Bundle Up, Butternut

For many years, my family would threaten to skip the traditional spread for Thanksgiving in favor of plain pasta, sauce on the side. Gathering a dozen or more picky eaters around one table led to inevitable conflict and strife, because most people wouldn’t touch cranberry sauce with a three-foot spatula, green vegetables are akin to the devil for some, and even the omnivores generally turned up their noses at turkey. The only thing we could all agree on was the universal charm of good old fashioned noodles. We’re not talking about fancy herb-infused, handmade coils or twirls; no elaborate gluten-free blends. Just basic, white flour, dried pasta was always the first dish to empty at my grandma’s dinner table, no matter the intended accompaniment. In hindsight, I wish someone actually called that bluff and skipped the annual feast of discontent.

Realizing this concept in much grander fashion, a supposedly “rustic” starter of crispy butternut squash ravioli knocked me off my feet this Thanksgiving. Indeed, the ingredients are as ordinary as they come, but the time, effort, and love that goes into each individual pasta pillow is not. Longtime friend and erstwhile food blogger Jenn pulled out all the stops this year, balancing tradition with innovation, lavishly accommodating all guests with more food than a small mob could possibly consume in a week. It was that first dish that struck me as the very best though, if I had to choose, for finally hitting that satisfying promise made so many years ago.

Butternut is mashed into creamy submission and bundled up in homemade sheets of delicate dough, extraordinary for their apparent austerity yet rich depth of flavor. Owing to the skill of the cook, only some inconceivably magical process could possibly explain it otherwise. That, and a whole lot of vegan butter. Infused with a handful of bright, aromatic holy basil, sage might be more expected here but any tender herbs are welcome to this party.

In the spirit of giving, Jenn had the patience to not only swaddle those tender morsels of homemade butternut delight in handmade pasta to feed a crowd, but to endure the added chore of writing out every single step in painstaking detail on my behalf. At this point, I must acknowledge that I’m a terribly demanding guest.

Plain pasta, it is not; it’s something to be much more thankful for.

Butternut Squash Ravioli
by Jenn

Here’s a quick “no measure” recipe for a rustic ravioli dish that will make any occasion seem super special. You don’t need any special equipment — just a rolling pin though I prefer to use my Kitchen Aid pasta roller attachment to save time.

Pasta:
1-2 cups of fine semolina flour
2 Tb extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
water, as needed

Filling:
1 butternut or kabocha squash, roasted and seeded
chopped fresh herbs (your choice), quantity as needed
pinch of salt
pinch of nutmeg

DIRECTIONS – FILLING:
To make the ravioli filling, Just mash the roasted butternut (or kabocha or pumpkin) and blend with the finely chopped herbs and spices. You don’t want this to be too fine a puree, you want to be able to drop it by the spoonful onto the pasta.

DIRECTIONS – PASTA:
1. Make the pasta – mix the dry ingredients and start adding the olive oil and mix well. Add cold or ice water in a thin stream, in small amounts, until the semolina starts getting a sandy texture. Check it periodically to see if you can clump it by smashing some inside the palm of your hand with your fist. If it is too tacky and wet — add more semolina (easy, right?). I prefer to use my stand mixer but you can do this by hand.

2. Use a flexible spatula to scrape out of the bowl onto a work surface. Work it with your hands to press, squeeze and smush it together into a ball that starts to really stick together. You want to develop the gluten. Get out the rolling pin and work it flat, fold it and repeat.

You can continue to work it with the rolling pin or you can get it thin enough (about 1/4″ for the widest setting on your pasta roller) to start putting through the pasta roller. I start out at “0” on my KA attachment and after a couple passes, narrow it a few more times until I get to 4 or 5.

Get the pasta sheets as thin as you can without them being transparent, developing holes or tears when you try to stretch a bit (since you’ll be doing that to make the ravioli) but not so thick that you just have a super squishy dumpling.

To shape the ravioli – you can do this with a water glass or biscuit cutter, a fancy ravioli cutter (I have individual cutters as well as a metal mold that is about as wide as the sheet of pasta.

Get a small bowl of water and maybe a brush to keep at hand. Once you roll out your sheet of pasta — put it on the form or lightly mark it with your cutter, then use a measuring spoon to scoop a small ball of your cool filling onto the center of that mark.

Dab a bit of water all around where the edge of the ravioli will be using the brush or your finger tips. Lay another sheet over top (or just fold a very long sheet) and then use your cutter (or rolling pin) to score the raviolis. Check to make sure the edges are sealed the first few times and then lay them out in a single layer on cutting board or cookie sheet to rest.

Freezing the ravioli before you cook them yields better results. You can drop them into boiling water and then scoop them out and cover them with sauce, but for this thanksgiving treat — we browned some of Miyoko’s vegan butter and crisped up the ravioli on both sides with some holy basil out of the garden, and then sprinkled with vegan parm.

You can’t eat just one!

Oh yeah – and – if you have more pasta than energy to make ravioli — you can slice the sheets up into linguine or fettuccine, or make farfalle (butterfly or bowtie pasta) just by cutting squares and pinch in the middle. In all cases — leave pasta on a cookie sheet to rest and freeze or dry. You can also tightly wrap leftover pasta ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate to roll out later.

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In the Eleventh Hour

Long before the word “vegetarian” had even entered my vocabulary or tofu occupied a place on my plate, Thanksgiving turkey nonetheless failed to excite any hunger in my young belly. I had yet to cultivate a true appreciation of any greener fare, and yet the side dishes were what always held the key to holiday dinner bliss. Anything starchy, buttery, and sweet was piled on with aplomb, moderation be damned. No matter how they were prepared, potatoes especially were key to a successful meal, often turning up in multiple forms to satisfy all family members. Mashed, roasted, scalloped, or fried, they all had equal billing on the menu, devoured far more enthusiastically than the obligatory bird.

Ironically, this habit has made the main dish beside the point, the backup singer rather than the star of the show. I’d gladly make space for another side dish or two than an extra serving of seitan roulade, no matter how delicious or painstakingly stuffed.

That’s why I have no compunctions about suggesting yet another starchy side, even in this eleventh hour of Thanksgiving prep. Inspired by my grandpa’s classic potato puffs, my rendition lightens the potato load with golden butternut puree. Pumpkin could effortlessly slip into that same role as well, if canned butternut is hard to come by. Crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, these tiny mountains of mashed potatoes finally introduce the textural interest that plain old smashed spuds lack. Mercifully, their compact design allows for advance prep as well; bake them through as instructed, chill until dinner time, and them pop them back into a 400 degree oven for 5 – 10 minutes, just to heat them through.

Butternut Potato Puffs

1 Pound Yukon Gold Potatoes, Peeled and Diced
1 15-Ounce Can Butternut Squash Puree
3 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine or Coconut Oil, Melted
1 Teaspoon Seasoned Salt
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Poultry Seasoning
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
1 Tablespoon Whole Flax Seeds, Ground

Place your peeled and cut potatoes in a medium-sized pot of cool water. Set over moderate heat and bring up to a boil, reducing the heat to a lively simmer and cooking them until fork-tender. Drain thoroughly.

Mash the potatoes as smoothly as possible before adding in all of the remaining ingredients, mashing and stirring to combine and beating out any lumps. Transfer the mashed mixture to a piping bag fitted with a large star tip and pipe the potatoes into small rosettes on two baking sheets lined with parchment paper or silpats. Aim for them to measure approximately 1 1/2 – 2 inches across the bottom, but there’s no need to break out a ruler here.

Place the whole sheets in the freezer for about an hour, until solid. Once they’ve had ample time to chill out, preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

Bake for 15 – 18 minutes, until golden brown all over. Serve right away while still hot.

Makes 1 1/2 – 2 Dozen Puffs

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