Meatless Wednesday anyone?!
It’s been a while since I last blogged, but I have been informed by a reliable source that today is no other than World Vegetarian Day. That’s right, a whole day “to promote the joy, compassion and life-enhancing properties of vegetarianism.” I have dabbled in vegetarianism. Those of you who know me well will no doubt be familiar with The Vegetarian Years, a brief spell in my mid-teens when I shunned all things carnivorous in favour of a very narrow diet of spinach & ricotta pasties, kilos of pasta and, on Sundays, all the delicious sides that share the plate with roast beef – Yorkshire puddings (“two please, I’m off meat, you see…”), roast potatoes and piles of buttery cabbage, but not a slice of beef in sight. Now, I say I shunned all things meaty, but the reality was that I made a concession to my anxious mother by grudgingly accepting to eat minced beef in the form of bolognaise sauce (a perfect accompaniment to my beloved spaghetti) and lasagne, which just happened to be, and still is, my favourite comfort food. She was relieved that I was getting enough protein, and I still got to enjoy the kudos of calling myself a veggie, whilst secretly hoovering down an increased frequency of mince based meals to fuel my athlete’s appetite. Win win.
The thing is that I wasn't that keen on vegetables either. I was just kind of fussy. But there is a silver lining for all the parents of fussy eaters out there: send your children to boarding school where every day the “vegetarian” offering is a different version of watery, unseasoned ratatouille, and come half term, you’ll be welcoming home a reformed character who devours your home-cooked meals with lip-smacking delight. Or at least that was my story.
The Vegetarian Years were only probably a matter of months, but these days I do find myself choosing to centre meals round the abundance of seasonal vegetables that we are fortunate enough to be able to enjoy. Don’t get me wrong….the smell of an aromatic spiced, slow roasted lamb shwarma wafting through the kitchen can bring me to my knees, and I simply cannot resist a drumstick of crispy roast chicken, drizzled with fresh pesto alongside my pile of sautéed garlicky greens.
But few things fill me with as much delight and anticipation as the start of the British asparagus season, or spotting the dense bluish-violet flowers atop a bunch of freshly harvested purple-sprouting broccoli. The start of autumn also means that my favourite vegetable of all – my desert island food choice, if you will – the Butternut Squash, is coming into season. I could eat Butternut Squash morning, noon and night – roasted and added to risottos, sautéed with chilli, garlic and ginger and blended into a warming soup, even grated into a sweet wholemeal batter for a teatime cake. It’s endlessly versatile and choc full of vitamin A (a natural anti-oxidant), beta carotene and is a rich source of dietary fibre.
So it only feels right, on this momentous day, to share with you my all time favourite Butternut Squash recipe. It’s one of those recipes that I turn to as the nights start to draw in and I just want a bowl of comforting creamy deliciousness. I have kept it under wraps until now, but the time feels right and so, in the spirit of World Vegetarian Day, I give you:
Rigatoni with Roast Butternut Squash, Blue Cheese & Toasted Pine Nuts
- ½ a butternut squash
- 250g dried pasta (penne, tortiglioni, rigatoni all work well)
- 100g blue cheese
- Dollop of crème fraiche
- A few fresh sage leaves
- Small handful of toasted pine nuts
- Olive oil, sea salt & freshly ground pepper
Halve a Butternut Squash, scoop out the seeds (save & roast separately if you like for an extra boost of mono-unsaturated fatty acids – the good stuff we need for a healthy heart) and drizzle generously with olive oil. Season well with sea salt & pepper. Roast at 180C for about 40-45 minutes, or until the squash is completely tender. Remove and set aside to cool. This can be done earlier in the day if you like.
Put the pasta on to boil in well salted water, as per the packet instructions. I always use De Cecco brand dry pasta and prefer to use the ‘Tortiglioni’ shape for this dish, as I find that the chunky shape works really well as a vehicle to suck up the deliciously creamy sauce.
Meanwhile, using a spoon, scoop out the roasted flesh of the butternut squash into a medium saucepan. Add a dollop of crème fraiche and about 100g of blue cheese. I often use St. Agur, but prefer a creamy gorgonzola if truth be told. However, stilton or any mature blue cheese will work. At this point, take a small mugful of your starchy pasta cooking water and add it to the pan. Throw in a couple of fresh sage leaves and, using a stick blender, combine the ingredients to a smooth puree, adding more water if necessary. The sauce should be the consistency of thick double cream – luxuriously smooth & rich. Taste and check the seasoning. Warm through gently while the pasta finishes cooking. When the pasta is al dente, drain and add to the butternut & cheese sauce, folding well to combine.
Divide into two bowls and scatter with the toasted pine nuts. A sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan certainly wouldn’t go amiss. Curl up in front of the fire and commend yourself on your deliciously nourishing contribution to the world’s celebration of vegetarianism.