In my view, fall is the best season of the year. I adore the exquisite autumn foliage in New England where we live and the cooler days. But there's another reason I enjoy this season so much: after the long summer when many of our friends have been away on vacation, most are back by the beginning of autumn. Everyone seems eager to get together and exchange stories of their travels and experiences, so it's a perfect time to entertain, especially in a casual way.
An informal dinner for six to eight on a Friday or Saturday night is the format I like best. For such occasions I choose simple, uncomplicated menus often picking an all-in-one main course and then adding a salad and a dessert. Several weeks ago, while I was working on a new pasta creation that included butternut squash, spinach and smoked bacon, I realized it would make a fine centerpiece for such a dinner. Much of the dish can be prepared ahead so that only a little last-minute work is necessary.
Penne With Smoked Bacon, Butternut Squash and Spinach
Makes 6 large servings
6 ounces sliced smoked lean bacon, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large (about 1 1/2 pounds) onions, sliced 1/2 inch thick
4 cups (1 1/2 pounds) butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1/2 -inch cubes
2 / 3 cup reduced-sodium chicken stock
1 tablespoon fresh chopped rosemary, plus 6 rosemary sprigs for garnish
1 pound penne
1 pound baby spinach leaves, stemmed, rinsed and patted dry
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Parmigiano Reggiano, plus 1/3 cup more for garnish
freshly ground black pepper
In large (12- to 14-inch), heavy skillet (with lid) placed over medium heat, saute bacon until crisp. Then remove and drain on paper towels. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons bacon drippings and add butter to skillet. Heat until butter is hot and melted. Add onions and cook, stirring often, until browned and caramelized, 10 to 12 minutes.
Add butternut squash to skillet and stir and cook squash and onions 5 minutes more. Pour in chicken stock and sprinkle chopped rosemary over vegetables. Cover skillet and cook until liquid has almost evaporated, only 2 to 4 minutes more. Do not overcook, or squash will become mushy. (Onions and squash can be cooked 3 to 4 hours ahead. Leave uncovered at cool room temperature. Reheat over low heat when ready to finish dish.)
Bring large pot of water to boil. Add penne and 1 tablespoon salt. Cook until pasta is al dente or just tender to bite, about 12 minutes.
While pasta is cooking, finish dish. Add spinach leaves, large handful at a time, to onions and squash in skillet. Stir and when spinach has wilted, add another handful. Continue to stir in spinach in this manner until all has been added. Season with 1 teaspoon salt. Then taste and add more salt if needed.
Drain pasta in colander and place in large mixing bowl. Add vegetables along with 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Stir well to mix. Taste and season as needed with more salt and with several grinds of pepper.
To serve, mound pasta in 6 shallow bowls and garnish each portion with some bacon, a generous sprinkling of remaining cheese and a rosemary sprig. Serve immediately.