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Being a secular type, I have very few rituals in my life. I quit Halloween when I was six, enthusiastically embraced my family's downgrade from "Christmas tree" to "Christmas ficus" as a teen, and told my mom I'd rather go to a fancy restaurant for my 13th birthday than have a bar mitzvah.* I believe this mindset might be genetic: My grandfather supposedly used to bellow "CHOW MEIN" at shul when everyone else sang amen, then he'd sneak out to get Chinese food.
* In case that confuses you, I'm a half-Jew.
If there's one part of my life in which I do enjoy some semblance of tradition, it's food. And when fall hits, I always greet the season with a roast chicken and roasted butternut squash. I usually also put some sort of starch on the plate, whether it's a simple pasta, risotto, or a grain like farro.
This year, I took an even simpler path, combining the squash and starch into a single warm salad. The starch this time was fregola, a Sardinian pasta that's formed into small balls, similar in shape and size to Israeli couscous. One of the cool things about fregola is that it's also been toasted, with some pieces more browned than others; the toasting gives it a deeper, more complex flavor that works so well with the other autumnal ingredients.
If you can't find fregola, don't fret: Israeli couscous or even orzo pasta would work well in its place. You could even lightly toast those pastas yourself on a baking sheet in the oven before boiling, to create an effect similar to that of the fregola.
I cut the butternut squash into fairly small dice, roughly the same size as the fregola, or just slightly larger. This may sound like an unimportant detail, but thoughtful decisions about the size and shape that you cut ingredients have a huge impact on how your food turns out. Sometimes you'll want contrast, with produce cut to different sizes and shapes. Other times, you may want agreement, with everything cut to similar sizes. The important thing is that you consider the effect you want before picking up the knife.
In this case, I preferred a uniformly small size because I didn't want an awkward bite, with large chunks of squash surrounded by little pieces of fregola. It's a small pain in the butt to cut the squash that small, but you can check out our knife skills guide to see how to do it efficiently.
Then I spread the squash on a baking sheet, tossed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted it until tender. Normally, you're better off roasting starchy-sweet vegetables, like squash and sweet potato, at lower temperatures, which helps break down the complex carbohydrates into simpler, and sweeter, sugars—a process that doesn't happen as effectively at high heat. In this dish, though, you have to weigh logistics against the absolute best results. Since we're roasting a chicken at higher heat, the most efficient approach is to cook the squash at the same time. But that means not taking advantage of the opportunity to slow-roast the squash. To get the sweetest squash, we'd have to roast it first at a low temperature, then crank up the heat and cook the chicken after.
There's no right or wrong answer here. Personally, I'm more inclined to take the quicker route for a simple, rustic dinner like this one, so that's how I wrote the recipe. But you may see things differently—if so, cook the squash at 325°F until tender, then raise the oven temperature for the chicken. In any event, the most important thing, regardless of cooking temperature, is to use a good, ripe butternut squash that feels heavy for its size and sounds hollow when knocked.
Once it was roasted, I tossed the squash with the boiled fregola, then dressed it with fresh olive oil. The obvious herb here would be something like sage, but I wanted an unexpected, fresher set of flavors, so I added chopped mint leaves, parsley, scallions, and grated lemon zest.
As for the chicken, I used our preferred method of spatchcocking, then making a jus with its backbone and other trimmings.
It's almost like a prelude to Thanksgiving—a food-centric tradition I can get behind.
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