Fall is here, but there is one sign of the season I recognize above all others. It is not leaves crunching underfoot in my yard (and miraculously multiplying each day), nor is it pumpkin spice in everything from coffee to soap. No, there is one glorious sign of this favorite season of mine that outshines all others: butternut squash appearing in the grocery store.
Normally, I celebrate that glorious gourd by roasting it with rosemary and folding it into creamy, cheesy risotto. However, this year, I decided to think outside the box (and inside the shell, as it were). What a delicious decision! I roasted my butternut in scrumptious little cubes, which is always the best way to make that squash sing. But then I turned it into a fantastic filling with cheeses, garlic and shallots and stuffed that into pasta shells.
As if that wasn’t divine enough on its own, I then took fresh fragrant sage and fried it in browned butter and drizzled that nutty, salty sauce over the top of those butternut-stuffed baked shells. Move aside risotto, there’s a new fall favorite in town. You absolutely must try this recipe — it’s the best way to celebrate the advent of autumn.
Spinach and butternut squash stuffed shells with sage brown butter
1 small or 1/2 a large butternut squash, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 inch cubes*
4 shallots, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/4 cup frozen spinach, cooked and squeezed in a paper towel to remove all liquid (or fresh spinach finely chopped)
1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese (live a little!)
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest
14 large pasta shells
1/2 stick salted butter
8-10 sage leaves, torn
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
*Butternut squash can be tricky to cut up. Here’s my foolproof way:
1. Cut the narrow neck of the squash from the round base.
2. Peel the squash by running a sharp knife in a sawing motion down the sides to cut the tough skin away from the flesh.
3. Cut the round base in half and scoop out seeds with a spoon.
4. Cut the squash into 1/2 inch thick slices lengthwise, then cut those into 1/2 inch strips
lengthwise, and cut widthwise into 1/2 inch cubes from the strips.
Heat oven to 425 degrees. Toss butternut squash, shallots, garlic, a generous drizzle of olive oil, salt and pepper together and roast on a rimmed sheet pan, 20 minutes, tossing halfway through, until tender and beginning to caramelize. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook pasta for 9 minutes. Drain well, and place on a large plate, each shell separated, to cool. In a small bowl, combine cooled butternut squash mixture, spinach, cheeses, nutmeg, egg and lemon zest. Fill each shell with a generous tablespoon full. Bake in a 400 degree oven in a baking dish (get thee some Carolina pottery) until shells are golden brown at edges, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare that simple but flavorful sage brown butter. Heat butter and sage in a small skillet on medium-high heat until sage is crispy and butter is foaming and lightly browned. Remove shells from oven and drizzle sage butter over them while still hot. Happy fall, y’all!
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The Rev. Whitney Wilkinson is pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church.