February 01, 2013

Fresh Meal Ideas No. 1: Orzo Pasta with Kale and Roasted Butternut Squash

First up in my new Fresh Meal Ideas series is an easy, flavorful pasta dish. Pasta provides a perfect blank canvas for highlighting seasonal vegetables. While I love pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil, I’m unfortunately not pulling those summer delights out of the garden (or finding them at the farmers market) in late January. What I did have on hand was kale and squash, which sounded like an excellent flavor combo.

A bowl of orzo pasta with butternut squash and kale

I started by roasting a large butternut squash I picked up at the farmers market last fall. Winter squashes—such as butternuts, spaghetti squash, acorn squash and delicatas—have a long storage life, so when you see them at your farmers market, stock up and stash them away for winter eating. (There are two main keys to eating seasonally and locally throughout winter: storage crops and preserved foods.) We have several winter squashes sitting on our dining room table right now.

Butternut, acorn, delicata squash and pumpkin on table

Slow-roasting squash in your oven is super-simple, and it brings out the incredible sweetness of the fruit. Butternuts are especially good when prepared this way. They taste like pie. Really—a dense, delicious, nutritious food that stores well and tastes like pie (jump on the squash bandwagon if you’re not already there). To roast a butternut, cut it in half long-ways, and scoop out the seeds (save the squash seeds for roasting and you’ll have a fine treat later). I usually cut those two chunks in half again to make four large pieces total. Set the chunks face-up in baking dish, add a half-inch of water to the pan, and put it in a 400-degree oven. Bake for about 90 minutes, or until the squash meat is very soft when pierced with a fork. I error on the side of overcooking squash, as I actually like when the corners brown.

Halves of roasted butternut squash in baking pan

It works well to roast squash ahead of time so you have it on hand to add to dishes such as pasta (that’s what I did in this case). After the squash is cooked and has cooled a bit, the skin is easy to peel off with a small knife.

Peeling butternut squash on cutting board

For this pasta dish, cut the butternut squash into large chunks after you peel it.

Chunks of roasted butternut squash on cutting board

Next up, prep your pasta. I used organic, vegetable orzo pasta for this dish. I like getting different types of organic pastas in bulk at our local co-op—and I generally bring in large zip-top bags or mason jars to fill up with bulk pastas and other grains so I don’t create any packaging waste. I wash out and re-use zip-top bags dozens of times before they bite the dust. This particular bag used to house frozen carrots from the garden.

A bulk bag of vegetable orzo pasta

Boil the orzo pasta in water until tender, drain, and set aside.

Cooked vegetable orzo pasta in metal strainer

Next, melt a couple of tablespoons of pastured butter in a large skillet (use olive oil instead if you prefer). I used Tillamook butter from the Tillamook, Ore., dairy cooperative. Tillamook makes excellent products—if you’re an Oregonian, you’re probably very familiar with its cheddar cheeses—and they don’t give hormones such as rBGH (also called rBST) to their dairy cows. There’s a good chance any non-organic butter, yogurt, cheese or other dairy product purchased at the supermarket came from cows pumped with rBGH, a genetically engineered synthetic hormone used to boost milk production. This artificial hormone, originally developed by Monsanto, is banned in 31 countries and has been shown in several studies to increase risk of cancer (especially breast and prostate cancer) in humans. It’s not so hot for the dairy cows either, increasing likelihood of lameness and a painful condition called mastitis— which, in turn, means increased use of antibiotics in the cows. Yuck to all of that. Always look for organic dairy products and/or those from smaller, local dairies that don’t use growth hormones.

After you melt your no-thanks-to-cancer butter in a skillet, toss in half of a chopped onion and about a cup and a half of chopped kale. Sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes, and then add a few cloves of fresh, finely chopped garlic. Sauté for a couple of more minutes, and then toss in the chunks of squash and cooked orzo pasta.

Kale and squash orzo pasta in large skillet

Stir well and heat a minute or two more, and grind in some cracked black pepper and sea salt. Serve as is, or serve with a bit of grated cheese on top.

So how does this fresh meal idea stack up on a few important criteria? Let’s check it out.

Local? 

The kale (a lacinato type) came from my backyard garden. Kale is incredibly cold-hardy, so if you have a garden, you should be able to keep it growing into winter. You can also grow it or find it at market in fall, chop it roughly, and freeze it for winter use. The winter squash and onion came from my local farmers market. I bought both items in bulk in fall to have on hand for winter use. I bought a big box of onions in October that we keep in the cool garage, and have been using all winter. The garlic came from a local farm and I purchased it at our co-op—which is where I also purchased the pasta. The pasta itself was not made locally—so that’s one area for improvement. The butter was produced here in Oregon, but could have been even more local had I made it myself (making my own butter is one goal I have for the future).

Sustainable?

Everything I used in this dish was organic—not necessarily “Certified Organic,” but organic (the farm I bought the onions and squash from doesn’t certify, but everything is “no spray”). So I know that no polluting chemicals were used in producing these ingredients. Because I used mostly local ingredients, there aren’t a lot of food miles associated with this meal. I didn’t create any trash in making this dish—only some compost.

Healthy? 

Kale and squash are both nutrient-packed foods. Kale has cancer-fighting compounds and butternut squash is rich in vitamins A and C. Garlic boosts immunity and has many other health benefits (some people I know make it a point to eat at least a clove of raw garlic every day). Butter from pastured cows has healthful properties and is far-and-away better for us than any butter-wannabe monstrosities such as margarine. This meal was free of pesticide residues, GMO ingredients, and synthetic hormones—a status that seems like it would be the norm for foods, but sadly isn’t. I’d say this meal was quite healthy.

Delicious?

This dish was incredibly good—especially thanks to the rich, sweet flavor of the roasted squash. I like the flavor of kale, but some people find it a bit overpowering. Sautéing it in butter with garlic and onions tempered the green’s flavor a bit, hopefully making this a tasty meal even for those suspect of kale (I live with someone who’s suspect of kale, so I know this viewpoint exists).

Simple?

Easy as pie—actually, way easier. Because I roasted the butternut squash a day ahead of time, the preparation and cook time of this meal totaled about 15 minutes. If you plan to roast your squash the same day you’ll make a pasta dish with it, just start the squash a couple of hours before mealtime.

As with any recipe, I invite you to experiment and make this your own. Use other vegetables if you can’t find kale or butternut squash. Add some diced chicken from a local, pastured bird for a protein boost. Use extra garlic and perhaps some herbs to amp up flavor. If you try this dish, leave a comment and let me know how it turned out!

1 comment:

  1. Yup there a lot of genetically engineered foods that Monsanto created, most of them are the ones used and consumed by our kids. One major issue right now according to what I've read on organic saw palmetto that majority of genetically modified foods might contribute on the development of prostate cancer and ovarian cancer for both men and women.

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