Growing up in Texas, we always celebrated fall like everyone else. We talked about the season changing, decorated with colorful leaves and pumpkins and made apple treats. However, it was all a ruse. The season didn’t change (for another few months at least). The leaves didn’t change, and apples didn’t grow well anywhere within a thousand miles of us. Autumn in Texas was a whole heck of a lot like summer, just slightly cooler, with the same humidity, and with school.
Then I moved to Massachusetts: Autumn Central. I marveled at the huge wooden crates of gourds, squash and pumpkins that lined the roads of Western Massachusetts and wondered how it was possible for the whole country to eat all those squash. I learned to love the smell of wet fallen leaves, cold nights and crisp days. I went apple picking, and learned that layering clothes was more than fashion sense, and I was introduced to a whole new food group; winter squash. Texas had winter squash, but they were foreign foods, and why bother with them in a place that overflowed with the intoxicating mix of Southern, Mexican, Cowboy and Cajun cuisines.
My squash experience was not love at first bite; anything but. The first decade I lived up here I avoided the summer squash’s mushy long lasting winter cousins. New England cuisine is all about subtleties while Texan cuisine is anything but. Texas cuisine tends toward grandiose flavors. New England Puritans would have nothing of that. Gulf seafood is frequently heavily seasoned, but cod is often adorned with nothing but cracker crumbs, butter and lemon. Yankees enjoy butternut squash soup, Texans eat spicy chili and gumbo. Well, I could go on and on but you get the idea. Over time I decided that if I was going to live up here I needed to learn to eat like a local. I started to play with squashes and taught myself to make the basics; butternut squash soup and roasted acorn squash
Squash and I are good friends now. I love the natural sweetness and the versatility of autumn’s harvest, and that brings me to today’s meatless meal; Butternut Squash Pastitsio. Pastitsio is a traditional Greek pasta dish that layers pasta with a cinnamon seasoned ground lamb sauce and is topped with a Parmesan cheese laced Bechamel sauce. I’ve never been a huge fan of the meat version of this dish. The combination of cinnamon, pasta and lamb never really did much for me. However, when you substitute the meat with roasted butternut squash and you get something really special. This dish retains all the warm comfort of the original, but with a distinctly autumn flavor. It’s one of those dishes that’s enjoyed by the whole family. Enjoy!
Butternut Squash Pastitsio – Click here for a printer-friendly version of this recipe
1 butternut squash (about 1 small squash), peeled, seeded and cubed into one-inch chunks
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1 small onion, finely diced
½ cup white wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 cups crushed tomato
1 teaspoon salt, divided
8 oz tube shaped pasta such as penne, rigatoni, or macaroni
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tablespoon butter
1 1/2 tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup shredded Gruyère cheese
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Toss butternut squash with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt.
Roast on a lined baking sheet until just tender, about 30-35 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside.
While the squash is roasting bring a large pot of water to a boil and boil pasta according to the directions on the box, removing from the water while the pasta is still very al dente. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process and set aside.
Heat a dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add remaining two teaspoons of olive oil and heat until it begins to shimmer. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Sauté until onion is soft and translucent, about five minutes. Add minced garlic, cinnamon, bay leaf and thyme.
Continue to cook for about 1 minute or until very fragrant. Add wine and stir, scraping up any bits off the bottom of the pan. Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer for about fifteen minutes.
While the tomato sauce cooks make the Bechamel sauce by melting the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.
When the butter bubbles, add the flour and cook, stirring constantly for a minute or two so that the flour cooks. Whisk the milk into the flour and butter roux carefully being sure to mix the roux well into the milk so that clumps do not form. Heat until just simmering stirring frequently. Once the sauce simmers, stir in the Gruyère. Stir until the cheese melts and season to taste with salt and pepper.
If your clan is a picky bunch (like mine), then blend your sauce in a food processor or blender until smooth then return the sauce to your cooking pot.
(If you are one of the lucky few that has a family that does not mind chunks, then disregard the previous step and poo poo on you!) Fold butternut squash and pasta into sauce and pour into a greased casserole dish pushing the mixture down into the casserole so that the pasta mixture is evenly packed into the casserole dish.
Pour the Bechamel over the pasta mixture and carefully spread over the top of the dish.
Place in oven and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the edges are bubbly and the top is starting to color.