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Pasta with Pumpkin and Hazelnut Sauce

Cooking Off the Cuff: an October treat with flavor and crunch

One of the memorable dishes Jackie and I ate on our recent trip was at the lively restaurant HaBasta near the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv: a chickpea-free variation on Middle Eastern masabakha – itself a variation on hummus. It included roughly chopped toasted almonds, which made us smile (and return to the restaurant a couple of days later to have another portion). So, toasted nuts were on my mind, and I was looking for an excuse to use them as soon as we got home.

After nearly four weeks of travel, we returned in late October wondering what we’d find in our local (New York City) farmers’ markets that would harmonize with the chopped nuts. In the small market nearest our building there were still a few tomatoes, but these weren’t going to end up in sandwiches: either they were on the verge of deliquescing or they had lost all hope of ripening fully. That’s not to say they were lacking in flavor: skinned, chopped and simmered with olive oil and salt for 15 minutes, they made a light, delicious, fresh-tasting sauce. There were, of course, pumpkins and their kin in the squash family, some manageably small and others big enough that the vendor was selling them cut into wedges with their seeds neatly scraped out.

Traditionally, our first home-cooked meal upon returning from a trip is pasta of some kind, and I was certainly going to use some of the tomato sauce and some of the pumpkin in a pasta dish. That was my opening: I would use toasted nuts to add flavor and crunchy texture: a logical pairing, because nuts, often in the form of crushed amaretti cookies, are commonly combined with winter squash/pumpkin in Italy to make one of the great classic ravioli fillings.

Coarsely chopped toasted almonds would have been nice enough, but even better was what I used: hazelnuts. If you can find some, buy vacuum-packed bags of blanched, perfectly toasted hazelnuts from Italy (they keep for years). Otherwise, toast hazelnuts in the oven or microwave, rub off as much of their skins as you can, and chop them very coarsely so that they don’t get lost among the other ingredients: some pieces may be as big as a third of a nut, some smaller.

For the pasta, I made a batch of saffron-infused cavatelli (gnocchetti sardi) simply because I felt like it. You can indeed use cavatelli (or indeed orecchiette) for this dish, but any short dried pasta would be fine: nothing much longer than an inch, so it can all be eaten with a spoon.

This was a fine homecoming dinner after a long trip. It almost goes without saying that pasta is the perfect welcome, and the first squash and last tomatoes were entirely October. And the hazelnuts? In brief, they made the dish – and made it something we’ll eat again soon.

Ingredients

  • 2 Ounces hazelnuts (or substitute almonds if necessary), blanched, toasted and very roughly chopped; you can buy the nuts already toasted
  • 8 Ounces peeled and seeded winter squash or pumpkin, cut into 1/4- to 3/8-inch dice
  • 1 large shallot or half a small red onion, halved then cut crosswise into thin (1/16 inch) slices
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 2/3 Cups simple tomato sauce (see head note)
  • 4 sage leaves, chopped, or 2 tsp chopped rosemary leaves
  • 1/3 Cup grated parmesan, plus more at the table if needed
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 portions cavatelli or short-shape dried pasta (no egg pasta here, please)

Directions

Heat a pot of salted water for the pasta.

As the water approaches boiling point, heat a 10-inch skillet and sauté the pumpkin/squash in 2 Tbs oil over medium-high heat, seasoned with salt and pepper: cook until lightly browned, and palpably cooked but still crunchy, about 5 minutes depending on the sugar and moisture content of the squash.

Add the shallot or onion and continue to sauté until it begins to brown, about 3 minutes

The water will probably have come to the boil. If it has, add the pasta; if it hasn’t, remove the skillet from the heat and wait for the water to boil before proceeding.

Over medium heat, add the tomato sauce and sage to the skillet; when it boils, lower the heat and simmer for 3 to 5 minutes until the squash is tender and the sauce flavorful (add salt as needed).

When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the skillet, still over medium heat; fold or toss to combine. Save a generous cup of the cooking liquid in case you need to loosen the sauce.

Add the nuts, then the parmesan; fold or toss to combine. Adjust the consistency of the sauce using the reserved pasta water. Check for salt and, if you like, pepper.

Finish with a drizzle of your best olive oil; pass additional parmesan at the table, though it will probably not be needed.