Monday, December 10, 2012

Vegan Butternut Squash Ziti

We are not a vegan family - our diet includes fish, cheese, and eggs - but we're part-time vegans, eating a few completely plant-based dinners every week. I like the challenge of coming up with healthier versions of traditional comfort-food favorites, and this Butternut Squash Ziti recipe was the result of an extended and ultimately failed attempt to make a delicious vegan macaroni and cheese. As I gradually gave up on making a mock (it was more a mockery of) mac and cheese, Butternut Squash Ziti began to come into its own.

This is a fun recipe to make with a kid, a great one for practicing tasting and adjusting seasoning (Henry, like me, loves cayenne pepper and tends to add an extra pinch), for encouraging experimentation (it took multiple tries to get this right, we ate quite a few okay-not-great versions along the way), and the sauce was a nice spin-off from our recent white sauce lessons. Butternut Squash Ziti is satisfying, creamy and rich, a good comfort-food substitute for macaroni and cheese, not an inferior imitation.

Vegan Butternut Squash Ziti
8+ servings

1 lb ziti or penne

1 large butternut squash (3.5 - 4 lb)

1/3 cup nonhydrogenated margarine (like Earth Balance) or olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, very finely chopped

3-4 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed

1/4 cup white or whole wheat pastry flour

 2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon thyme

1/2 teaspoon white or black pepper

big pinch cayenne pepper

big pinch sage

1 cup unsweetened soy milk or almond milk

1 cup water

1 can coconut milk (14 oz)

For topping:

2 1/2 cups breadcrumbs

1/4 cup nonhydrogenated margarine or olive oil

1 teaspoon rubbed sage

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon paprika

big pinch each salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 375

Cook pasta according to package directions, drain, rinse with cold water, and set aside.

Butternut squash sauce:

Cut the butternut squash in half lengthwise (keep seeds intact) and place face down on a cookie sheet. Bake for approximately 1 hour, or until easily pierced with a knife and slightly bubbling. When squash is cool enough to handle, scoop out and discard seeds and pulp. Puree about half the squash in a food processor or blender. Save the un-pureed squash, you're going to use it, too.

Heat margarine or olive oil in a large heavy pot. Add onions and a pinch of salt, cook over medium-low heat until very soft, sweet, and slightly golden. This takes at least 15 minutes! If you rush the process, you're only robbing yourself. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for an additional minute or two. Stir in salt, pepper, thyme, cayenne, and sage.

Add flour and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until flour smells nutty and toasty, about five minutes. Whisk in soy/almond milk and water, a little at a time, then whisk in coconut milk. Bring mixture to a simmer and stir constantly until sauce begins to thicken.

Add pureed squash and stir well. Use a spoon to scoop bite-sized pieces of the un-pureed squash into the sauce (I like the look and texture of this dish best when it's not all smooth - the chunks of squash look pretty and add interest). Let simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring often.

Taste and adjust seasoning. More cayenne? Wish there was some nutmeg in there? Love black pepper and can never get enough?

Add cooked, drained pasta to pot and stir well to combine. Transfer mixture to  9 x 11- inch casserole.

Breadcrumb topping:

Heat margarine or olive oil in large skillet over medium heat

Add breadcrumbs, herbs, and spices and stir to coat for 3-4 minutes. Taste and adjust - might need more sage or salt?

Spread breadcrumbs on top of pasta.

Bake for 30 minutes, and cool for at least 10 minutes before eating.
Leftovers are excellent.