Sweaters; leaves of gold, red and orange; pungently sweet spices; the return of my skinny jeans (ok, maybe not this year but dang it, every year thereafter); Halloween; Thanksgiving.
These are just a few of the reasons I relish the return of the fall season. Even hot weather fans can’t deny the magic in that first cool day when the air conditioners abruptly turn off and the windows subsequently fly open in order to allow the crisp autumn breeze to gratefully flow in.
Being the fervent foodie that I am, I also can’t help but fancy the subtle shift in cuisine. I grew up in the North and the hearty, flavorful meals of the colder months simply make my mouth sing. Stews? Bring ‘em on. Soups? I’d eat them every day if I could. Chili? Oh heck yea. Pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, apples and winter squash. I could cook and cook and cook with these flavors and never, ever tire of them.
Case in point, this pasta dish. Upon wandering through the aisles of my local Trader Joe’s last week, I came upon the most magnificent butternut squash. I’m pretty sure I could literally “hear” it calling my name from where it sat perched on it’s culinary ledge. Honestly, it didn’t take much arm twisting for me snag it up and drop it squarely into the bottom of my cart. One glance and I was sold. I knew I wanted to whip up something a bit unique with my prize. My freezer contained sweet Italian sausage and a bag of spinach so why not concoct a hearty autumn pasta dish?
The flavors in this meal are spot on perfect. The added bonus is that I still have half the squash left which I’m planning to use for the creation of some homemade butternut squash yeast rolls. Seriously, just try and tell me you don’t love autumn inspired cuisine.
To splendor in a little cooler weather cuisine of your own, you’ll first want to boil up a vat of salted water and cook some shells until they hit the al dente mark. Then, in a large frying pan heated to medium high heat, you’ll brown up a little sweet Italian sausage. Give it a couple minutes to get a running start and then dump in a little onion and garlic to provide that little extra “something something”.
When the sausage is cooked through, go ahead and add in a bit of green and a few autumn inspired spices; sage and nutmeg. You can, of course, use fresh spinach in place of the frozen. I just happened to have a freezer bag full handy so that was the weapon of choice this go round.
Finish it all off by carefully stirring in a few cupfuls of roasted and cubed butternut squash.
And just a note regarding the roasting of said squash… in the event that you’re wondering just how the heck to get a squash from store shelf to roasted cube, let me be of assistance. To begin, I typically slice off the top and bottom of my squash. I then peel off the skin using a high quality vegetable peeler. Chop the bare squash in half lengthwise to get at the seeds and scrape them out.
You can then cube up the remaining squash. I tend to aim for 1″x1″ squares. Toss them with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Line said cubes over a foiled cookie sheet and roast for about 40 minutes in a 350 degree oven, turning at least once during that time. Here are my cubes ready to be roasted:
And Voila! Roasted squash at your service. Ok, moving onward and upward. You have your shells and you have your stuffing. Now it’s time to marry the two together. Fill each shell generously and place them into a 9×13 pan as you go along. Do this until you run out of space, filling, shells or patience. Don’t hesitate to nibble on any extra stuffing that may be left over at the end of the adventure either. Scraps are the best part of cooking in my humble opinion.
What’s pasta without a little sauce thrown over the top? Unfinished I say. Let’s complete this task and get on with the eating already.
Begin by stirring up a quick butter/flour roux. When it’s had a minute to melt and heat up add in a splash of wine. Let it sizzle and spin for a few moments and then follow it up with a cup of chicken broth.
Reheat the mixture for a minute or two and then turn the heat down to low and add in a handful of shredded Gruyere followed by a few tablespoons of Parmesan cheese.
Finish the sauce with a pinch more nutmeg and a bit of parsley either fresh or dried. You can add salt and pepper if you like, but my sauce was perfect just as it was.
Snatch up your finished cheesy goodness, pour it over the top of the shells and watch your meal go from good to friggin’ fantastic. All that’s left at this point is to lightly cover your dish with aluminum foil and slide them into the oven to get good and melty hot. Honestly, what’s not to love.
Autumn cuisine has officially arrived and from a feeding frenzy perspective, I couldn’t be any happier.
Before I sign off, I want to mention one additional housekeeping note: due to ongoing issues with feedburner’s email services, I went ahead and officially made the move to a paid delivery service this week. If you have any issues at all with receiving your post through email, please be sure to let me know asap and I’ll get on it as soon as possible. Have a great week!
Squash Spinach and Sausage Stuffed Shells
Yield: 20-25 Stuffed Jumbo Shells
Total Time: 1 hour
8-10 Oz. Jumbo Pasta Shells (about 20-25)
1 Pound Sweet Italian Sausage
1/2 Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
10 Oz. Frozen Spinach (Can sub Fresh)
1 tsp Dried Sage
1/2 tsp Nutmeg, Divided
3 Cups Butternut Squash*, Roasted and Cubed
2 Tbsp Butter
2 Tbsp Flour
1/3 Cup White Wine
1 Cup Chicken Stock
1/3 Cup Gruyere Cheese, Shredded
2 Tbsp Parmesan Cheese, Grated or Shredded
1 tsp Dried Parsley (or 1 Tbsp Fresh Chopped)
Heat a large pot of salted water on high and, once it reaches a rolling boil, toss in the shells. Cook to al dente or about 8 to 10 minutes.
While the noodles are boiling heat up a large frying pan on medium high heat and toss in the sausage.
Let cook for 2 to 3 minutes and then add the onion and minced garlic. Continue cooking until no pink remains in the meat.
Drop in the spinach, sage and 1/4 tsp of the the nutmeg. Let the spinach warm up and incorporate for a few minutes and then remove from heat and carefully toss in the cubed squash*.
Grab up the cooked shells and stuff each one with a hearty portion of the filling, placing in a 9x13 baking dish as you go.
To make the cheese sauce, warm up the butter on medium heat and add in the flour.
Let cook for a minute or two to get hot and then pour in the white wine followed by the chicken stock.
Give the mixture a minute to get warm again and then stir in the two cheeses.
Finish with the remaining 1/4 tsp of nutmeg and the parsley. Add salt and pepper if desired.
Pour cheese sauce over the top of the stuffed shells.
Cover lightly with aluminum foil and place in a 350 degree oven for about 25 minutes, removing the foil the final five minutes.
*Note: To roast the squash, I like to peel (with a high quality vegetable peeler) and cube mine fresh. I then toss it with a little olive oil (a few Tbsp will do), some salt/ pepper and drop it onto an aluminum lined baking sheet to roast at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes tossing once about halfway through.