We find it fascinating to walk down the pasta aisle of our local market and marvel with amazement at all of the different shapes, many of them whimsical, that are available for preparation in our kitchens and dining enjoyment at our tables. In our home we most often use, like many of you probably do, spaghetti, fettucine and penne in one form or another. We particularly like penne rigate, the ridges of which allow a rich sauce to cling to it as it travels from the plate to your mouth. However, on this particular shopping expedition the decision was made to use a pasta shape we had never before used. Which one would it be? The selection from which to choose was nearly overwhelming. There was pasta shaped like bells, petals, torches and sea shells. On another shelf we pondered over wagon wheels, bowties and coin-shaped discs. Then there were long and short tubes, corkscrews and coiled rods… even radiators! The decision was finally made… orecchiette!
Orecchiette (pronounced oh-reck-ee-ET-tay) is a type of pasta native to Apulia, a region in southeastern Italy, the southern portion of which is recognized as the high heel on the “boot” of Italy. History tells us that orecchiette probably had its origins in the Provence region of France where a similar type of pasta has been made since Medieval times. In the Italian language orecchio translates as “ear”, so the translation of orecchiette is “little ear”. This pasta is indeed ear-shaped, a tiny bowl in which to cradle a favorite sauce! It works well, indeed, in the following dish. Should you choose, however, to select another whimsical shape, let your imagination be your guide!
This dish was initially inspired by the fact that there was left over roasted butternut squash puree sitting in our fridge that was crying out to be used. The original squash had been exceptionally large so the pureed equivalent we had was equal to that of the size of a butternut squash you would normally find in your local market. For guidelines on roasting squash and pumpkin refer to those given in It’s Autumn… Thoughts Turn to Comfort Foods!
Orecchiette with Butternut Squash & Sweet Italian Sausage
1 butternut squash, roasted and pureed
Prepare the breadcrumb topping:
2 C breadcrumbs
Chef’s note: We suggest using a tangy day old sourdough loaf, crust and all. Slice and cube a portion of the loaf, placing the bread cubes in a food processor, pulsing until the result is a coarse crumb.
Melt in the microwave:
1 T unsalted sweet butter
To the butter add:
1 T extra virgin olive oil
Place the breadcrumbs in a medium sized bowl and drizzle with the butter and olive oil. Add:
1/3 C chopped parsley
3/4 C grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/4 tsp white pepper
Gently mix together to combine. Set the mixture aside. Heat a heavy 12-inch skillet or sauteuse over moderately high heat and add:
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
When the oil is shimmering add:
1-lb sweet Italian sausage (four links), removed from the casings
Break the sausage into small pieces while it is frying and stir occasionally, allowing the crumbled sausage to brown:
When the sausage has sufficiently browned, transfer to a medium bowl with a slotted spoon and set aside. To the pan add:
1 large white onion, chopped
When the onions have softened and are becoming translucent add:
6 cloves garlic, minced
Continue with the saute until the garlic has softened and the onions are taking on a golden color:
Transfer the onion and garlic mixture to a small bowl and set aside. Wipe the skillet or sauteuse clean.
Place a pot of water over high heat for the pasta. As the water is heating prepare the white sauce. To the skillet add, over moderately high heat:
2 T unsalted sweet butter
When the butter has melted add:
2 T flour
Whisk constantly until the flour is blonde in color. Immediately add:
1 1/2 C whole milk
1/2 C heavy cream
pinch of nutmeg (2 -3 gratings of a whole nutmeg)
Continue to briskly whisk until the mixture begins to thicken, 2 – 3 minutes. Add the butternut puree in addition to:
3 T sherry (we recommend Amontillado, a choice medium dry sherry)
1 1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
Mix well, turn off the heat and cover. When the pasta water boils, add salt. When it returns to a boil add:
16-oz orecchiette, or your pasta of choice
Cook to al dente, according to the package directions. The orecchiette, we found, takes 11 minutes to al dente. When cooked, drain the pasta and place in a large mixing bowl. Add the onion, sausage and butternut squash mixture and combine all ingredients thoroughly:
Butter a 9 X 13-inch baking dish and pour the mixture into it, smoothing the surface:
2 C gruyere, grated
Sprinkle with the seasoned bread crumb mixture:
Chef’s Note: Instruction to preheat the oven was not overlooked! Should this dish be on your immediate menu, preheat the oven to 400 degress. One of the great things about this dish is that it can, at this point, be covered and placed in the refrigerator for baking at a later time, which is what we did. Prior to baking, remove it from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room temperature, at least one hour or more. As baking time approaches preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Bake for approximately 45 minutes or until the topping is browned and the cheese is bubbly and piping hot!
This is a large dish and will feed many! In addition to being absolutely delicious it reheats beautifully in the microwave as a leftover and can also be cut into portion sized squares, well wrapped in film and foil, then frozen for an easy meal later on! If you do this we recommend that it be refrigerated overnight before being cut into portions. The remaining dish will have firmed up for easy cutting, wrapping and freezing… Bon Appetit!
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