The Delight of Sous-Chefs: Butternut Squash Risotto

31 Oct

About two weeks ago a dear friend came to supper. This friend will readily admit she’s come late to learning the art and joys of cooking. She is a willing, entertaining and enthusiastic sous-chef . Best of all, she came armed with a delicious bottle of Zinfandel!

Butternut Squash Risotto

This was the dinner for which I had planned the Maple-Mustard Glazed Ham, the Roasted Brussel Sprouts & Vidalia and the Summer Plum Cake. Adding to the Fall flavours of this menu was a Butternut Squash Risotto. Now I would never recommend a risotto as a Savvy Single supper, unless you were making it as a vegetarian main dish (perhaps with a green salad) on a day you didn’t mind standing over your stove for half an hour.

As a labour-intensive menu item, risotto is a wonderful thing to cook when you have help. For hanging out in the kitchen with a beautiful glass of red wine, catching up with a wonderful friend who is a willing sous-chef . . . risotto is a good choice.

I have adapted this recipe from The Wednesday Chef’s adaptation of a Chez Panisse recipe. The guide recipe recommended using fresh sage leaves, but we made do with dried.

Peel, scoop out seeds and dice into 1/4 – 1/3″ cubes

Start by cutting a medium butternut squash in half, lengthwise. Scoop out the seedy centre of the round part of the squash. Using a vegetable peeler, peel off the skin from both halves. Cut each half lengthwise into 1/4 – 1/3″ slices. Cut each slice into lengthwise and then crosswise to create small 1/4 to 1/3″ cubes.

Simmer diced squash with sage and 1 cup of broth

Place the diced squash into a lidded pot, cover with 1 cup of home-made chicken broth or vegetable stock. Add a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of dried sage. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce the burner temperature so that you maintain a gentle simmer. Cook until the diced squash is tender (about 5 – 10 minutes) but still maintains its shape when added to the rice. Drain and reserve the liquid from the squash. You may need the extra cooking liquid when you are preparing the rice.

Set 6 – 7 cups broth to a simmer in another pot.

While the squash cooks, set 6 – 7 cups of chicken broth or vegetable stock into another pot. Bring the stock to a low simmer and maintain this temperature.

Finely dice a medium onion. Measure out the rice.

Peel and finely dice a medium cooking onion.

Melt butter in a large saucepan until it turns a beautiful brown.

Measure 2 tablespoons of butter (I used 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of EVOO) into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Melt the butter over medium heat and then add 1 teaspoon of dried sage. Cook the sage-butter, stirring for one minute.

Add onion and cook about 5 minutes.

Add the diced onion and cook for about 5 minutes until the onion is translucent.

Reduce heat to low, stir in rice and cook for 3 minutes, stirring.

Reduce the heat under the burner and add 2 cups of uncooked Arborio rice and a pinch of salt. [This is the rice best suited to making risotto, the grains being able to absorb the cooking liquid a bit at a time until you have a rich, creamy texture.] Cook the rice-onion mixture, stirring, for about 3 minutes until the grains of rice become translucent.

Add 1/2 cup white wine and cook until rice has absorbed all the wine.

Add ½ cup of white wine to the rice pot and turn the heat back up to medium. This is the stage when your cooking partner/sous-chef can take over as constant stirring and attention is required from now to the completion of the dish. When all the white wine has absorbed into the rice, add enough hot stock to just cover the rice.

Keep adding just enough hot broth to cover rice. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until all liquid is absorbed.

Turn down the heat under the burner to medium-low. Stir constantly with a sturdy wooden spoon until the broth is absorbed. Repeat this process, adding only enough hot broth to cover the rice, until all the stock is absorbed (adding the reserved squash cooking liquid if required).

Volume of rice expands as more broth added and absorbed.

The rice will have expanded in volume and the grains tender, but still hold their shape. The entire process takes about 30 minutes, with your co-operating sous-chef building  muscle as the rice expands.

During last five minutes of cooking, add in cooked squash, butter and Parmesan cheese.

While the rice cooks, grate a block of Parmesan cheese until you have ½ cup. Grate more to pass with the meal. When your last addition of broth is partially absorbed, add the cooked, diced butternut squash, 1 tablespoon of butter and the ½ cup of Parmesan, stir into the rice. Continue cooking 3 – 5 minutes until all liquid is absorbed, the squash is heated through and the cheese and butter have melted.

Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot. Garnish with 10 fresh sage leaves (fried crisp in ½ tablespoon of butter for 30 – 60 seconds). Pass more Parmesan for people to adjust taste to their liking.

Worth the wait and work!

Exhausted by the time she sat down to eat, my friend was wondering if all that work was worth the effort. When she dug into her portion of risotto she was in heaven, declaring it one of the best things she’d ever eaten. Thank heavens!
Personally, I found this risotto recipe a little weak on flavour. I believe one of more of the following things could improve the taste punch and balance of flavours:

a) Use the fresh sage leaves as recommended in the recipe, including the fried sage leaf garnish;

b) Use double the amount of Parmesan (i.e. 1 cup) when you add the squash to the rice. Or select a ½ cup of sharper hard cheese, such a Asiago, to punch up the flavour; and

c) Roast the diced squash instead of boiling it. I believe roasting would offer a sweeter, deeper flavour.

I took the leftover portions on the road with me and there was plenty to provide 4 more servings. We reheated half cup servings of the risotto in the microwave on High for a minute or minute and one-half.

Some final notes:

Risotto is a the type of dish that is highly adaptable. It serves as a foundation to display whatever is fresh and seasonal. Try asparagus in spring, peas or corn in the summer, beets in the fall or fry a little Serrano ham or prosciutto and add at the end of cooking along with leafy greens like spinach, chard or arugula. If serving as a vegetarian weekday supper, serve with a hearty salad or a soup for a filling and balanced meal.

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