For as long as I can remember, I looked forward to the birthdays of everyone in my family because it meant leftover birthday cake for breakfast for at least a few days after. Our friend Emily, however, prefers birthday grub of the savory variety. So, for the past few years I have whipped up a batch of her favorite butternut squash risotto in lieu of a chocolatey confection. This year instead of arriving with a prepared batch of risotto, I suggested packing the ingredients I needed so we could cook together in her kitchen while enjoying a birthday beverage and more than a few laughs.
The only thing I prepared before leaving for Emily’s was the butternut squash for the risotto. While many people associate the rich flavor of a butternut squash only with autumn, I really find it comforting all winter long. Preparing the squash for roasting can be a challenge unto itself, but with a SHARP kitchen knife (I have broken my fair share of vegetable peelers on squash and just find the knife to be a better tool for the job) and a small spoon the awkwardly shaped veggie can been quickly reduced to a dice. Here are the steps I use:
Cut a small slice from the top and the bottom of the squash, making a flat surface on each end on which the squash can rest
Cut horizontally just above the rounded bottom portion of the squash.
With the squash on the cut end, cut off the peel of the squash deep enough to see bright orange. (This is where the vegetable peeler is lacking – it leaves behind some of the fibrous paler-orange flesh just under the peel that never gets quite as tender and succulent and as the inner flesh does when roasted. It’s a balancing act though as you don’t want to cut too deep and be wasteful.) Rotate and continue cutting until the entire piece is peeled. Repeat with the second piece.
Halve the bottom piece vertically and, using a spoon, remove the seeds and fibrous material from the inside cavity. Scrape deep enough that all the fibers are removed.
Cut peeled and gutted pieces to the size you need. (For the risotto I like just-smaller-than-bite-size pieces.)
I then roasted the squash until tender on a baking sheet. While I tend to like to minimize the dishes I generate while cooking, this is one place where I don’t hesitate to dirty a bowl. Tossing on a baking sheet is difficult so I always oil and season vegetables destined for roasting in a separate bowl to make sure all pieces are well-coated. It also prevents the inevitable escapee from jumping off the baking sheet to the floor to become a dog snack (though the dogs do love squash!).
After cooling for a few minutes, I packed the ingredients I would need for the risotto and headed over to Emily’s. After having a toast for her birthday, I began by setting up my mise-en-place. While not much of a secret at all this is a simple often neglected technique. A mise-en-place (literally, “everything in place”) assures that I will be able to cook without surprises and enjoy every moment of it. The bacon and shallots are diced and the cheese is grated. The one item you can not see in this photo is the pot of chicken stock on the stovetop, and it is perhaps the most important ingredient to have in its place (I’ll tell you more below).
Risotto is incredibly easy and, for many, therapeutic in both preparing and eating after a long day. There is a basic formula for all risotto regardless of the flavor being used, and a few rules to follow which make it incredibly easy to learn and versatile to adapt.
Risotto begins with onions or shallots sauteed until translucent in butter or oil. The grain is then toasted in the butter/oil/onion mixture, the pan is deglazed with white wine (or dry vermouth as I always use), and then stock is added in small quantities while the pot is stirred.
RULE #1: Only add hot stock. Bring your stock to a simmer as you’re sauteeing your onions or shallots. As you add the stock, the temperature will fall with each addition if it is not hot and the result will be a mushy risotto.
How do I know when to add more stock?
RULE #2: Add stock when, after scraping the bottom of the pan with a spoon, the risotto does not immediately fall back in on itself (as in the above picture).
Do I really need to keep stirring the pot?
RULE #3: Keep stirring. Risotto is such a comfort food in part because of its creamy texture. Some recipes rely on the addition of A LOT of cheese or cream, but near-constant stirring for the 25 minutes it takes to cook the risotto develops the grain’s starch and, therefore, a lovely creamy texture.
Lastly, when the risotto reaches al dente, the flavoring are added, which in this recipe includes saffron (the stamens of crocuses), grated Parmesan and our roasted squash. Be sure to taste and correct the seasoning as well since no two batches of stock are exactly the same.
There’s no candle in this birthday “cake,” but Emily surely got her wish.
SAFFRON RISOTTO WITH BUTTERNUT SQUASH (from Ina Garten’s Family Style)
- 1 butternut squash (2 pounds)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
- 2 ounces pancetta, diced
- 1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. You should have about 6 cups. Place the squash on a sheet pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer.
- In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the pancetta and shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 full ladles of stock to the rice plus the saffron, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir, and simmer until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Continue to add the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry, then add more stock. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 30 minutes total. Off the heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan cheese. Mix well and serve.