pasta
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese , plus extra for serving
4 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
1/3 cup sliced almonds , toasted

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. 1. Cook bacon in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 8 minutes. Add whole sage leaves and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer into small bowl, reserving bacon fat and bacon-sage mixture separately.

  2. 2. Return skillet to high heat, add 2 tablespoons reserved bacon fat (adding olive oil if necessary) and heat until shimmering. Add squash in even layer and cook, without stirring, until beginning to caramelize, 4 to 5 minutes. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally until spotty brown, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Add butter and allow to melt, about 30 seconds. Add scallions, nutmeg, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 3/4 teaspoon pepper, and minced sage; cook, stirring occasionally, until scallions are softened, about 3 minutes. Add broth and bring to simmer; continue to cook until squash is tender, 1 to 3 minutes longer.

  3. 3. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water, and transfer back to Dutch oven.

  4. 4. Add squash mixture to pasta; stir in 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, and reserved bacon-sage mixture, adjusting consistency with reserved pasta liquid. Serve, passing almonds and Parmesan separately.

SHOPPING

Sizing up Squash Making batch upon batch of our Pasta with Butternut Squash and Sage, we noticed a lot of inconsistency: Sometimes the cooked squash tasted slightly sweet, other times it tasted muddy or dull. Could the size of the squash influence flavor? We bought squash ranging from small 1½ pounders all the way up to 5 pound-plus behemoths and tasted them sautéed in bacon fat per our recipe, as well as boiled and pureed. Tasters overwhelmingly found that the smaller the squash, the more concentrated the flavor and the finer the texture. Larger squash not only had a more washed-out, “dirty” flavor, but also tended to be more fibrous and spongy when cooked. So when a recipe calls for a large amount of squash, it’s better to buy a few smaller squashes than one big one. We recommend avoiding squash weighing more than 2½ pounds.

SMALL SIZE, BIG FLAVOR
Our blind tasting showed that the smaller the squash, the bigger the flavor.