Friday, March 09, 2007

Butternut Squash Risotto

I've had several folks e-mail to ask for a good risotto recipe. It brings to mind a dish I made back in the fall. I've become quite a fan of several online "blogs." One of my favorite ones is "Stephen Cooks." Its author, Stephen Smith, cooks the way I wish I had time to, and I've tried many of his recipes. This one was adapted from one of them, and I know you’ll like it.

Risotto is an Italian rice dish, almost always served there in small quantities, as a first course. Cooked over a low flame, constantly stirred, with the liquid added gradually, it turns into a creamy, not-quite-soupy dish. It is imperative to use the right variety of rice; Uncle Ben's won't work! It must be a short grain rice, such as arborio, vialone nano, or my favorite for risotto, carnaroli. These are imported from Italy and have a firm core, but with a softer outside that dissolves in the cooking process to give just the right creamy consistency. It is true Italian comfort food, and perfect for this time of year.

I made it as a main course, and accompanied it with a salad of slivered fresh fennel and red bell pepper with a red wine-oregano vinaigrette. The flavor of the fresh fennel nicely echoed the fennel seed in the recipe, and I used the feathery fronds to garnish the dish.

One of the drawbacks for many is that it should be eaten as soon as it is finished. But you know how I love to have my friends gather in the kitchen, nibbling on an assortment of appetizers, as I finish dinner. I know your friends won’t mind, either, when they have their first taste!


1 butternut squash, about 2 lbs.
Olive oil
3 slices pancetta, about 1/4” thick, cut into strips (see notes)
1 lb Italian sausage, casings removed
1/2 cup red wine
2 large leeks, white and pale green parts
2 cups (1 lb) rice for risotto
5 to 6 cups chickens stock
3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving (see notes)
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp fennel seed, crushed

Wash and dry the squash, rub it with oil and bake on a sheet pan in a preheated 400o oven for about an hour, or until easily pierced with the tip of a knife. When cool enough to handle, cut open. Scoop out and discard the seeds and dark orange membrane from the center. The hollow body of the squash will be softer than the solid neck; scoop it into a bowl. Dice the firmer portion from the neck and reserve separately. (You can do this ahead and refrigerate for up to a couple of days.)
In a large heavy pot, cook the pancetta and the sausage, breaking up large clumps with a wooden spoon, until browned and crispy. Add the red wine and simmer until absorbed. Remove about a fourth of the mixture and reserve for garnish.
Meanwhile, cut the leeks in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1/4” half rounds. Rinse well and place on a paper towel to drain. Bring the stock to a simmer in a separate pot.
When the wine is absorbed, add the leeks and cook, stirring, until soft. Add the rice and fennel and stir constantly until the rice turns milky white. Stir in the reserved softer part of the squash. Add a couple of ladles of the simmering stock and continue to stir as it cooks. Continue adding stock, a ladle at a time, just enough to keep it fairly soupy. After 15 minutes, begin to taste the rice. It should be soft on the outside but still firm, but not hard, in the middle. It will probably take no more than 20 minutes total to reach the right texture. When done, add the grated parmesan, butter and fennel seed. Ladle into flat soup bowls and top with reserved squash cubes and meat mixture. Pass a chunk of cheese and a grater at the table. Serves 4 to 6 as a main course.

NOTES: Pancetta is a sort of un-smoked Italian bacon, available at specialty markets. If unavailable, just leave it out. For the grated cheese, I prefer either imported parmigiano reggiano, or the more affordable but still very flavorful grana padano.
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