The versatility of squash is just amazing to me. And believe me, I’ve pushed versatility to the limits—remember Rosi Biver’s Not-Quite-Apple Cobbler made with zucchini? Well the dish I created for this post is not such a stretch, actually, but it is rich, satisfying and doesn’t contain one bit of wheat pasta.
It began with my basil crop, which—if I do say so myself—was impressive this year. I’ve harvested it twice now, and there is a third cutting coming on. So, of course, I made pesto, putting away two ice cube trays full in my freezer for winter stews and sauces. But I reserved a big jar for the frig because it can add all kinds of flavor and depth to just about any dish—scrambled eggs, fresh tomato soup, classic caprese salad, and so on. And it got me thinking about how much better dishes are when layers of flavor are heaped one on top of another—it’s one of my most favorite ways to cook.
So a note about some special ingredients and preparations before we get down to business, just because I think you might be tempted to cut some corners when you shouldn’t. Be brave:
The “spaghetti” in this dish is squash, not surprisingly, and you will want to prepare your spaghetti squash ahead of time—by as much as a day—and chill it down so that it retains a nice pasta-like texture. Adding it to the skillet mixture while it is still warm from the oven will only make it mushy.
You will need a leftover rind from a good wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano (Remember how I always tell you to never throw these away and keep them stored in the freezer? Well if you forgot, you can use pesto that contains Parmigiano, which it usually does if it is commercial. My fresh pesto does not contain cheese, which I add fresh according to whatever dish I’m making.)
You want to take the extra time to grill your eggplant ahead of time so that it gets soft, charred and slightly caramelized. Adding it into your skillet raw will change everything… and not for the better. I just made it way ahead of time to get it out of the way; however, you can prepare the eggplant on the grill as you are cooking the main dish and add it in warm to your skillet with no worries. So work this out to suit your schedule.
You want to toast your walnuts before grinding them because they will have a richer, nuttier flavor if you do. And you do want to pulse them into a fine “flour” because they are going to become your thickener. I just throw walnut halves and pieces into a dry cast iron skillet and toast them around on a medium flame until I start to smell them and see them turn a slightly darker brown. Be aware they do burn easily—so don’t leave them unattended.
Finally, I have labeled zucchini and mushrooms as “optional”. That’s because I’ve made this dish three times, once with zucchini, once without it and once with both zucchini and mushrooms. So you can decide if you want to include these. I will say that the final version with both zucchini and mushrooms got the loudest applause. And my mushroom of choice was my friend Leo’s big pink oysters, but a firm shitake or portabella will work, too.
So let’s eat…
- One medium spaghetti squash, roasted until tender, seeded and scraped into “spaghetti threads”
- Two cups grilled and chopped Japanese eggplant (Any eggplant will do, but I prefer Japanese because they have fewer seeds and less bitter flavor.)
- One-quarter cup olive oil
- Two tablespoons butter
- One cup chopped yellow onion
- Two to three large cloves garlic, chopped (not too fine so they don’t easily burn)
- Three cups large oyster mushrooms, chopped (optional)
- Dash of dry white sherry or wine (necessary for mushrooms, optional otherwise)
- One cup chopped small zucchini (optional)
- Two cups chopped bell pepper, any color, though red is really good here
- Three to three and a half cups chopped fresh tomatoes (Farmer grade is great for this.)
- Two heaping tablespoons pesto without cheese added, unless you don’t have a cheese rind, in which case include up to three tablespoons grated Parmigiano
- One-quarter cup ground toasted walnuts
- One-quarter cup good-quality creamy goat cheese
- One leftover rind from Parmigiano-Reggiano wedge
- Juice of one medium lemon
- Two tablespoons each chopped fresh oregano and thyme
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Wash the squash and make several slits through the peel, just as you would for a baked potato. Roast at 375 degrees until a fork can pierce it easily, about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool. Once cool, slice it lengthwise and scoop out the center seeds. Then, using a dinner fork, scrape out the “spaghetti threads” onto a parchment lined baking sheet and arrange in a single layer. Place in the refrigerator for six hours to 24 hours.
- Slice your eggplant length wise so that it will be easy to grill. Salt with coarse sea salt and weight under paper towels for about 15 minutes. Drizzle with a little olive oil and grill until it is nicely charred and starting to caramelize. Chop and add to the skillet per instructions below, or refrigerate until ready to use—up to four or five hours.
- Heat the quarter cup olive oil and the butter in a large chef’s skillet. Add the onion and garlic with a dash of sea salt and sauté over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the onions are tender and translucent.
- If you are using mushrooms, add them now with a dash of salt and continue to cook until the mushroom are beginning to soften. Add a big splash of sherry and simmer until the alcohol has burned away, about 10 minutes.
- Add the bell peppers and the zucchini (if you are using it) with a dash more salt and continue to cook until the peppers and zucchini begin to soften.
- Next add the tomatoes, which will begin to form your sauce. Salt them so their flavor pops and stir until they start to bubble up. Now add a few grinds of black pepper, the goat cheese, pesto, cheese rind and ground walnuts, stirring until well incorporated. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer for about 30 minutes, until the sauce has thickened. Give it a taste test so you can adjust seasoning—some goat cheese and Parmigiano are saltier than others.
- When all is good, add in the spaghetti squash and the eggplant. Combine well and heat through—about 15 minutes at a low steady simmer.
- Remove from heat and stir in the fresh lemon juice and chopped herbs.
You can serve this right from the skillet or you can put it away in the frig in a covered casserole dish and reheat later. Since this dish makes a ton, dividing it to make a meal now and a meal later is a great way to extend it for an easy weeknight meal. Just reheat in a 300-degree oven until bubbly. Extra cheese on top never hurt a thing, in my opinion.
In honor of back-to-school season, I thought we should address the littlest diners at the table. When my daughter was a little girl, I used pasta sauce to sneak in all sorts of vegetables I was afraid she wouldn’t be open to trying right off the bat–like broccoli, cauliflower, etc. So, if you can pass my new spaghetti squash dish off as pasta…Yeah! The wee ones will get several servings of healthy veggies in this dish. However, if they are on to you, I’ve got another idea. Actually, it’s not my idea; it comes from the cooking experts at Delicious Living Magazine.
According to recipe developer Amy Palanjian, this Spaghetti with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce is a real kid pleaser! The yummy marinara gets a nutrition boost with roasted red peppers and hemp seeds. And what kid doesn’t love spaghetti, really? You can take Amy’s lead and serve it with a commercial gluten-free pasta or with your family’s favorite noodle. Either way, the kids will get their veggies.