Baked, with a Butternut Twist

Leftover butternut puree transformed into butternut baked ziti. Ah, Thanksgiving. For some, it’s a time of boundless gratitude and quiet contemplation. For others, it’s a frenzy of food, friends, and frivolity.

It’s also the time of year when very little consideration is given to the meals leading up to and beyond the auspicious Thanksgiving feast. It’s not our fault, really: after a week’s worth of scrubbing, peeling, prepping, roasting, mashing, stuffing, and baking, — plus the prospect of more dirty dishes — the siren’s song of take-out, delivery, and drive-through is nearly impossible to resist.

Those of us who fall prey to the sweet promise of ease quickly slip into forgetful complacency, blissfully unaware of the dietary perils lurking therein. As the holiday season rushes on, it becomes harder and harder to break this spell.

Stronger souls are immune to this seductive convenience, instead armed with larders stocked with healthy ingredients, and at least one minimal-fuss recipe. Ours is a simple baked pasta casserole with all the hallmarks of a great weeknight meal: easy, flexible, adaptable.

In this variation of classic baked ziti, versatile butternut squash purée stands in for the usual tomato sauce. Butternut is a humble star, equally content to solo or share the spotlight with other veggies. A generous portion of cheese gives this dish world-class comfort food appeal.

This casserole can be assembled and baked, or frozen unbaked for later. After all, you (and your kitchen) deserve a break too!

Roasted Butternut Squash Baked Ziti

Serves 4

Forkful of Roasted Butternut Squash Baked Ziti
This recipe can be easily doubled, and holds up very well in the freezer. We like to make this with leftover roasted butternut squash purée, but it’s equally good with other fresh or frozen squash purées, sweet potato purée, or even canned pumpkin.
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped coarsely
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup Pecorino Romano, divided
  • 3 cups butternut (or other winter squash) purée*
  • 1 cup cooked spinach, kale, or frozen peas, thawed (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon crumbled dried sage
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 ounces ziti rigate, cooked just al dente, drained
  • 4 ounces part-skim mozzarella, coarsely shredded
*If your purée is very thick, thin it with a bit of water to a sauce-like consistency.

Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush an 8-inch square baking dish with oil; set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a small sauté pan over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until softened and just starting to brown, 4-6 minutes. Stir in garlic and sauté for 1 minute more. Remove from heat.

In a small bowl, combine ricotta, egg, and 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano. In a medium bowl, stir together onion-garlic mixture, squash purée, optional vegetable, sage, salt, and pepper. Add ricotta mixture to bowl; stir together briefly (do not mix completely.) Add cooked ziti; toss to combine.

Spread ziti mixture evenly in prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 cup Pecorino Romano and mozzarella.

Place casserole in oven, and bake until top is browned and sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

To freeze: Wrap unbaked casserole tightly in plastic; label and date. Freeze up to one month. To use, defrost in refrigerator overnight. Remove plastic, then bake at 375°F until top is browned and sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes.

To bake frozen: Remove plastic; cover with foil. Bake at 375°F until hot in center, about 1 hour. Remove foil, and continue baking until top is browned, about 10 minutes.