Recipe: Penne with Butternut Squash, Speck, and Leeks
Every year around this time, when the New York weather changes seemingly overnight, my sister Liti starts to crave pasta with butternut squash or pumpkin, and I always oblige her by making it for her, doing a slightly different version each time. In my book The Flavors of Southern Italy I have a recipe for pasta with pumpkin, tomatoes, and basil. I remember being surprised to discover that tomato blended so well with pumpkin as I stretched my imagination to come up with interesting things to do with the big squash. What really made them fit together was the addition of a mild pecorino, which miraculously brought all the sharp flavors into harmony. Usually I don’t add tomato but just let the squash stand more or less alone—more or less except for the pancetta or guanciale or Italian sausage I can never resist slipping in. Pork fat and fall squash make a heavenly combination, though usually not a lean dish by any stretch of the imagination.
I’ve been trying to cut down on my intake of saturated fat, sadly, especially pork fat, which is something I can eat, to my horror, in fairly large quantities. But sometimes pork fat seems to be just the thing, and no substitute is truly appropriate. Speck is a perfect product to reach for when you need some pork but just can’t bring yourself to surrender again to that fatty salami or fresh sausage quite yet. Speck is a cured and smoked boneless prosciutto from the Alto Adige region of Italy. It has about the same ratio of lean to fat as regular prosciutto, but its delicate smoky taste, with an underlying hint of juniper and bay leaf, makes it a great element in a hearty fall pasta.
In Southern Italy pumpkin pasta often includes garlic. I don’t love the combination, preferring shallot or the leeks I use in my most recent incarnation of the dish. I also include Marsala wine and sage, two flavors that always crop up in my culinary head when the weather turns cold.
Try to serve this as a first course. It’s rich and filling, so a small amount is really perfect. Afterward, a few slices of cold roast chicken sliced and serves over a green salad, maybe with a caper vinaigrette, would be great, in which case you wouldn’t need to run back to the kitchen to finish cooking anything (a big problem when you serve pasta as a first course, but not an insurmountable one).
Penne with Butternut Squash, Speck, and Leeks
(Serves 6 as a first course)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium leeks, well cleaned and cut into thin slices, using only the white and tenderest green parts
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice
Freshly ground black pepper
2 whole allspice, ground
2 juniper berries, ground
1 pound penne
½ cup dry Marsala
½ cup chicken broth
6 or 7 slices speck, cut into thin strips, with any excess fat removed
10 sage leaves, cut into thin strips
A chunk of Montasio cheese for grating
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water over high heat.
In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and the butternut squash at the same time. Season with salt, black pepper, and the ground allspice and juniper berries, and sauté until the vegetables are well coated with flavor and are just starting to soften, about 4 minutes.
When the water comes to a boil, add a generous amount of salt, and drop in the penne.
Add the Marsala to the skillet, and let it boil out for a few minutes. Add the chicken broth, cover the skillet, and continue cooking until the squash pieces are just tender when poked with a knife, about another 5 minutes (you want them soft but still holding their shape). Turn off the heat, and uncover the skillet. You should still have a little liquid in the skillet. Add the speck and the sage, a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, and a few more grindings of black pepper.
When the penne is al dente, drain it into a serving bowl, saving about ½ cup of the pasta cooking liquid. Pour the squash sauce onto it, and toss gently, adding a little of the cooking water if it seems dry. Serve right away with a little Montasio grated over the top of each portion.