This Squash and Spaghetti Dish Will Become a Winter Weeknight Go-To
I cannot overstate the perfection of spaghetti with garlic, olive oil, and hot chile— aglio, olio e peperoncino — gussied up with only a handful of chopped parsley.
Tinkering with perfection is often a case study for the law of diminishing returns. There are delicious exceptions: Pasta with clams, for instance, is built on that garlic-oil-chile foundation. And I think I’ve come upon another.
Last week I was staring at a kabocha squash that had been on display in the dining room for a couple of weeks. It was doing fine, as winter squashes generally do, but Jackie and I agreed it was time to eat it. I halved it, scooped out its seeds, and cut it into wedges before arranging it in an oven-proof frying pan with a good tablespoon (15g) of butter and a sprinkling of salt, and roasting it until tender but not in the least mushy: It took about 35 minutes at 375ºF (190ºC), but timing will depend on the density and moisture content of your squash (you can use any variety you like, not just kabocha), so start checking after 20 minutes but don’t be surprised if it takes as long as 40 minutes.
When it is done, cut off a skin-on piece and taste it to make sure the skin is tender and palatable — the skin of many if not most modern winter squashes is pleasurable to eat. If yours is an exception and has tough or bitter skin, trim the skin off (much easier than peeling it raw). Cut each wedge into slices about ¼ inch (7 milliliters) thick, with skin at the edge of each slice, enough to yield 2 cups (475 milliliters by volume) slices; save the rest for another meal.
What now? Risotto was an obvious option, but we’d had a rice dinner a couple of days earlier, and as I took in the delightful, almost melon-like aroma of the squash I imagined how it would be even more delightful with lots of garlic cooked carefully in olive oil until lightly browned, toasty and sweet. Well, that is just the treatment that it gets in our aglio-olio archetype, and the path to a pasta dinner became clear.
Spaghetti with garlic, oil, chile, and winter squash was a great discovery. I can’t call it an invention, because it turns out that this very combination flavors is used in parts of southern Italy (thanks, Domenica Marchetti, for the information), though the dish there is more soup-like, typically made with crushed boiled squash and short pasta. I’m pretty confident that roasting the squash and leaving the skin on makes for a more flavorsome dish.
Spaghetti With Garlic, Oil, Chile, and Winter Squash
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil plus more to finish
- 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and cut into thin slices about ⅟16 inch (1½ millimeters) thick
- 1 or 2 small red chiles sliced thin (see note) or a generous pinch dried crushed chiles
- 150 grams (about 6 ounces) spaghetti or other long pasta
- 2 cups (475 milliliters by volume) sliced, roasted kabocha, or other winter squash (see headnote)
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Put a pot of salted water on to boil. (It can be smaller than the huge pot we were all taught to cook pasta in — cooking in less water yields a starchier liquid with which to adjust the consistency of a sauce.)
2. In a 10- to 12-inch (25- to 30-millimeter) skillet warm the oil over low heat, then add the garlic and chile, and sprinkle with salt. Cook gently, tilting the pan to keep the garlic and chile well covered with oil, until the garlic is just turning golden or golden brown. Remove from the heat while the spaghetti finishes cooking.
3. While the oil is heating in the previous step, add pasta to the boiling water and stir to prevent sticking.
When the pasta is not quite done — droopingly pliable, but with a slight crunch at its center — turn the heat under the garlic and chile to medium-high, then transfer the pasta to the skillet using tongs or a spaghetti-grabber. Using a small ladle or big spoon, add about half a cup (120 milliliters) of salty, starchy water from the pasta pot and raise the heat to high, stirring/tossing the pasta together with the garlic and chile (tongs are the best tool for this). This will complete the cooking of the spaghetti, and the heat and agitation will create a slightly viscous emulsified sauce. Stir/toss in the squash slices and heat them through, adding additional pasta water as needed to keep everything coated in this simple oil-and-water sauce.
4. Turn off the heat, add the parsley, and serve. No cheese needed; no black pepper needed. But you may want to add some more salt as you eat.
The amount of chile you use will depend on you and on the piquancy of the chiles you have. Taste a morsel; if it is murderously hot, as ours was, you may choose to use only half a single small chile and may decide to omit the seeds. If it is pleasantly buzzy, not damaging, you may wish to slice one or two of them leaving the seeds in situ. You want to be able to taste their flavor and feel their heat, but they must not take over the entire dish. Dried chile flakes are not out of the question if they are what you have — or what you prefer.