Butternut Squash (Pumpkin) Bolognese

I didn't fully appreciate the affection squash has for freshly ground pepper until making this Butternut Squash (Pumpkin) Bolognese from Six Seasons. Though the dish visually under promises (as many plates of Bolognese do), layers of satisfying flavors reveal themselves once you take a bite. The two pounds of squash are roasted and then further reduced, ultimately standing in for tomato paste and nicely rounding out the sauce. In terms of texture, it's what I think of as a "true" Bolognese in that almost every bit clings perfectly to the pasta. Not only is Butternut Squash Bolognese a delicious make-ahead dinner, but it's freezer-friendly and has become a favorite meal for our Airstream trips.

Circling back to the pepper. The key to this recipe is ensuring that you adequately season as you go rather than at the end, otherwise the flavor can be flat. I've included a number of additional notes in the post along with specific measurements. Ultimately, your taste buds are the best gauge.

The Art of Pasta

Scratch noodles aren't the secret to great pasta. What transforms a simple dish of pasta pomodoro into a restaurant-quality dinner is a series of discrete steps during the cooking process.

Below is a brain dump of the things I consider when making pasta. None of these ideas are original, but rather I've learned them over time from The Google and various cookbooks like Mozza and Gjelina.

Salt

Think of the salting process in 3 parts.

  • Sauce
  • Pasta Water
  • Finishing Cheese

I usually season the sauce just shy of perfect since the pasta water and finishing cheese will pop all of the flavors at the end.

Many chefs and cookbooks recommend salting the pasta water so that it "tastes like the sea". I always add salt, but the amount is increased or decreased depending on the estimated amount of pasta water needed to finish the pasta. Half a cup of pasta water that tastes like the sea can oversalt the dish.

Once the noodles are in the pan with the sauce, I don't add any additional flake-style salt (anymore...I used to). Once you get a feel for incrementally seasoning your sauce and pasta, the only thing you should need to reach that ideal level of savory is grated cheese such as Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano. I often use a blend.

Cooking & Finishing the Pasta

Do not rinse the pasta. Ever. The starches help bind and thicken the sauce.

Finish cooking the noodles in the sauce along with some cooking water. This will meld the flavors and ensure your pasta is piping hot when it reaches the table. Steps include:

  • When finishing the pasta in sauce, cook the noodles 1-2 minutes shy of al dente. If the pasta takes "8-10" minutes to cook, you're probably aiming for minute 6 or 7. This part takes a little practice to dial in and has to be adjusted if you're using delicate noodles or hearty rigatoni. You can cook rigatoni almost until it's the perfect texture and it won't overcook in the sauce.
  • The slightly undercooked noodles are transferred directly to the simmering sauce with a bit of pasta water and then tossed gently but constantly over medium to medium-high heat. The noodles soak up some of the sauce as they finish cooking and the starchy pasta water helps thicken the sauce and bind it to the noodles. This process goes very quickly.
  • My finishing fat of choice is often some of the cheese, though certain recipes also call for butter. Cheese really tightens up a sauce so you need enough moisture to account for that.

Pasta Water

  • I like to scoop a cup of water out about 3/4 of the way through cooking. Waiting until the end can allow the pasta water to get too gummy. This is especially true of fresh pasta when you have all that extra flour floating around.

Noodle to Sauce Ratio

It goes without saying that 'Merica likes its sauce. Hot, tomato - we want sauce on all the things and on the side. Italian dishes like Bolognese tend to take more of a minimalist approach. There's just enough sauce to satisfy while still allowing the noodles to transport everything off the plate and into your belly.

I've seen 1 1/2 cups of sauce per pound of pasta mentioned on a few websites which is about 1 ounce of sauce per ounce of pasta. For this dish, I use 1.25 ounces of Bolognese per ounce of pasta.

Pecorino Romano

I won't frolic too far off into the weeds on this one, but let's take a moment to talk about cheese.

When I suggest folks use Pecorino Romano, it's like saying I enjoy eating curry. There are many different kinds with a variety of flavor profiles which makes a single moniker misleading.

Guidi Marcello is an Italian importer near our house and they list 30 kinds of Pecorino on their website. The two I've purchased recently are Pecorino Podea and Pecorino Rex, the latter being much saltier. I appreciate having a broader understading of these ingredients so that I can use them more effectively. The moral of this section: taste more cheese.

Recipe Tips

Pepper

In case I forgot to mention it, don't skimp on the pepper. To avoid spraining my hand, I processed 1 1/2 tablespoons of peppercorns in a spice grinder and was then able to add 1/2 teaspoon here and there as needed. Specific seasoning notes included though this is a taste and tweak type of recipe.

DIY Flame Tamer

When making rice or Bolognese, I always place the pot on a homemade aluminum ring that measures about 1-inch tall. Just scrunch some heavy-duty foil together and connect it at the end. Make sure the ring is wider than the flame and also very compact and sturdy. I've had the same ring for years so you should only have to make it once.

Original vs. Adapted

Bacon Fat

I use Nueske's bacon fat to sauté the vegetables with a little extra virgin olive oil as needed. The recipe only calls for olive oil.

Cheese

The recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano. I use a blend of Pecorino Romano Podea and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Reggiano has a rounder flavor while Pecorino offers a sharper savory edge.

Wine

The recipe suggests adding the meat and wine together. I've read that alcohol can toughen meat so I burn some of the alcohol off before combing the two.

Squash Swap

I substituted butternut squash for pumpkin.

Farmers | Artisans

I make an effort to source my food from California artisans with a special focus on the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Below is a list of the folks who contributed to this dish.

Tools

Ingredients (Adapted from Six Seasons - Makes Approximately 4 1/2 cups of Bolognese)

Bolognese

  • 3 1/2 pound butternut squash Note: This is more than you need, but not all squash are created equal (seeds, etc.) so I like to pad the amount. Any extra makes a great snack or can be used for another purpose.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Flake-style salt
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper, more to taste
  • 1 tablespoon bacon fat (preferably from a smoky bacon like Nueske's)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped in food processor (8 ounces or approximately 1 cup after prep)
  • 3 carrots, finely chopped in food processor (2 ounces or approximately 1/2 cup after prep)
  • 3 celery stalks, finely chopped in food processor (2 1/2 ounces or approximately 1/2 cup after prep)
  • (Optional) 2 small heads green garlic
  • 1 cup dry white wine (not oaked, aim for a sauvignon blanc or similar)
  • 1 pound ground beef chuck
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1 cup whole fat milk Note: I used 2% last time and can't say that I noticed a huge difference. Maybe I would if they were side-by-side.
  • (Optional) 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes Note: I plan to try Calabrian pepper flakes at some point.

Serve

  • 1 1/2 cups (16 ounces) Butternut Squash Bolognese
  • 13 ounces sedani, rigatoni, or similar + 4-5 noodles for testing Note: I've been cooking with brands Monograno and Rustichella d'Abruzzo.
  • Freshly grated Pecorino Romano
  • Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Instructions (Adapted from Six Seasons)

Roast

  • Pre-heat the oven to 400°F and move rack to the middle position.
  • Slice off the ends of the squash and discard.
  • Leave the skin on and slice the squash into into ½-¾ inch rings. Cut away any seeds and discard.
  • Line a baking sheet with foil and then a piece of parchment paper.
  • Measure 2 pounds of rings and then roast anything extra on a separate baking sheet or just make sure you remember what comprises the 2 pounds. The extra roasted squash makes a great snack.
  • Rub the squash lightly with oil, sprinkle with a pinch of flake-style salt and freshly ground pepper, then roast for 20 minutes.
  • Flip the squash over, rotate the pan, and continue to roast until the squash is very soft. The squash may start to caramelize a little which is fine. This will take anywhere from 35-50 minutes. Note: Using a fork, make sure to test the very edge of the squash near the skin and the center since they don't soften at the same pace.
  • Once finished, cut the skin away and set aside. Without the skin, you should have about 1 pound 4 ounces (or so).
  • Make Ahead: If you want to stop here and continue tomorrow or the next day, cool the squash, put it in an airtight container, then refrigerate.

Reduce

  • Purée the squash until completely smooth.
  • In a large non-stick skillet, cook the squash purée, 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, and pinch of flake-style salt over medium-high until reduced to the consistency of tomato paste. Stir frequently and scrape the pan thoroughly each time. The end result is 8 ounces of squash purée which is a reduction of about 12 ounces. Set aside. Note: Lower the heat if too much crust is forming. Each time the squash is stirred, make sure to spread it out again for maximum squash to pan contact. The squash will steam and bubble but shouldn’t splatter.

Sauté + Simmer

  • Meanwhile, finely chop the onions, celery, carrots, and green garlic (if using) in a mini food processor. I do each veggie separately.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil to a Dutch oven and heat over a medium flame.
  • Add the meat, a pinch of freshly ground pepper, pinch of flake-style salt, and cook until no longer pink. Break the meat up into little bits as you cook it. Note: Don't brown the meat.
  • Transfer the meat to a plate with a slotted spoon and wipe the pot clean.
  • Add 1 tablespoon of bacon fat or extra virgin olive oil to the pan. Add the carrots, celery, onion, a generous pinch of pepper, and pinch of flake-style salt.
  • Cook until the vegetables are very tender but not brown. If the pan seems dry, add a splash more of olive oil.
  • Add the garlic (if using) and cook until fragrant.
  • Add the white wine to the pan, turn the heat to medium-high, and simmer for about 3-4 minutes until reduced slightly. You want to cook off some of the alcohol.
  • Once reduced, lower the heat to medium and add the meat (with any juices), reduced squash, milk, 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper, and optional pepper flakes. Thoroughly combine, lower the heat, cover, and gently simmer for 10 minutes.
  • After 10 minutes, taste and begin to finalize the seasoning. I add 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and a pinch of flake-style salt. The goal is not to fully season the Bolognese at this point. See "The Art of Pasta" above.
  • After another 10 minutes (minute 20), adjust the seasoning again. I add 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper.
  • After another 20 minutes (minute 40), adjust the seasoning. I add 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper and do a final flake-style salt adjustment. The butternut squash should start to pop from a flavor standpoint. Just don't salt it so much that you can't add the finishing cheese and pasta water.
  • Continue to barely simmer the covered sauce for another 20-25 minutes.
  • Make Ahead: I highly recommend stopping here. Allowing the flavors to meld overnight makes a big difference. Cool the Bolognese then put it in an airtight container and refrigerate. It can be stored like this for a couple of days or it can be frozen.

Serve

  • Grate 1/2 cup Reggiano-Parmigiano and 1/4 cup of Pecorino Romano, set aside.
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water with flake-style salt so that it's decidedly saline.
  • In a large non-stick skillet, gently warm the Bolognese, keeping it covered to prevent the texture from thickening any further. Once heated through, turn off the heat and leave it covered.
  • Cook the pasta until it’s just shy of al dente, scooping out a 1 cup of cooking water about 3/4 of the way through the cooking time. Set the water aside. Note: This is far more than you will need, I just always scoop out a cup.
  • When the pasta is just about ready (put those tester noodles to work), heat the Bolognese over a medium/medium-high flame so the sauce is bubbling, add the grated cheese, and stir to combine. Do not leave the sauce uncovered and bubbling for an extended period of time or it will thicken too much.
  • Using a spider strainer or similar, transfer the slightly undercooked pasta to the sauce.
  • Add a couple tablespoons of the reserved cooking water and then briskly toss the sauce and pasta until everything is nicely coated. Add an additional tablespoon of water at a time if the pan seems dry or the sauce seems too thick. The sauce should be silky and clingy but never watery. The pasta usually finishes cooking in about 2 minutes.
  • Taste for pepper, then plate and top generously with grated cheese. Serve immediately.






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