Monday, January 6, 2014

I, Too, Have a Dream, But It’s About Risotto
What’s cooking? Butternut Squash Risotto

My dreams aren’t nearly as lofty as Martin Luther King’s, whose birthday we’ll celebrate next week. But I did have a delightful dream last night, in which I made butternut squash risotto and some really delicious looking pastries filled with homemade ricotta and topped with sesame seeds. Now, I have no idea how I’d go about making the pastries, but I’ve made that risotto more than once, and I can testify that it is truly dream worthy. And with winter settling in around the country, risotto has all the attributes of a great comfort food: soft, warm, filling, and with a great balance of sweet and savory flavors.

I’d never really heard of butternut squash until I moved to the Northeast. So I don’t know if it’s just newly arrived in the South, or if it’s another of those foods that we’ve “discovered” in recent decades. And by “newly arrived,” I don’t mean 21st century – more like the last half of the 20th. On the other hand, I don’t remember my mother cooking any squash but zucchini or yellow squash; maybe it didn’t appeal to her so she never cooked it. Was it standard fare for your family when you were a child? The first time I recall seeing it in a recipe was as the basis of Curried Butternut Squash Soup – a dynamite concoction from the first Silver Palate Cookbook. I thought it sounded terribly exotic, and made it a frequent star of my annual Soup Party in New Jersey.

As a veggie, butternut squash is like a sort of prickly friend who doesn’t go out of her way to be sociable, but once you get to know her you realize how wonderful she is. It’s a workout to peel one – the skin is thick and tough, and you’ll need a sharp knife and a bit of heft even to cut one in half. I recently stumbled across a one-pound container of already peeled butternut squash at my grocery store – diced to just the right size, no less – and felt like shouting “Glory, hallelujah!” right there in the produce aisle.

Even if your grocer isn’t as accommodating as mine, this is a veggie you should warm to.

1. It’s long on nutrition, full of vitamins A and C and all the key antioxidants. Along with other winter squashes, it also carries anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and insulin-regulating properties. The low-fat, high-fiber flesh is heart-healthy, delivers significant potassium for bone health, and lots of B6 to bolster your nervous and immune systems.

2. It’s simple to cook. Once you peel off that tough outer skin, cut it into chunks or – for a slightly prettier effect – ¾-inch dice. Be sure to remove not only the yellow skin but the whitish layer beneath it and the green veins – in other words, get all the way down to that bright orange meat. Then toss it with a bit of olive oil, sprinkle it with salt, and roast it for 30-35 minutes at 400º. Voilá! It’s ready to eat.

3. It’s flexible. Once it’s cooked, an amazing number of possibilities open up. Fold it into pasta or couscous or wild rice, mix it with hearty greens like collards, or combine it into a bright fall medley with roasted apples and roasted onions. Purée it with butter and nutmeg and serve it like mashed potatoes, or stir the purée into soft, smooth polenta. Or don’t roast it and make soup.

Or follow my dream and make risotto. I like sautéing the onion in a bit of bacon fat along with the butter, and I save the cooked bacon to garnish the dish; but you can skip the bacon for a vegetarian version, and it will still be wonderful. I also like this particular version because it’s flavored with dry sherry, which adds a slightly nutty note. Pour some into the risotto, and while you’re at it, pour a glass for yourself. Mangia!

Butternut Squash Risotto

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as a side dish.

1 small butternut squash (1½-2 pounds), peeled, seeded, and cut into ¾-inch dice (about 4 cups)
1½ tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups good quality chicken stock
4 slices bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic (raw or roasted: if raw, finely chopped; if roasted, mashed to a paste)
1 cup Arborio rice
½ cup dry sherry or Amontillado
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
salt/pepper to taste

Heat the oven to 400º. Toss the diced squash with the olive oil and kosher salt, spread it in a single layer on a baking pan, and roast 30-35 minutes, until the squash is tender.

While the squash is cooking, pour the stock into a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a bare simmer, and keep it that way.

In a large saucepan, cook the bacon pieces over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon to paper towels and pour out all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. Add the butter and reduce the temperature to medium-low. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4-5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Raise the heat to medium and add the Arborio rice. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute, then add the sherry and stir until fully absorbed by the rice.

Pour in ½ cup of the simmering chicken broth and stir until it is almost completely absorbed by the rice. Continue adding the hot broth to the rice, ½ cup at a time, and stirring until the rice absorbs the additional broth. The risotto is done when the rice is tender and creamy but still slightly al dente.

Stir in the butternut squash and the chives until well combined. If you are serving the dish on a buffet, you may want to save ¼ cup of the squash to sprinkle on top.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, and garnish with the reserved bacon.

1 comment:

  1. Woo-hooooo! Does this recipe speak to me? Y E S. IT. DOES.
    Looks absolutely divine and I want some right this minute...but noooooooo!
    I have to bundle up and go out in this 27 degree weather and shop for ingredients! (I do think it will be worth that special effort!)
    Eileen in Atlanta