Sunday, October 2, 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto

Today was sublime...the kind of sublime that can only be appreciated when juxtaposed with what feels like months (and months) of non-stop work. My gratitude arrived the moment I woke up and stared at my alarm clock. 10am! The sun was shining and that crisp Fall air put a pep in my step. I had the entire day to myself—no work, no obligations—and I felt relieved to have this precious time to refill my well.

I spent the afternoon in my kitchen, experimenting and channeling my energy and inspiration from the autumn weather into something I hoped would taste as good as I felt. Craving a good, earthy dish expressive of the season, I decided to make butternut squash risotto. It's still light, like the weather, but introduces the heartier tastes of Fall.

Everyone needs to know how to make risotto. I're scared, but you need to roll up your sleeves and try. You must, otherwise you're going to miss out on this killer recipe (and succumb to your limited beliefs about your abilities in the kitchen). I'm not sure which is worse.

The key to risotto is practice, patience, and faith. You need to get used to the feel of risotto—its nuances, personality, and texture—and so you should commit to making it often. The beauty of risotto is that is has hundreds of incarnations and so you can change the stock and the accessory ingredients to reflect your tastes. Patience is a virtue; it's about 30 minutes of non-stop action start to finish. Faith comes in towards the end, right at the point when you're convinced it's never going to come together and that you should quit while you're ahead. That's when you have to keep moving forward. It's just like in yoga: when you come up against a challenge, do more of the right thing.

The foundation of risotto is actually pretty simple. It's important to have all of your mise en place prepared because once you begin, you can't stop. Cut one butternut squash into 1-inch cubes and toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes. Finely chop one shallot. Pour 7 cups of stock (your choice: chicken or vegetable) into a pot and bring to a gentle boil.

Melt 2 T of butter in a large pot or Dutch oven (note: put "le Crueset" on your holiday wish list) and sauté the shallots plus 5-10 bay leaves. Add salt and pepper. Once the shallots are translucent, add 1 1/2 cups of Arborio rice and toss for 3-5 minutes. This is the moment when the rice takes on the flavors in the pot, so as you begin to experiment with risotto, you can add different herbs and spices at this point in the process. (Note: saffron would also work well with the butternut squash.)

Now we need to seal in the flavors. Add 1/2 cup of Prosecco and stir until all of the liquid is absorbed. You can also use white wine, but my Italian friend, Pietro, taught me how to make risotto using Prosecco and I think it adds a subtle sweetness, creating a lighter dish.

The rest is history. Add between 1/2 - 1 cup of the hot stock at a time, stirring constantly until all of the broth is absorbed. You will most likely end of using about 5 of the initial 7 cups of stock, but it's always good to have extra liquid available, just in case things don't quite turn out as planned. Taste the risotto as you go, testing the flavor and checking to see where you are in the cooking process. You want the rice to be cooked through but still al dente. The risotto will start coming together gradually, but by the last ladle of stock you will see the signature, creamy texture of a risotto dish. Take one last taste and season accordingly with salt and pepper.

Add the roasted butternut squash and a heaping pile of parmesan cheese (how much, exactly, is up to you). I used vegetable stock today, but it would also taste divine with chicken stock and maybe some sauteed pancetta.

My final thoughts regarding your adventure in risotto are to draw on your experiences from the yoga mat. It's like coming up into a handstand: don't just sit there, strategizing the pose and psyching yourself out. You've gotta kick, dammit. You'll have as much fun with your failures as you will with your triumphs, so crack open a bottle of Prosecco and start cooking!