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Kale Butternut Squash Stew over Polenta checks every box for a delicious fall dinner. This vegetable forward meal is bright with the beautiful orange of the butternut squash, the bright green of the kale and the pale yellow of the creamy polenta. The small amount of pancetta is just the right amount to add a salty, crunchy topping to this thoroughly delicious meal. If, however, you wish to keep the meal vegetarian/vegan, I would make some mushroom “bacon” or crispy shallots as a topping instead.
I served this over a creamy, slightly cheesy polenta, but it would be equally delicious over millet, rice or your grain of choice. The polenta added just the right contrast – and color – for me. And if you are going vegan, nowadays you can find vegan cheeses at many mainstream grocery stores. And an unsweetened plant-based “milk” and “butter” would substitute well for the dairy versions.
It always pleasantly surprises me when I come across a recipe that seems almost an afterthought to a magazine that I’m checking out. This one was in the November 2022 issue of Chicago. The recipe by Sarah Grueneberg from her cookbook Listen to Your Vegetables is served as a Thanksgiving side dish. However, after reading it, I thought that by playing around a bit with proportions, and serving it over polenta, Kale Butternut Squash Stew would make a satisfying main meal. And I was right!
This is such a happy dish. Just looking at the beautiful colors makes me smile. And with just a few simple ingredients – and a glass of a nice red wine – we ate well and felt great doing it. The only ingredient that proved a little tricky to find was an Italian pancetta. The grocery stores all sold “pancetta” from Wisconsin. Finally, after a visit to Eataly, I was successful in sourcing the real thing. A good thick-cut “bacon” of any variety would also produce a delicious result, but I was determined to use pancetta.
It was amazing how a such a small amount could impart so much flavor. If you choose to leave it out, then I would definitely use EVOO with some minced garlic and sage thrown in at the beginning. In addition, I would serve the dish with a flavorful topper like a mushroom “bacon” for just the right amount of punch.
Kale, Butternut Squash Stew is an uncomplicated dish to make. But I have found that some of the best meals I have ever eaten are simple dishes made well. This dish encompasses everything I love about autumn in one dish. And my husband raved about it. The next time I make this, I think I’ll make an apple pie for dessert….
Yield: 4 generous portions with polenta or other grain
1/2 cup pancetta or thick-cut bacon, diced
2 teaspoons EVOO
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cut into large dice
1 medium red onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste
1.5 Tablespoons fresh thyme leaves (I used Lemon Thyme)
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes in juice
2 large bunches of Tuscan (also called Lacinato or Dino) Kale, washed, stems removed and torn into 3-inch pieces.
2 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
In a large, heavy pot or deep, wide pan (cast iron is great here) cook the pancetta in the EVOO over medium heat until the fat is rendered and the pancetta is golden and crispy. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and set aside. Do NOT wipe out the pan!
Return the pan to medium heat and add the squash and onion. Season well with salt. Start with 1 teaspoon. You can always add more. Mix through coating the vegetables with the oil and fat from the pancetta, if used. (If you chose not to use pancetta or bacon, then add 2 more teaspoons of EVOO to the pan before adding the squash and onion.) Cook until the vegetables are softened and beginning to caramelize. This will take about 10 minutes.
Add the thyme and stir through with a wooden spoon, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom of the pot.
Pour in the tomatoes and cook until thickened and the liquid has reduced – about another 10 minutes.
Stir in the kale and cook just until it begins to wilt. Add the stock, reduce the heat to medium low. You’ll want to cook the mixture for about 20 more minutes or until it has thickened and everything has had a chance to make friends and meld. Taste and adjust your seasoning and add lots of fresh, cracked black pepper.
While the stew is cooking, make your polenta, according to your preferences and the package instructions. I like to cook mine in a mix of milk and water and I add plenty of butter and black pepper. At the end of the cooking time, I stir in some freshly grated Pecorino or Parmesan. For this dish, you want the polenta to be soft and creamy.
Top the servings with the bits of polenta or mushroom “bacon.” A nice red wine and some flatbread or other crispy bread is all that is needed to have a small feast.