Tomatoes are the base of many Italian meals. The more you travel in Italy, though, the more you’ll notice pomodoro-free pasta. Sicilians toss spaghetti with pine nuts and raisins. Ravioli swim in cream and fresh radicchio. Romans relish pasta, pecorino and black pepper.
Tomatoes are just one condimento among many in Italy.
Five years ago, I was living in Bologna -- home to the country's best fresh pasta. My friend and I grabbed a quick bite one night at Osteria del Montesino, a local eatery frequented by university students. Being autumn, we couldn’t resist the penne with pumpkin. Our pasta wore a bright orange coat of pumpkin.
This meal was so good that we begged the owner to tell us how to make it. Her reply was quintessentially Italian:
1) roast a squash
2) stir squash with cheese
3) toss pasta with squash mixture
4) serve hot.
I swear, it’s really that simple. In Italy, pumpkin is a savory stand-by. No pie here.
Roasting the squash brings out the gourd's sweet taste -- a sugary note balanced by the salty cheese. Penne aren’t the only pumpkin dish you’ll come by in Italy. Residents of Ferrara pride themselves on cappellacci – fresh pasta stuffed with squash and cheese. Inhabitants of Mantova make a sweeter ravioli filled with pumpkin and cookie crumbs. Restaurants in the fall will treat diners to plates of pumpkin-laced risotto.
Check out my Italy-approved recipe below for this creamy pumpkin pasta. You'll never look at your Jack-o-Lantern quite the same after trying it!
PENNE WITH PUMPKIN :
8 oz. penne or rigatoni,cooked al dente
1 - 1.5 cups of parmigiano, fresh grated
4 oz pancetta, cubed (optional)
1 tablespoon butter (optional)
1 - 1.5 lbs butternut squash
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the squash in half, splitting it down the middle. Since we're roasting the squash whole, there is no need to peel. Scoop the seeds and stringy goop out from the inside, rinsing the squash halves under cold water. Rub the squash all over with light olive oil. Wrap the squash tightly in aluminum foil. Be sure that no part of the squash is exposed. Wrapping it will help the squash cook faster. Lay the squash halves flat-side down on a cooking sheet and bake for 30-40 minutes -- until the flesh can be spooned out with no effort.
About 20 minutes into cooking the squash, pan fry the pancetta over medium heat in a flat skillet. Cook until the pancetta has started to render and is lightly browned. Turn off the heat and keep your cooked pancetta in the skillet. Meanwhile, cook the pasta al dente. Drain the boiled pasta, reserving at least 1 cup of the hot pasta water.
Take the squash halves out of the oven. Let them cool, unwrapped, for 2-3 min. Scoop out the squash pulp and mix it in the pan with the pancetta. At this point, return the skillet to medium-low heat. Stir your squash, pancetta and parmigiano together until a creamy mix has formed. Use a wooden spoon to mash larger chunks of squash. Season to taste with fresh ground black pepper.
As a final step, toss the cooked pasta in the skillet with the cheese-and-squash mixture. To ensure an even coating, add a little bit of the hot pasta water to the skillet while stirring. Pour the water in 1 tablespoon at a time to avoid making a runny sauce. If desired, mix butter in now. Shake the pan once or twice for even coating of the sauce. Serve hot, sprinkled with a spoonful of grated cheese.
Buon appetito from the See Italy family!