Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lunch Week 26: Baked Ziti with Butternut Squash and Sausage

So every Sunday, I head over to the kitchen to whip up a big batch of food for lunch next week. Yes, I brown bag. And I almost always do it, unless I become too busy to even buy cold cuts from the deli. I do it for several reasons being health, finance, and laziness. Now, you may think that spending hours on a day off to prep and cook five meals at once is hardly lazy. But let me remind you, I hate it when the time comes to decide what to eat for lunch every day. I work in Midtown so the choices are endless. My problem, the more choices, the harder it is for me. So it's much easier for me to have my lunch ready and already decided. So my lunch for the week: Baked Ziti with Butternut Squash and Sausage It's fall and there are lots of squash and pumpkins to be eaten. My CSA this week provided some lovely butternut squash. It's sweet and so tender. They're best at this time of the year. The main players: butternut squash, turkey sausage, and baby bella mushrooms. Not pictured: whole milk ricotta and mozzarella cheese. One big ol' butternut squash. I cut off the ends and split it in half. Inside, you'll find some pulp and seeds. Scoop these out with a spoon. Next, I peel the very tough skin. Make sure you peel enough to get down to the flesh. You don't want any of that peel in your mouth. It's too tough. I cut them into bite sized pieces and season them with salt, pepper, and oil. Then into the oven at 375 degrees for about 30 minutes. While that is roasting in the oven, boil some pasta. Remember to add salt to the water! Next the turkey sausages. First I like to sear the links in a hot pan with oil. After it is browned on all sides, I add enough water to come up halfway to the links. Let that boil and evaporate until very little liquid is left. This allows the sausages to cook thoroughly. Remove the meat and let it rest for awhile. Do not slice right away because the juices will run out and leave the sausages dry. I washed and cut the mushrooms into bite sized pieces as well. I add these to the leftover sausage liquid in the pan. Cook until thoroughly until soft. Lastly, re-add the sliced sausages to the pan. Then these are done. The squash are roasted perfectly. They've softened completely. There's a little caramelization on the outside. They're so naturally sweet. So now the assembly. Some oil on the bottom of the pan first to prevent sticking. Add some pasta, then the ricotta cheese. Spread the cheese evenly. Add some of the squash on top. Next, a layer of the turkey sausage and mushrooms. Do not add any of the liquid. No one likes watery baked ziti. Add some grated mozzarella cheese on top of that. Repeat the layers until you end up with the pasta on top with ricotta cheese. I always like to add the mozzarella cheese last. It creates a nice gooey crust. Bake in the oven at 375 degrees for 30 minutes until the cheese in melted. This baking allows the flavors to meld together. I nice golden brown crust on top and everything is incorporated. My pan made about 12 servings. This dish is very hearty and filling. But since it has butternut squash and mushrooms in it, it's less heavy that a normal baked ziti with meat. In this recipe, I used whole milk cheeses because it holds up better in the heat. I had once used low fat cheese and it just didn't come together well. This is especially true about the ricotta. If you use low fat ricotta, it tends to be watery. You would end up with a very watery baked ziti. That didn't taste good at all. In fact, it was very disappointing. This time around with my lesson learned (don't believe in low fat cheese), the dish holds up well. In fact, I liked it a lot! I used whole wheat pasta again because it's heartier and you can't really distinguish the taste with all the other stuff going on in the dish. The butternut squash is sweet and tender. It is perfect for this weather. The turkey sausage adds the needed protein. The mushrooms soaked up the sausage juices nicely. They're hearty just like the sausages. Lastly, the sweetness of the ricotta cheese and the saltiness of the mozzarella just brought everything to another level. The cheeses just completed the dish so well. I will definitely not be bored with this lunch by Friday!

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