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My Darling Butternut

March 12, 1997|MARIE SIMMONS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Simmons is the author of the "Fresh & Fast" cookbook (Chapters Publishing, 1996)

Of all the winter squash available, plain old butternut is my favorite. The flesh of the butternut is deep orange and it cooks smooth and mellow. Because the seed cavity is small, there is a lot of squash to go around, especially if you select a large one, about 1 to 1 1/2 pounds.

It is popular to hack this hard-skinned squash with a big knife, cut it into chunks, peel off the thick skin and steam it until tender, which takes about 20 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces.

But I find it time-consuming and bothersome to cut through all that hard, raw squash. And it's a real struggle to cut off the sometimes brittle, tough outside skin when the squash is raw. I prefer baking it in the oven with the skin still on, then scooping out the tender flesh after it is cooked.

Cut off the stem end and halve the squash lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds and fiber. Arrange cut-side down on a baking pan lined with foil and bake covered with foil. When it is cool enough to handle, the flesh can be easily cut away from the skin and then diced or cubed.

Sometimes I pre-bake it this way, then place the chunks in a baking dish, add salt and pepper and a drizzle of maple syrup. I bake it just until the syrup begins to glaze. This is a lovely side dish with pork or chicken. Other times, I sprinkle the cubed cooked squash with finely chopped Italian parsley, grated lemon peel and raw garlic (this mixture is called gremolata). Cooked in this manner, the squash works well with chicken or fish.

In the following recipe, I use the squash as a vegetable with cooked pasta. It makes a robust dish when tossed with cooked rigatoni, melted butter, toasted walnuts and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Serve a salad of romaine lettuce sprinkled with a plain dressing of fresh lemon juice, olive oil and salt and pepper. Garnish the salad with a few slivers of red onion. For dessert, serve crunchy Asian pears and seedless green grapes.

BUTTERNUT SQUASH WITH RIGATONI AND SAUCE OF WALNUT, BUTTER AND CHEESE

1 butternut squash, about 1 1/2 pounds, stem removed, halved lengthwise, seeds scooped out and discarded

Dash cinnamon

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3/4 pound (about 3 cups) rigatoni or shells

1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts

1/4 cup butter, melted

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more to taste

Place squash cut-side down on baking pan lined with aluminum foil. Cover with foil. Bake at 400 degrees until tender when pierced with tip of knife, about 35 minutes. Cool slightly.

Cut into chunks and remove tough outer skin. Sprinkle with dash ground cinnamon and salt and pepper to taste. Cover to keep warm and set aside until ready to serve.

Cook rigatoni in boiling salted water until al dente, or firm to the bite, 12 to 18 minutes.

Toast walnuts in small skillet over low heat, stirring, about 3 minutes. Set aside.

Ladle out and reserve about 1/4 cup pasta cooking liquid. Drain pasta and return to saucepan. Add pasta cooking liquid, cubed squash, melted butter and 1/4 cup grated cheese. Toss to combine.

Spoon pasta into large serving bowl or 4 individual shallow soup plates, dividing evenly. Sprinkle with toasted walnuts and top with additional Parmesan cheese to taste. Serve at once.

4 servings. Each serving:

609 calories; 426 mg sodium; 41 mg cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 77 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 2.55 grams fiber.

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