Orzo with Caramelized Butternut Squash, Sage and Pignoli

I’m that person, you guys. I use words like “pignoli”, “aubergine” and “garbanzo bean”, when I could have just as easily said, “pine nut”, “eggplant” and “chickpea”. It makes me feel all fancy-likeI’m not proud of that fact, but there you have it. Bearing that in mind, a title for this dish that would have been just as appropriate would be, perhaps, “Pasta with Squash and Pine Nuts”, however I really feel like that doesn’t do it justice. I think that a side dish this delicious NEEDS a title that’s all gussied up, and if the only way to do it is by bandying around words like “caramelized” and “pignoli”, then so be it.

This is the season for warm, earthy flavours and winter herbs like sage. It may still be October, but we’ve already had our first light snow of the year (how depressing is that??!) and it has me craving heartier fall fare. Is there anything that is more evocative of the fall than squash? Or even better, caramelized squash? In the same way that “burnt ends” are the best part of a brisket, and crème brulée needs the flamed sugar to be worthwhile, caramelization is a flavour enhancer that makes almost everything just a little bit better, but particularly delicately sweet squash.

This harvest salad is a little bit sweet, a little bit bright, and just about perfect on the side of a roast pork or turkey. The dressing has a hint of maple and a mellow roasted garlic flavour, and between the rich toasty pine nuts and verdant parsley and sage, it’s a little bit of delicious comfort on a cold and blustery day.

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Orzo with Caramelized Squash, Sage and Pignoli

Serves ~6 as a side dish

  • 1 Butternut squash (2-2.5 lb)
  • 4 large cloves garlic, skin on
  • 5 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1.5 cups Orzo*
  • 1/2 small red onion (~1/2 cup minced)
  • 3.5 oz (100g) pignoli **
  • small handful parsley (1/4 cup chopped)
  • few sprigs sage (1.5 tbsp chopped)
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1.5 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

* If you don’t have orzo, you could use another very small pasta, such as Israeli couscous. Or, for that matter, regular couscous or your favourite bland grain – cooked appropriately – would be a perfectly adequate substitute.

** Remember, folks: it’s just a fancy name for “pine nut”.

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Preheat your oven to 400°F with your rack in the center or lower third.

Start by toasting the pine nuts in a dry pan, set over medium heat, until they are browned and fragrant. Please do this before starting any other task, and do keep an eye on the frisky little buggers, because pine nuts like nothing more than to self-immolate and if you turn your back for a second you will have a pan full of char. I speak from tragic and extensive experience.

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Peel the squash and scoop out the seeds and innards. Clean off the seeds and roast them if you like, but they aren’t needed for this recipe.

Chop the squash into a moderately large dice of about 1/3 – 1/2″, making sure to make the pieces as uniform in size as possible.

Toss the squash with three (3) tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread the squash in a single layer on a baking sheet and nestle the whole unpeeled garlic cloves on the tray.

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Roast the squash for 15 minutes. Flip the pieces and give the pans a shake, then return the squash to your oven to roast for another 10-15 minutes, or until the pieces are tender and darkly caramelized in spots. Set the squash aside to cool slightly.

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While the squash roasts,  put a large pot of prodigiously salted water on high heat until it comes to a rolling boil.

Squeeze the cloves of garlic, which are now delicious roasted garlic, into a small bowl and mash them into a paste with the mustard.

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Pour in the maple syrup, cider vinegar and remaining olive oil. Season lightly with salt and whisk until the dressing is combined.

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Now then, for the orzo! Cook the orzo in your pot of salted, boiling water for about 8 minutes, or until it is tender and cooked to your desired doneness. Drain the orzo when it is cooked but do not rinse the pasta under cold water.  Toss the orzo with the dressing.

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Finely mince the red onion. Really, do this as finely as possible please, because very few people like big chunks of assertive palate-decimating onion in their dinner. I find the easiest way to do this is to score the onion for a regular dice and then just slice crosswise as thinly as possible, somewhere around a scant 1/16″.

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Give a rough chop to the parsley. Roll the sage leaves up into a log and then thinly slice (chiffonade) to make little sage streamers. Add these ingredients to the salad, along with the squash and half (1/2) of the pine nuts. Toss until everything is mixed evenly.

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Sprinkle the remaining pine nuts on top for decoration immediately before serving the salad.

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This dish is perfect served warm as a side dish, but it is also just as good at room temperature if you’re planning a buffet or pot luck.

orzo with squash topLet’s celebrate autumn, one dish at a time!