Let It Be Fall: Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

Walking around New York yesterday was a rather surreal experience. There were cops on every single street corner–sometimes in clusters of threes and fours. Near 8th Ave., barricades upon barricades lined the way to Madison Square Garden, between which protesters stood–in the hot sun–holding signs decrying the horrors of George W. Bush. Red “No Smoking” stickers replaced the cigarette with a “W,” and stores appealed to the political climate with cutesy signs that read, for example: “Feeling Bushed? Kerry yourself inside.”

In many ways this is a good and exciting time to be in New York. In most other ways, though, it’s not. I find myself growing more and more weary of the political scene. Also, I’ll confess, it’s a little bit scary: helicopters flying overhead and sirens wailing past every few minutes. I really want this convention to be over.

Therefore, I decided to do the equivalent of a culinary rain dance: I decided to make a dish more appropriate for fall than summer. Call me a rebel, I can take it. I whipped out my newest Strand cookbook purchase—Tom Valenti’s One-Pot Meals.

I like the concept of this book because you basically end up with a big pot of food that will last you through the week. That’s one of my newest goals in this expensive city: to make food that will last a long while.

Risotto is no such food. It turns gloppy and pasty once it sits in the pot after being taken off the heat. Yet it’s in my fridge right now and I plan to eat it anyway. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

To start, you must buy many things to make this risotto. Among those many things is sage:

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Sage is an herb I haven’t worked with much. I am told it complements butternut squash incredibly well. This is appropriate, then, because here’s a butternut squash:

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Ladies and gentlemen, this is my first butternut squash. Scary, no?

Now I watched a Sarah Moulton once where she talked about safely peeling and cutting up a butternut squash. Unfortunately, I forgot everything she taught me. So I began by peeling the squash straight down with a vegetable peeler:

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This worked fairly well, though the outsides were still tough and bricky. I eventually cut off the outsides with a knife. But before that, I cut the squash in half and scooped away the seeds:

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Now Tom has you cut up the squash into half inch squares. This part, I’ll concede, was quite difficult. I almost sliced my thumb off twice. But somehow I made it work:

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Then into a pot with 2 Tbs of butter:

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Season with salt and pepper and cook “until brown and slightly softened but still holding their shape, about 12 minutes.”

Sadly, it began losing its shape 8 minutes in–begining to resemble mashed sweet potatoes, so I took it off the heat.

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Poured it into a bowl with the chopped sage and stirred it around. This won’t get used until later.

Tom has you wipe the pot clean and then put it back on the heat. This leaves glorious brown bits on the bottom that white wine will eventually pick up, giving a huge flavor boost to your risotto:

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But first mushrooms. Now I cheated here and I regret it. Tom wants you to separate all your wild mushrooms and cook them separately with 2 Tbs of butter each. But it was getting late, Lisa was coming over, and I wanted to have dinner ready. So I threw all the mushrooms in: (Also, I’d done all the mushrooms at once before when I made the Chez Panisse Wild Mushroom risotto, so I figured I’d be ok):

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Unfortunately, I only used 2 Tbs of butter to start and then, halfway through, as the mushrooms got dryer and dryer I realized it was 2 Tbs for each type of mushroom so I quickly added 6 more Tbs of butter. This made the mushrooms way too buttery:

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Then I thought about Julia Child and wondered if one could really have too much butter. I yanked a mushroom out and tasted it and it tasted wonderful. Very good, then. I poured the mushrooms into a bowl and tossed with freshly cut thyme. Mushrooms and thyme is a killer combination.

Now, we wipe the pot clean again and add 1 large spanish onion diced. That cooks for four minutes (in olive oil and butter) and then we add 2 cups of Arborio rice:

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This is a ton of rice for risotto. Since it plumps up with the liquid, this is way more than two people can heathily eat. No matter. Remember our goal: to eat through the week. And to skip past the Republican National Convention. I peered out my window: still Republicans.

Lisa arrived just as the vegetable broth on the back of the stove began to simmer. I had added wine to the rice and onions and it was now absorbed. The challenge was now to begin: the 18 minutes of frantic stirring and ladeling simmering broth into the risotto. This was a job for a virile, well-endowed kitchen god. This was a job for Lisa:

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After 18 minutes (the requisite time), there was still broth left but the risotto looked well brothed. I tasted a spoonful and felt the texture was right. The flavor was off, but we hadn’t added the mushrooms or squash yet.

And that, indeed, is the last step. You add 2 more Tbs of butter, the mushrooms and the squash and you end up with this:

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Suddenly, I looked out my window and saw a flurry of white men in suits spinning in a tornadoed mass back to middle America. The helicopters fled the skies, the police left the streets and the only noise was the noise of New York applauding. Lisa and I sat down and ate risotto. And it was good.

Gourmet Survivor 2004: Meet The Players

When one creates a scavenger hunt featuring 50 random unrelated food objects, activities and/or postures, one does not expect that many people will actually engage in said scavenger hunt. One expects that a small few–hopefully nine–will engage and that one may then say: “Foresooth! Everyone who participated is a winner!”

Instead, 14 kindly souls participated in our Round One Mass Elimination Scavenger Hunt. My friend Katy (who you may remember as our blogsitter from months past) wrote me an e-mail saying: “Do you understand how much power you have? I can’t believe you got all those people to do whatever you wanted. Make them all send me a dollar next, okay?”

Now Katy would have you believe this is about power, but it’s not. It’s about fun. And I was so glad to read in the comments that those who participated had fun in the process. I had fun looking at all of your pictures. Some of them were hysterical.

In the not so fun department, I spent the last few hours (seriously! I invested serious time) figuring out our top nine “survivors” who will go on to compete in Amateur Gourmet Survivor 2004. It was indeed very close. I was equal parts stringent and generous, being a stickler for the horny melon (durians didn’t count) but eager to award points for creativity (see Harry and Catherine’s posts). In the end, I think our nine contestants earned their positions in the Top Nine and will provide a perfect group dynamic to engage us for nine weeks. And so, without further ado, I present (in descending order of pointage), your Amateur Gourmet Survivor contestants for 2004:

1. WENDY

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Hailing from Toronto, Canada, ay, Wendy “learned to cook from [her] dad, but no formal training was included.” She can “follow recipes but [doesn’t] know which spices match what food combinations.” She is pictured above with her Ben Affleck celebrity potato. You can see the rest of her scavenger hunt here. Congratulations Wendy, you’ve done your province proud.

2. DALLAS

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Despite her name, Dallas comes to us from Bloomington, Indiana and has the added advantage of being my former comrade in middle school. (Don’t worry, no favoritism here. She stuffed me in a gym locker). According to Dallas, she cooks “well enough that it’s edible if you add enough ketschup.” You can see her scavenger hunt on her homepage here. Will Dallas win the Amateur Gourmet Dynasty? Stay tuned! (Admit that was clever.)

3. HARRY

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Call him the Israeli underdog (he’s the somewhat less hairy one above), Harry took his home state disadvantage and made a masterpiece of scavenger hunt photography (see, for example, his horny melon). Harry “fell in love with cooking about six years ago” and calls himself “the master of the grill” since he knows “when to use direct heat and when to use indirect heat.” Check out the rest of his photo album here. Keep shmaltzing it up, Harry!

4. ANDREA

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Like Alec Baldwin and yours truly, Andrea hails from Long Island, New York and has a penchant for irritating Starbucks employees (see above photo). (Just kidding, you know that got her 10 points, don’t you?) Andrea “likes to think [she’s] a good cook” but “it does not always work out as planned.” No matter, you can savor her verve and wit with the rest of her photo album. But we’re not fooled…we can’t wait to see this Long Island Lolita growl.

5. CATHERINE

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Like Harry, Catherine faced a home state disadvantage (she’s in Singapore) (which isn’t in and of itself a disadvantage, only in regards to an Americocentric scavenger hunt) and turned lemons into lemonade with a spectacular array of photos. Pictured above, she stages a jello wrestling match between an armless-skeleton and “overdressed-for-tropical-climate man.” (See the rest of her photos here.) Catherine’s only cooked for a couple of years, but if she applies even half the ingenuity she invested in her photo album, she’ll be in great shape–putting the zing back in Zingapore. (Hey, it’s 2:39 and I’ve got 4 more peeps to go…)

6. NICK

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Despite his late-in-the-game entry (well not that late, but a full 10 points late), Nick came ahead with an impressive array of photos. Hailing from Philadelphia, PA (home of the liberty bell), Nick “made scrambled eggs at age 7, didn’t cook until [he] tried making cookies at 13, burned [his] hand, didn’t touch a stove until 17, made fajitas at 17 and [has] been a FORCE for the past 5 years making all sorts of kitchen disasters go from ‘theoretical’ to ‘full-fledged real disaster.'” Well, that’s the spirit, Nick–disaster is the Amateur Gourmet’s middle name! Check out the rest of his album here. And watch out for tricky Nick—disaster spelled backwards is “he’ll beat you at Survivor.”

7. MICHELLE

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Michelle, ma belle–she does the Amateur Gourmet pose, very well! Coming to us from “Seattleish, WA” she has “no formal cooking training” and “mom only taught her how to scramble eggs” so that makes her “self-taught.” No matter! Michelle not only wowed us with her scavenger hunt, she also found the oldest issue of Gourmet and won an additional 10 points (the issue was from 8/96). We trust that Michelle won’t let her success get to her head and usurp The Amateur Gourmet title, since she’s already dressed for it. Or will she?

8. FAE

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First there was Tammy Faye, and then there was Fae. One a fallen evangelical star, the other the owner of a Culinary Institute of America t-shirt which she bought at a thrift store and wears to make herself feel like she knows what she’s doing. Fae came at her scavenger hunt full force and even posed nude for it. (I’ll let you find that photo on your own!) You can see her album here and who knows what else we might see before the contest is through!

9. AMANDA

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Last, but certainly not least, we have Amanda, who made her way into the Top Nine by two points! But no matter. Once you’re in, you’re in–and she’s in like Flynn. She comes to us from my old haunt, Atlanta, GA, and she cooks–according to her–all right. “Usually,” she says, “I just talk on the phone to my mom the whole time and she tells me what to do. I can bake great, though!” Well put your flour where your mouth is girl! And get ready to step up, because Gourmet Survivor is about to begin. Enjoy the rest of her album here.

And that’s it, folks. To all of those who participated but didn’t make the Top Nine, thanks so much for taking the time–and I hope you had fun in the process. It really was a very close race. And to all our winners–congrats! And get ready. Wednesday night you will receive your first challenge and you will have until Sunday to complete it. More information to come. Until then, extinguish your tiki torches and try to catch some zzzs.

Gourmet Family in the Hizzouse: Dinner at Azul

Remember those father-son swapping movies that were so popular in the 80s? “Like Father, Like Son” with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore? That other one with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage? And, of course, The Parent Trap. (Which wasn’t in the 80s, but was in the 60s and 00s, so it evens out). My relationship to my parents fits into that genre: I’m Dudley Moore in a younger person’s body and my parents are Kirk Cameron.

Let me explain.

Saturday night we had a reservation at Azul in Miami. This got me very excited because Azul was written about in Gourmet Magazine and Bon Apetit as one of the best restaurants in Miami, if not the country. Chef Michelle Bernstein made a name for herself with quirky eclectic dishes like her foie gras chocolate sundae. I couldn’t wait to give it a go.

My parents, on the other hand, were stoked because the MTV Video Awards were Sunday night which meant many celebrities would be in the restaurant’s vicinity. See, Azul is located in the Mandarin Oriental Miami (a gorgeous hotel) and limos and Hummers and all sorts of fancy cars were parked out front, with large hip-hop artists and lots of bling-bling emerging to my parents delight.

“Umm, mom and dad, shouldn’t we go eat dinner?” I pleaded, as they stood in the hotel lobby like eager school children, praying for a glimpse at Lindsay Lohan or Ludicrous.

“Shhh,” they said, “why you gots to be all up in our bizniss?”

Finally, after much tugging, I removed them to the restaurant with its well designed entryway:

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Once inside, we were face to face with a glass case containing the day’s fresh shellfish (sorry for the awful picture):

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The host escorted us to our table and, on the way, I was charmed by the bar with champagne holders built into the counter:

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Soon we were greeted by a droll waiter who, with sarcasm and a touch of wit, asked us if we wanted anything to drink. My mom asked about their specialty drinks. “We make a killer cosmo,” he said, “but we have an amazing array of martinis. A watermelon-tini. A blue-tini. A lychee-tini.”

“A lycheetini?” I pressed.

“It’s made with lychees,” he explained. “It’s my favorite.”

I promptly ordered it and it arrived moments later in a quirky container:

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See, the top of a martini glass rests in a bowl of ice. Kind of clever, no? And the lycheetini was delicious. One part lychee juice, one part raspberry liquer and several other parts vodka–it went down smooth and sweet.

Then we were presented our amuse bouche—a red and yellow corn chowder:

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Tasty and creamy. Corn tastes great in summer.

Soon we were ordering our food. Now, it should be noted that our first waiter (the droll waiter) said the best appetizers were the foie gras and the sweetbreads. “The sweetbreads are amazing,” he said. But then he was replaced (or joined) by a second waiter who arrived to take our order. I was going to attempt the sweetbreads (something I’d never had) but he warned me against it. “Unless you’ve had them before, I wouldn’t suggest it,” he said. But I thought they were amazing? “Get the foie gras,” suggested mom. So I did. And short ribs for an entree.

Because I don’t have a copy of the menu to get the elements of the dishes correct, suffice it to say the foie gras appetizer featured peaches and beans cooked in smoky bacon that were, indeed, delicious:

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Mom had soft-shell crab with flavors that I now forget:

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My short-rib entree was wonderful: the meat was wildly tender, no knife necessary. And it was topped with watermelon pieces, a touch I much enjoyed:

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Now for the sad tale of mom’s dish. Both waiters suggested the snapper. “Tons of flavor,” they both said. The snapper itself is stuffed with pickled ginger. Topped with mangos and coated with a spicy batter, it would be a perfect sweet-spicy mix:

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But, alas, perfect it was not. It honestly had no flavor. I tried it: flavorless. Mom had to ask if there was a sauce. The waiter brought out a sauce. It didn’t help much. Mom ate dutifully, but unhappily. The snapper gets no snaps from us.

For dessert, there was a much lauded peach napoleon:

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Pretty presentation but too sugary.

I much prefered the free cookies (petit fors? mignardelles?) that came with the check:

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There also came candied lavendar and mint that hurt my teeth it was so sugary:

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We journeyed back to the lobby where mom and dad secured us a prime people-watching table.

“Aight,” said dad, “east coast representin.”

Soon, there was a clamor. Shaquille O’Neil walked in. Mom ran up to him, with dad in tow: “Shaq, can I have a picture?”

“Not right now,” he said kindly, entering the elevator with his female companion.

“Aww don’t be a playa,” begged mom as the elevator doors closed.

“Biyotch,” agreed dad.

I sat sadly and smoked a pipe. Oh, the follies of youth.

The Rainbow (Cookie) Connection

Mom always asks, “Do you want anything? From the store?” when I’m en route to the airport. Some families have pantries that are well-stocked and plentiful; refrigerators bursting with tupperware containers of homemade sauces and soups and salads. Some people have Jacques Pepin for a father. I, on the other hand, have my mom for a mother and my mom doesn’t cook.

I’m not complaining: having a non-cook for a mother meant we ate out all the time. And that she bought special treats from the bakery. My favorite special treat from the bakery may or may not be Jewish in origin (I could only find it in the Kosher section of my Atlanta supermarket): the rainbow cookie.

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The rainbow cookie is my favorite cookie. I’ve been eating rainbow cookies my entire life. They consist of three spongy layers–red, yellow and green (Bob Marley t-shirt colors?)–between which rests a delicious raspberry jam spread. The outsides are coated with chocolate and Christened (or, in this case, Mosesed) delicious. Rainbow cookies are not very good for you.

In my time away from home (and by home I mean Boca Raton, Florida) I’ve never really found that elusive, perfect rainbow cookie. They never quite taste right. Maybe because the ones I find not in Boca aren’t homemade. Don’t get me wrong, the ones in Boca aren’t homemade either. But knowing my mother took the trouble to buy them for me; that mom knows they’re my favorite cookie, makes them that much more delicious. And maybe that’s why the rainbow cookie is my favorite cookie. They’re made (read: bought) with a mother’s love.

Off to BocaLand…

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go. Not taking my computer this trip (too much of a hassle) so no blogging til Sunday… In the meantime, keep apprised of our Survivor contestants who, already, have posted a hilarious array of pics in the comments section for the first round. Keep up the good work, gang, and we’ll talk again Sunday. Ciao!

Clarity and Corporate Sponsors

I just want to make sure everyone understands (regarding the post below) that you only get to post pictures ONCE. Once you post the link to your photo album, that’s it. Cool?

And also, I forgot to mention that we have two corporate sponsors who work in book publishing–they’ll be donating cookbooks to the winner! More on them later…

Gourmet Survivor 2004: Round One, The Mass Elimination Scavenger Hunt

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Wow! 50 sign-ups, that’s crazy. Thank you all so much for your interest. This should prove to be a very entertaining project.

Now then, unfortunately, because 50 is way too many to have a proper Survivor contest I’m going to have to eliminate 41 of you. I know, I know: Adam, how can you be so cruel? But it’s not cruelty, people. It’s necessity. If we do an elimination every week (which we plan to do), it would take 50 weeks to get through everyone who signed up!

So 9’s the number, and here’s how we’re narrowing it down: a Scavenger Hunt!

Before we begin, my apologies to those without digital cameras. I know I said it was only encouraged, not required—but I lied. You will need a digital camera to participate. If you don’t have one: beg, borrow or steal one–do what you have to do. This game is about survival and as we all know, survivors have digital cameras.

Now then, on to round one…

THE MASS ELIMINATION SCAVENGER HUNT

Here’s how we play. In a moment, I will give you a list of 50 things to find and photograph over the next four days. For everything you find and photograph, you will get one point. You must (and this is key) include yourself in the photo of the object. In other words, no Google image searching here: you must prove to me that you are there holding and/or slapping this object. And you will do that by including yourself in the picture. This will also serve as an identifier later when we narrow it down to 9: one of your scavenger hunt photos will be your ID photo for the rest of the game.

Now let me say right here, I don’t expect you to find all 50 items. That’d be ludicrous. Instead, you must balance quantity of items found with speed and efficiency. You will be rewarded for posting your photos in a timely manner. Here’s the point breakdown:

Posted by TONIGHT (Wednesday) at 11:59 pm, you get 20 points.

Posted TOMORROW NIGHT (Thursday) at 11:59, you get 10 points.

Posted FRIDAY NIGHT (Friday) at 11:59, you get 5 points.

Posted SATURDAY NIGHT at 11:59, you get 1 point.

And it’s due on SUNDAY at 11:59.

Now remember you can post without finding all 50. So one strategy may be to scramble and find as much as you can before tonight and get those 20 points. Another might be to wait the four days out and get all 50 points by finding every object. That’s up to you.

Finally, there’s the matter of posting. My e-mail account would explode if you all sent me up to 50 pictures each of you holding strange scavenger hunt objects. Therefore, I ask that you use a conventional picture uploading site like Flickr (which seems to be the best) or Snapfish. Upload your photos to one of those sites, then post the link to your album in the comments section below. This will keep everyone apprised of the point spread and will let people know what they have to do to win. That will also factor into the strategy.

Also, posting the link in the comments below will time-stamp your entry so we know how many time points you get.

And that’s it! Oh, and participants are limited to those who signed up in the initial post. I’m going to close sign-ups there once I post this post.

Now here we go. Here’s your Scavenger Hunt list.

Your Scavenger Hunt List

(Remember, you have to be in all these pictures!)

1. A horny melon.

2. The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.

3. A small child eating an ice cream cone.

4. A cheesemonger behind a cheese counter.

5. Nutella.

6. A potato that resembles a celebrity. (NOTE: I may award bonus points here for creativity, up to 5.)

7. You with an olive on each of your fingers.

8. A milk truck.

9. An Asian market.

10. You wearing a chef’s hat.

11. An old man eating steak.

12. The oldest issue of Gourmet you can find. (Note: make sure the date is visible in the picture.) (The pic with the oldest issue will get an extra 10 points).

13. A kid in a candy store.

14. A fruit tree.

15. You watching the Food Network. (5 points if Mario Batali’s on the screen). (-5 if it’s Rachel Ray).

16. A salad bar.

17. A mandoline.

18. You and someone else eating spaghetti Lady and the Tramp style.

19. A cop (in uniform) eating a donut.

20. A pluot.

21. A bottle of red, a bottle of white.

22. Butcher behind a butcher counter.

23. Someone selling food on the street.

24. A man in a suit eating a hot dog.

25. A pregant woman eating a pickle.

26. An heirloom tomato.

27. A wood-burning oven.

28. Mario Batali.

29. The food section of the magazine stand in your local book store.

30. A Starbucks employee (in uniform) giving you the finger. (This gets 10 bonus points).

31. You crying, peeling an onion.

32. A lunchbox from an old sitcom.

33. You in the Amateur Gourmet pose (see masthead). (Bonus 5 points if you look like me while doing it–ya know, red sweater, glasses).

34. A completely empty refrigerator.

35. Corn with the husk on.

36. A wok.

37. A chocolate-dipped strawberry.

38. The driver’s license of someone with food in their last name. (Like, “Harry Corn.”)

39. A sink full of dirty dishes.

40. An ice cream truck.

41. Peas and carrots.

42. You, having shaken up a bottle of soda, opening it up so it sprays on you. (Extra 5 points if this is a funny picture).

43. Jello wrestling.

44. You beating a beet.

45. Tofu.

46. You making S’mores.

47. A waffle maker.

48. You driving through a drive-through.

49. Movie theater popcorn.

50. You drinking a stiff drink.

That’s it! Good luck!

Where I’ll Be Spending the Convention, Sort-Of

Orientation at Tisch is one week from today, and I’m incredibly excited. Before that is the Republican National Convention and as you can see, New York is already getting ready:

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My mom had been pleading for me to come home before school starts and so, in the spirit of avoiding the convention and visiting my family, I decided to book a ticket to Boca Raton. I leave tomorrow and come back Sunday.

Stupidly, the convention actually starts Sunday so I didn’t do a very good job of avoiding the convention. But at least I’ll get to be home for a bit. It’s been a while since I’ve been back. And I’m sure New York will do a great job of making the Republicans feel welcome:

(Click to enlarge):

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