Wine With . . . Butternut Squash Pasta
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
It was a blustery autumnal evening. We’d both been working all day and hadn’t given much thought to dinner until, suddenly, it was dark and cold outside and we were hungry. Time to turn off computers and head for the kitchen. We opened the refrigerator door and peered inside, hoping that something inspiring would materialize on the mostly bare shelves. It was clearly time for a run to the grocery store, but that would have to wait another day--right now we needed dinner.
The butternut squash lingering on the bottom shelf looked promising; it was mostly intact, missing only a small chunk that had gone into a vegetable soup the day before. In the cheese drawer we discovered a container of grated Parmesan and half a round of goat cheese (the chèvre a little dried out but still deliciously flavorful). Since we always keep dried pasta in the pantry for just such emergencies, we were soon peeling squash and putting pasta water on to boil.
As most cooks know, a treasure hunt through the refrigerator often results in an extremely rewarding meal. In this particular case, the dish also turned out to be unusually wine-friendly, which was not something we would necessarily have predicted. But the subtly mellow flavor of winter squash, simmered with onions and garlic, accented with thyme and ratcheted up with the intensity of goat cheese, provided a gustatory setting that made a Chardonnay we’d opened shine. Curious to see if other wines might likewise flourish in the company of this pasta, we didn’t improvise bit instead planned to duplicate the dish the next week. This time we opened a range of different wines to try with it. The result of our tasting are below.
PASTA WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH
In addition to its sweet, nutty flavor, butternut is one of the easiest winter squashes to use as its rind is usually thin enough to get off with a vegetable peeler; but with the exception of true pumpkin -- which can be bland and watery -- most kinds of firm-fleshed winter squash will work well in this recipe, including buttercup, delicata, and carnival squash.
Don’t worry about using exact measurements, for this is truly a flexible, loosely constructed recipe. Greater or lesser amounts of squash, fresher or more aged goat cheese, fresh thyme or dried -- none of these will make a lot of difference in this forgiving recipe. And you can use semolina or whole grain pasta, whichever you prefer.
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
½ cup chicken stock (or for a completely vegetarian dish substitute water)
1 teaspoon thyme or 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
About 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
4-6 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
8 ounces spaghettini or other pasta
Minced parsley for garnish (optional)
About ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
In a large sauté pan, cook the onion in olive oil over medium low heat until it is soft and just starting to brown. Stir in the garlic, cook another minute or two and add the squash. Pour in the chicken stock or water; add the thyme, salt, and red pepper flakes. Cover the pot and simmer until the squash is tender, about 10 minutes.
With a potato masher or a fork, coarsely mash the squash. If the sauce seems to have too much liquid, turn up the heat and cook until it is somewhat reduced. When ready to serve, cook the pasta according to package directions. Divide the cooked pasta between two bowls, spoon the sauce over it, drizzle with a little more olive oil, and top with the goat cheese. Sprinkle a little parmesan over each dish, garnish with parsley if desired, and pass the rest of the parmesan at the table.
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When we first made this dish as a result of our fridge and pantry scavenger hunt, we drank a rich California Chardonnay with it. The combination worked very well, and we made sure to include a couple of Chardonnays (one oaked, one not) when we recreated the dish for this column. But we also tried a bunch of different wines, reds as well as whites, and were surprised to find that we liked some reds every bit as much. This pasta turns out to be one that goes equally well with both colors, and hence with a wide range of flavors.
The few wines that really did not work suffered not because of their flavor profiles but rather because of weight. A couple of whites (an otherwise delicious Riesling, for example) were too light in body, while at least one red (a Cabernet) proved too powerfully tannic. This dish calls for fairly substantial whites, and light to medium-weight reds. But unlike many dishes we’ve experimented with over the past few years for Wine Review Online, it’s remarkably adaptable when it comes to flavor. Does the wine have some sweetness? Great. An earthy edge? Fine. Forward oak? Bring it on. There are various flavors in the dish itself, and different wines we tried (and liked) complemented different ones. So just as this is an easy dish to put together, it turns out to be equally easy to pair successfully with wine.