Recipe for Three Sisters Pasta

November 7, 2006 § Leave a comment

I’m starting to take pride in our cucina povera, and this is one of the recipes that made me realize that the possibilities are endless, even with cheap, ordinary pantry items. It’s essentially a béchamel pasta with vegetables, but it’s a warm filling dish, that reminds me of Fall. And leftovers absorb some of the milky sauce, so the next day they feel as silky as fresh pasta in the mouth.

Three Sisters refers to the three basic crops of Native Americans: corn, beans, and squash. I love the harmony of this companion planting. The corn is planted first, and as the stalks grow, they provide a place for the beans to climb. As they do, they replenish the soil with nitrogen, which fertilizes both the corn and the squash. The squash does its part by shading the soil, discouraging weed growth and preventing rapid evaporation.

Please just use this recipe as a guideline, as I do. I created this on a whim, and you should feel free to be creative, too.


for the béchamel:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups milk, warmed if desired
8-10 fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced (or torn, nobody’s watching)
1 tablespoon fresh (or 1 teaspoon dried) thyme
a pinch of nutmeg

for the vegetables/legumes:
1 medium butternut squash*, halved lengthwise and seeded
half a head of garlic, cloves separated but not peeled
1 to 1.5 cups frozen corn
1 fifteen-ounce can kidney beans**, drained and rinsed

to serve:
1 lb penne, or other tubes
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish, if you’re into that kind of thing

Preheat oven to 375°F. Oil the cut side of the squash and stuff each cavity with the garlic cloves. Flip them so they’re cut side down on a baking sheet, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the flesh is soft and the skin is burnished. When cool enough to touch, flip them over, remove the garlic, and score into diamond shapes. The skin should peel off very easily. I usually use only half the squash for this recipe, but use it all if you’d like. Peel two of the garlic cloves for use in the béchamel, put the rest away for later.

Put a pot of salted water on for the penne. Meanwhile…

Melt the butter and over medium heat in a large skillet (we use nonstick). When the butter starts to foam, add the olive oil, sage and thyme. Sauté for a minute, then add .75 cup milk and whisk madly until smooth. Curse yourself for being too lazy to warm it. Add the remaining milk, the nutmeg and salt to taste, and whisk until thickened and smooth. Mash the reserved garlic cloves to a pulp with a fork and whisk them in, as well. Set aside, but keep it warm. Don’t worry if it’s not silky smooth; it doesn’t matter so much in this dish.

When the water boils, add the pasta and stir. Cook till al dente, or about 1 minute less than package instructions. With 1 minute left until draining time, add the frozen corn to the water. Hooray for efficiency! Drain.

Add the pasta and corn mixture, beans, and squash to the béchamel, and stir gently to combine. If you’re too rough, you’ll pulverize the beans and squash, so be careful. Warm through. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Garnish with the parsley once it’s plated. Enjoy.

Serves 4-6

*If you’d prefer to use buttercup or some other winter squash, fill your boots, and let me know how it turns out.

**If you have them. I’ve used navy beans, turtle beans and mixed beans in the past. Whatever you’ve got on hand, though I’d hesitate with chickpeas.

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