Usually I have a gage in my head that lets me know how good the dinner I’m making is going to be. At some point, while prepping this Kabocha Squash Risotto (based on this one in Bon Appetit), I figured it would be pretty good but not great. Several reasons: the squash, which you pan-fry before adding to the risotto, came out a little mealy and dry. And instead of making my own stock, I took the recipe’s advice and used Swanson vegetable broth. I figured on a scale from 1 to 10, this risotto would be a 6. How wrong I was. This risotto was hands down one of the best risottos I’ve ever made–an absolute 11–and everyone I fed it to went nuts for it. What made it so good? Let’s examine.
Ok, well this was a dinner for The Clean Plate Club and I decided, it being a Wednesday, to check out the Santa Monica Monica Farmer’s Market in the morning. Even though it’s a huge schlep from where I live (all the way east and Santa Monica is all the way west), it’s the market all the chefs go to because it’s just so good. (Chef Suzanne Tracht made that clear in her episode.) People plan, though, and God laughs. Cue the rain:
My first stop? TJ Max to buy an umbrella. $7.99. Heirloom, free-range, the works.
The rain really was coming down in buckets, so after one quick trip around, I snuck under the awning of this stand:
The man there (and I felt bad for anyone working the market that day because the rain was keeping people away) told me that the green squash–Kabocha–was sweeter than the orange squash. So I bought a green one and took it home. Farmer’s market squash? Check.
At home, I put the squash on the table and admired it:
Then I attempted to cut it in half. This did not go very well:
Mistakes were made:
The trick, I eventually learned: use your biggest knife, cut down from the top through the middle and if you can’t get your knife all the way through use a kitchen towel to protect your hand as you press it down. At last, progress:
This was a huge squash, so only half went into the risotto. You peel it (I used that same knife), scoop out the seeds and then cube it.
In a large non-stick skillet, heat olive oil (I added butter) and brown that squash.
Some say you shouldn’t salt something while it browns, but I salted just a little. (The theory is that salting releases all the liquid and doesn’t allow browning to happen; but I don’t think that happens with squash.) Oh and you add chopped sage at the end.
Scrape that into a bowl and taste. It’s sweet and good but mealy, as I stated earlier. But what you don’t realize is that it will hydrate in the risotto–so don’t worry!
Now in that same pan, you cook chopped onions in butter and olive oil.
That looks like a lot of onion, but here’s something I’ve learned recently: if you want to make anything taste amazingly delicious, start with a lot of onions coated in some kind of fat and cook them low and slow with a pinch of salt for a really, really long time. As long as you can manage. Because what happens is those onions pretty much confit: they turn sweet and golden and brown, almost like an onion jam. And what looks like an enormous amount becomes this:
That’s onion gold, people. It works magic on anything you cook (eggs, sauce, you name it). But this is squash risotto, so pay attention.
Add your arborio rice and toast it with the onions:
This is an important step because it ensures the grains will remain separate and that the rice doesn’t fall apart. Meanwhile, you should have your vegetable stock at a boil. (I also put water in a teapot which I brought to a boil, so I could supplement the liquid if necessary. Better to have too much liquid than not enough.) Before you add the stock or water, though, you add a big glug of white wine. The recipe says Marsala, but I had Gruner Vetliner–which is totally different–but it worked great.
Once that’s absorbed and it evaporates, add your first ladleful of stock. Here’s the game you’re playing: you want the risotto pan–and I used the same wide, non-stick skillet I used for everything else, though that’s highly controversial (Marcella Hazan insisted you use a pot)–to be at an active enough simmer that things are happening, but not so active that things are happening too fast. Let’s put it this way: you want bubbles as you add the stock, but not roaring bubbles. Just perky bubbles. Your goal is to have the rice cooked in 20 minutes or so. So if it seems like it’s happening too fast, slow it down. (For great visual demonstrations of risotto technique, watch Lidia’s Italy on Hulu.)
About 12 minutes in, I added all the squash:
This is where everything changes. As I said earlier, I was suspicious of this risotto, I didn’t think there’d be any great alchemy at play. But what happens is that the stock wakes up the squash and the squash, in turn, lends its flavor to the liquid. By the time the rice is done cooking, you have a beautiful marriage being consummated before you.
(Those brown bits are toasted pine nuts. They add good flavor too.)
The recipe pretty much ends there but if you stop there, you’re making a mistake. One trick I learned from Cesare Casella when I made a risotto-making video with him that no longer exists because the site I made it for (Food2.com) no longer exists is the same trick Lidia talks about in her risotto lessons: mantecare. That’s the final step of whipping butter and cheese into your risotto. So add about 3 tablespoons of softened butter (yes, that’s a lot, but we’re not at a health food convention here) and about 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese to the risotto OFF THE HEAT (that’s important) and stir it in aggressively with you wooden spoon. Taste it now:
Crazy delicious, right? Texture-wise, you want the risotto to still be somewhat saucy and mobile, not stiff. Cesare said it should move “like a wave.” That’s good advice. (If it’s too stiff, you can still add more liquid, even after mantecare.)
Ladle into warm bowls and sprinkle some more cheese on top:
I can’t think of a greater fall dish to make and you don’t have to make it with kabocha squash. Butternut will work too. Just be careful cutting into it and be patient with the rice as it cooks. And invite your favorite people over to eat it, because they’re in for a treat.
Recipe: Kabocha Squash Risotto
Summary: Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appetit.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
- 3 pound kabocha or butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoons finely chopped sage
- 1 tablespoon Sherry wine vinegar
- 2 yellow onions chopped
- 4 cups (1 quart) good quality vegetable broth (Swanson’s works well!)
- 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
- 1/2 cup medium dry Sherry or Marsala or any white wine (I used Gruner Vetliner)
- 3/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (plus more for sprinkling)
- Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a heavy, large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add the squash, sprinkle with salt and don’t move it until it’s brown on that side. Then flip over and continue to brown and cook, stirring every so often, for another few minutes until the squash is starting to cook through. Add the chopped sage and continue to cook until the squash is done and flavorful. Sprinkle with the sherry wine vinegar, toss around, and transfer to a plate. Wipe the skillet clean.
- Heat remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in the same skillet over high heat. Add the onions, sprinkle with salt, and cook until the onions start to brown. Lower to the lowest heat and cook for as long as you can–the recipe says 20 minutes, I say more like 60 minutes–until deeply, profoundly golden brown.
- In a large pot, add the vegetable stock and 3 1/2 cups of water and bring to a simmer. Season with salt to taste.
- Add arborio rice to the onions in the skillet and turn up the heat to medium. Toast until the rice is slightly translucent, about 4 minutes. Add sherry or Marsala or wine and cook until liquid is absorbed and almost all evaporated. Then add your first addition of stock: enough to cover all the rice. The stock should bubble with the rice but not too aggressively. You need to time this so it cooks at a healthy speed–not too fast, not too slow. Stir as it goes and when the stock’s absorbed (it should take a minute or two), add the next addition and keep going for 12 minutes, adding stock when necessary. At that point, add all your squash and stir.
- Cook until the risotto’s done: should be 20 minutes total. The rice should be toothsome and the risotto itself should be saucy and move like a wave. Add the pine nuts and then, off the heat, add the remaining butter and the cheese and whip it in aggressively. Ladle the risotto into warm bowls and sprinkle with more cheese.
Preparation time: 30 minute(s)
Cooking time: 1 hour(s) 20 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 4