I’m getting tired of winter. It’s cold, it’s grey (yes, I spell grey with an ‘e’), and by this time, it’s just wishy-washy. I wish we could fast forward, and we could all be somewhere warm, and bright, and comforting. That’s why this casserole is my new best friend right now. I think of this as winter’s last hurrah — think of getting wrapped in a thick warm comforter, knowing that winter hibernation is almost over, so you might as well enjoy the comforting warmth before packing away your winter gear to make way for spring. This dish has great texture from the gently sautéed butternut squash, a nice rich dark green flavor from the red chard, and the robust al dente Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Penne. It’s creamy comfort food, but with a few low-fat substitutions it won’t wreck your New Years’ resolution (or February re-resolution).
Butternut squash is often too sweet and dessert-like for me to like it in main dishes; but here; we’re getting serious with some big, bad flavors like crushed red pepper, some garlic for heat, and deep dark red chard. These flavors take this dish from quick & easy to quick, easy, and awesome. One note to the doubters: the combo of pasta and squash was new to me at first, but I’m game for pretty much any food experiment. And now I really like the combination. Cut the squash into smaller cubes if you’re unsure about it. (And finding pre-peeled and cubed squash in the fresh or frozen section is a GREAT timesaver.)
To begin, put on your pot of water for pasta now so it’s boiling when you’re ready. Start with onions, garlic, spices, and sausage in a large skillet over medium heat. If, like me, you’re using a lean turkey or chicken sausage, you may need 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Cook, stirring until the sausage is completely browned.
Add the squash and cook 8-10 minutes, or until tender. This is when you start wishing you had a bigger skillet.
In the meantime, if your water is boiling now, you can cook the pasta al dente (5-7 minutes), and reserve one cup of cooking liquid for the sauce, when you drain it.
The next step is my favorite—take your chopped red chard, or spinach if you prefer, and pile it into the pan. Stir gently to get it to the bottom of the pan to cook faster, and sprinkle with a little bit of water so the greens can steam. Don’t worry; the greens will cook WAY down despite how your skillet seems to be overflowing.
Once the greens have relaxed, you can turn off the heat. Add the drained pasta to the mixture. Mix in ¼ cup of the parmesan cheese, saving the rest for the top. Your skillet will be very full by now.
At this point, you can either keep it in your large skillet if it’s oven-safe, or transfer the mixture to a large oven-proof casserole. (I love fewer dishes, so I was happy to learn my skillet is fine to pop in the oven.)
When you’ve got your mixture in your cooking vessel of choice, mix one can reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup with the cup of pasta water you reserved (Don’t worry; regular water will work fine if you forgot. It just melds the flavors more when you use the pasta water.) Stir in a little flour, to thicken it. Pour this sauce over the pasta and sausage mixture, stir to coat everything, and top with the rest of the parmesan cheese.
Bake until browned on top. Note: Any bits of chard or spinach on top of the casserole may get over-browned, especially if it isn’t very well coated with sauce and cheese.
Feel free to play with this recipe — it can handle a lot of substitutions. To ramp up the spice, use a spicy italian sausage. You may want less greens, or no greens at all, and that’s fine, or maybe you’d like spinach instead. You may have some acorn squash on hand instead of butternut, or some parsnips, or even some carrot. If you like them, mushrooms play well in this mix. And I think this would still be great with other types of cheese, like cheddar or gouda. I hope you have fun with it, and let us know how it turns out in the comments!
Savory Squash and Sausage Penne Casserole
6 breakfast sausage links, sliced (or about 6-8 oz)
1-2 Tablespoons olive oil, if using lean or vegetarian sausage (omit if using pork sausage)
1 cup chopped onion
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
¼ teaspoon dried sage (decrease if sausages are spiced)
¼ teaspoon dried thyme (decrease if sausages are spiced)
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 cups cubed, peeled raw butternut squash (approximately ½ of one squash)
½ teaspoon salt, divided
½ teaspoon black pepper, divided
2 cups uncooked Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Penne
6-8 cups red chard or spinach chopped domino-size (measured loose: do not pack into measuring cups)
½ cup (2 ounces) grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
1 can condensed reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup
1 tablespoon Hodgson Mill Naturally White Flour
1 cup cooking liquid from pasta (reserved when draining cooked pasta)
Preheat oven to 375°F. Put a large pot of water on high heat to boil, and cook pasta according to package instructions for al dente (boiling 5-7 minutes). Reserve 1 cup of cooking liquid, when draining the cooked pasta, and keep the penne warm for later.
If you’re using lean sausage, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. If using pork sausage, omit oil and just add ingredients to pan. Sauté together onions, sausage, garlic, and spices until sausage is completely browned and cooked through.
Add cubed squash and cook, stirring occasionally, 10 minutes or until squash is tender when poked with a fork. Pile the chopped greens on top, and gently stir them to the bottom of the skillet to cook, about 3 minutes. They will cook down, wilt, and turn dark green. If it’s taking a few minutes, it helps to sprinkle in a teaspoon or two of water, to make steam. When greens are cooked, turn off heat, and stir in ¼ cup grated parmesan. Transfer mixture to oven-proof dish, sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, or feel free to leave in skillet if it’s oven safe.
Combine cup of reserved pasta liquid with can of cream of mushroom soup. Mix in 1 tablespoon flour. Pour this evenly over mixture in skillet or baking dish and mix gently to distribute. Top with remaining parmesan cheese and bake 25-30 minutes, or until cheese is melted and browned.
Let cool slightly, and serve hot with a sprinkling of chopped or dried parsley if desired.
Notes: Makes 6-8 servings. This dish reheats well in microwave, stovetop or oven. Keep in sealed container in fridge for up to 3 days.
Vegetarian option: substitute vegetarian sausage (use olive oil to cook onions and spices at the start), and/or add 1 cup sliced mushrooms at the same time as the chopped greens.