Monday, September 24, 2007
Penne with Roasted Butternut Squash, Crimini Mushrooms, & Pangrattato
Pangrattato is a preparation of seasoned dry breadcrumbs that's especially popular in Calabrian and Sicilian cuisine. These breadcrumbs – sometimes known as mollica in both fresh and dried forms, or as “modica” (mo-DEE-kah) in Sicilian slang - are still a staple in many southern Italian homes.
And many home cooks consider them so fundamental for stuffings, breading, baking, and sauces, that they keep a tub of them in the fridge all the time. The oven-dried crumbs are usually pre-seasoned with some combination of salt and pepper, garlic, oregano, parsley, and pecorino or parmesan cheese.
But historically, pangrattato was true peasant food - used as a substitute for expensive grated hard cheeses. When sprinkled into a sauce as it bubbles on the stove, the crumbs add savor and work as a thickening agent. When browned in olive oil, they lend welcome flavor and crunch to finished pasta dishes. In fact, I sometimes prefer pangrattato to cheese for the harmonious way it enhances flavors without adding too singular a note of its own.
Here the crisp, garlicky breadcrumbs lend a nutty pungency to the season’s first sweet-roasted butternut squash. Layered with the earthiness of crimini mushrooms, woody herbs, and the gentle twang of lemon zest, this penne celebrates (or, in New York’s case, yearns for) autumn. Unless you’re especially sensitive, use a liberal hand with the red pepper here – the heat is lovely against the sunny citrus and the caramelized squash.
1 young butternut squash (about 1 ½ - 2 lbs)
extra virgin olive oil
5 stems fresh thyme
6 fresh sage leaves, torn up
freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic
1 ½ cup coarse, fresh breadcrumbs (made from about 2 ½ - 3 oz fresh bread)
1 lb crimini mushrooms, brushed clean, stems removed, torn into 3 or 4 pieces each
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 lb dry penne
crushed red pepper flakes to taste
small handful parsley leaves
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Using a “Y” or speed peeler, peel off the rind, which is quite thin – you’re done once any green veins are gone and the yellow flesh is exposed. Starting at the thinner stem end, slice the squash into rounds about ½ - ¾ inch thick. Once you reach the seeds, scoop them, out with a spoon before continuing. Slice each round in half and then into cubes roughly 1” by 2” (see photo above).
Add a couple of glugs of olive oil to a large, heavy stove-top-safe roasting pan. Add the squash cubes, the leaves of 4 of the thyme stems, the torn up sage leaves, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine. Crush one of the garlic cloves, leaving the paper on, and add to the pan. Place in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Gently turn the squash pieces, and roast for 30 minutes more.
Meanwhile, heat a large sauté pan over low heat. Grate the other garlic clove into the breadcrumbs and add a couple of glugs of olive oil to the pan. Add the breadcrumb garlic mixture and season well with kosher salt and black pepper. Sauté, stirring constantly, until the breadcrumbs are lightly golden and fragrant – you may need to add more olive oil if they absorb it all along the way. Remove from the heat before they're completely done - the carry over will continue to brown them for a while once they're off the heat. Reserve.
Once the squash is roasted, remove to a dish and place the roasting pan on top of the stove over medium low heat. Discard the garlic clove, and wrap an oven mitt or side towel around the handle(s) of the pan to protect your hands – it’s easy to forget that the pan’s just been in a 350 F oven!
Put a large pot of well-salted water over high heat to boil.
Add some more oil to the roasting pan, and toss in the mushrooms. Season well with salt and sauté, stirring often, until much of the moisture is gone and the mushrooms are golden brown. Add the leaves of the remaining thyme stem and the lemon zest. Turn off the heat.
Add the penne to the water and boil, stirring occasionally, until par-cooked (about half-done). Before draining, add about ½ cup of the cooking liquid to the mushrooms and reserve another ½ cup for finishing. Then drain the pasta. (Note: My penne took about 5 minutes to par-cook, but timing always varies according to brand).
Turn the heat back up to medium, stir the penne and the squash into the mushrooms, and season to taste with crushed red pepper. Add some more olive oil if necessary and sauté, stirring gently but often, for about 2 minutes, or until the penne is al dente.
If the pasta seems dry, add more of the cooking water. Tear in the parsley and toss the vegetables and pasta with ¾ of the breadcrumbs. Check the seasoning with more salt and crushed red pepper. Drizzle with more olive oil and brighten with a little lemon juice if desired. Sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs and serve immediately.