There's not a single flavor of the season — from apples to oysters — that bacon doesn't complement. But of them all, nothing evokes the season quite like the marriage of bacon with butternut squash, especially when shallots and sage are added to the equation. When that little quartet is brought together in the pot, whether it's for a soup, pasta sauce, savory side dish or cheese-crusted gratin, the results are more warming and comforting than a fuzzy old sweater.

Autumn squashes come in all shapes, colors and sizes, but butternut is one of the most widely available of them all. It's the squash that's shaped like a light bulb with a tan skin and flesh the color of a pumpkin. Cracking the squash to get to its flesh can be a challenge, but with a few tricks, the job is done without much trouble.

* First, choose smaller squash with a fairly narrow neck. These are easier to handle. Peel it completely with a vegetable peeler. If the skin is especially thick, you may need to go over it twice to get to the orange inner flesh.

* Lay it on one side, and trim away the stem and blossom ends with a large, sharp knife.

* Insert the tip of the knife into the point when the neck of the squash just begins to flare into the body. This is the top of the seed cavity, which is much easier to cut through. Then lay the knife on this cut and slice through, separating the neck and the round bottom.

* Turn the bottom up so that it sits flat on the work surface, and cut it in half. Scoop out the seeds and the sinewy tissue with a melon baller or sharp-edged spoon.

* Slice the neck into thick rounds and the body into cubes or slices as needed for your recipe.

For this yummy pasta dish, you'll want to dice the butternut squash, then mix it all up with angel-hair pasta for a delightful side dish or vegetarian entree. The beauty of this dish is its versatility. Add shrimp for a nice change in taste and texture.


Angel-Hair Spaghetti With Butternut Squash and Bacon

4 extra-thick slices applewood smoked bacon, cut into dice

1 small (about 1 1/2-pound) butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced

1/3 cup small-diced shallots

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground sage, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper, or to taste

2 small scallions, trimmed and thinly sliced

12 ounces (3/4 pound) angel-hair spaghetti

1 to 1 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese, divided

1 tablespoon very small sage leaves, left whole, optional, for garnish

Saute bacon over medium heat until browned but not too crispy and fat is rendered. Spoon off all but 2 tablespoons fat. Add squash, and toss until hot throughout and glossy. Add shallot, and saute until squash and shallot are beginning to color at edges, 3-4 minutes.

Add, salt, pepper, sage, crushed red pepper and about 1/4 cup water, stirring and scraping to loosen bits on sides and bottom of pan. Cover, reduce heat to low and braise until squash is just tender, 4-5 minutes longer. Check to make sure moisture does not completely evaporate. Uncover, add scallion, and toss until well incorporated. Turn off heat.

Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil. Stir in small handful of salt and the pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, until al dente. When ready, reserve 1/2 cup cooking liquid and drain pasta. Add pasta to sauce in pan, and toss well. If it seems dry, add a tablespoon or so of pasta cooking water.

Add half of cheese and toss, again adding a little pasta cooking water if too dry. Scatter small whole sage leaves over, and serve from pan or turn into serving bowl and sprinkle with whole sage leaves. Serve at once, passing remaining cheese separately.

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Anne Braly