This blog has been a long time in the works. I even had the domain nailed down and basically set up for months already. But the reason I didn’t start it up until now (other than sheer laziness in refusing to write down the exact measurements of my recipes) is that I was waiting for The Recipe. The one worthy to start a blog with. You guys, this is it.
Risotto should be your new best friend for many reasons. First, and most importantly, it’s not as labor intensive as you think. Really. Risotto also lands in that magical middle ground of being nice enough to serve for guests, but easy enough to make just for yourself as well. Finally, risotto is infinitely variable. Once you have the basic concept down, you can toss whatever strikes your fancy (or needs to be cleaned out of the fridge) into the pot.
Before we go into specifics, I should clarify what exactly we’re talking about. Risotto is a creamy Italian dish made with short grained rice (in this case, Arborio). The sauce is lovingly coaxed out of the rice itself by frequent stirring. There are many creamy, grain-based dishes made with other techniques, and while they might be delicious as well, they are not risotto. No short-cuts here.
The base can be any kind of fat, but is most commonly butter or olive oil. I use just butter, because I love butter, but you can certainly mix and match as well. Most recipes start by sauteing onions, and I always add garlic, then whatever other vegetables I’m going to use. Because the rice absorbs the cooking broth so well, you need to have all of the flavors in there from the beginning. which is why I split my butternut squash in half for this recipe. One half goes in at the beginning and disintegrates into the risotto, while the other half is roasted then added in at the very end. Keep in mind that there are some things you should be sure to wait til the end to add (like any seafood) because the long cooking time will make them rubbery.
Once you have your flavor base done, it’s time to add the rice. Be sure to stir it around really well to make sure it’s evenly covered by the fat, and let it toast for a minute or two before adding liquid. If you’re the wine adding type, turn up the heat and go for it. The wine definitely isn’t necessary but it adds a nice dimension to the risotto, and is an excellent excuse to buy a bottle of wine. Allow the wine to evaporate, stirring frequently.
Which brings us to the cooking liquid. As always, homemade stock is the best choice, but you want to be careful that it doesn’t overpower the risotto, so be sure to dilute it about 1:3. Store-bought broth or bouillon cube will also work just fine as long as you dilute. If you are feeling really crazy, you could even use plain old water, as long as you salt the risotto well. This is where I depart from the true purists. Marcella Hazan, fairy godmother of all Italian cooking, says that the cooking liquid must be kept at a low simmer throughout. I never heat up the liquid, which adds a few minutes to the cooking time, but I’m sure I earn those back by not having to wash a second pot.
Turn down the heat to medium, and add your liquid of choice to the pot so it covers the rice. Here is another bone of contention: Marcella instructs constant stirring, which I don’t think is necessary. I stir once every few minutes, making sure that nothing is sticking to the sides or the bottom of the pan. You’re not chained to the stove, but you can’t go read a book in another room either. Find a happy medium. When you notice the liquid has gone down, add another half cup.
Start checking your risotto at around 20 minutes. There are a lot of factors which go into the cooking speed of risotto, including amount of vegetables in the pot, temperature of cooking liquid, humidity, which means it could take anywhere from 20-35 minutes to finish. When it’s done, the rice should be nice and creamy with a little bite to it (think of al dente pasta). Be careful about adding too much liquid towards the end of cooking, soggy risotto is a crime.
At this point, you could go a few different directions. The traditional thing to do is mantecare, which Marcella tells me is an Italian word meaning “to whip or beat to a creamy consistency” (I love the Italian cooking vocabulary). You add another tablespoon or so of butter, and some Parmesan and stir strongly for a minute or two, on the heat if you’d like to evaporate more liquid, and off the heat to keep it all’onda, or more runny. You can skip this step if you like but, especially if you’re serving for guests, it does really take the risotto over the top. It’s also common and acceptable to stir in some cream, although if you’ve stirred enough, it’s not essential.
I know that was a lot of words, but it’s no less than risotto deserves really. Hopefully, you won’t even really need this recipe now, but here it is anyway. The fried sage leaf garnish is a nice touch (an idea from one of my favorite food blogs, use real butter), but I mostly added it because I had sage around. If you don’t, the risotto is still delicious without them. One last thing: if you’re intimidated by the idea of cutting up a butternut squash (and they are strange beasts indeed) check out this handy guide.
Butternut Squash Risotto
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
Half a butternut squash, roughly 3 cups chopped
1 teaspoon thyme
1.5 cups Arborio rice
4-5 cups cooking liquid (see note above)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup white wine
12 sage leaves
2 tablespoons butter
Preheat over to 375°F. Mix 1.5 cups of diced butternut squash with the olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in a roasting pan. Roast, stirring occasionally while you cook the risotto. Turn up heat after 35 minutes to 400°F, and roast until caramelized, about 15 more minutes. If your roast squash finishes before your risotto, leave in the oven to keep warm.
Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Stir in onion, and cook over medium heat until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another minute. When the garlic has started to release its aroma, add the other 1.5 cups of butternut squash. Cook for another 5 minutes, until slightly softened.
Add the rice, stirring thoroughly to coat in the butter. Let it toast for a minute or two, stirring frequently to prevent burning. If you’re going for the wine, add it now and cook on high until it evaporates. Turn the heat down to medium and add one cup of your cooking liquid, giving it a good stir. Cook risotto, stirring every few minutes and adding liquid when needed for about 20-35 minutes, until the liquid has gone creamy, and the rice only has a little bite. Occasionally mash some of the butternut chunks against the side of the pot with the back of your spoon to really get the goodness out.
If you’re in the mood, fry up some sage leaves towards the end of cooking. Melt the butter in a small pan. When it’s nice and hot, put your sage leaves in a single layer. Flip after about 30 seconds and fry until crispy. Gently move the pan around pretty frequently, as the butter burns very easily (do not ask how I know).
When the risotto is done, get your mantecare on. Add the rest of the butter and the Parmesan, and stir enthusiastically for a minute or two, until really ridiculously creamy. Gently fold your roasted squash in, heating through if necessary. Serve with 3 sage leaves on top.