Fear Conquered: Risotto
It all started with a brilliant flash of cranberry risotto enlightenment. Just think. Vibrant red sauce with all the tart, healthful goodness of those bright little berries. What could possibly go wrong?
I announce my intentions to Boyfriend Javelin. "I really want to try a butternut squash cranberry risotto," I say. "With maybe some saffron and vanilla." I'm feeling especially inspired, toying with the option of a little cinnamon too. But I don't mention it. Because I can always surprise him later with my sophisticated genius.
Boyfriend Javelin frowns but doesn't verbally object. "Okay," he says, a little warily. "But won't the cranberries be a little intense?"
I favor him with the smug smile of a master at work. "I know why you might think that," I say, the tiniest bit patronizing. "But I'm only going to use just enough to enhance the butternut squash."
Boyfriend Javelin raises his eyebrows. "If you say so," he says. "I just hope it's more than a pile of squash and cranberries..."
"Never you mind," I say confidently, visions of cinnamon sticks floating through my head. Using them to scoop up the risotto from our plates in the most sophisticated of ways...
But not even the best cinnamon sticks could salvage that culinary abomination. Two bites in and Boyfriend Javelin looks over a fork-full of cranberry-bastardized risotto and shakes his head. "I don't think you should try THIS again," he says.
"Well," I say, just the tiniest bit defensive. "I think the REAL problem is, there's too much cinnamon." And I force myself to swallow a particularly toxic bite.
"The problem IS," Boyfriend Javelin says pointedly, "there's too much of a LOT of things." He dramatically scrapes a cranberry off a piece of squash and flings it to the edge of his plate. "Starting with the cranberries," he says grimly.
To be fair, there were a lot of problems with that first risotto. It wasn't entirely the fault of cranberries. There was after all the competing saffron and vanilla to contend with. And the utterly useless cinnamon. But it was mostly the cranberries.
First tip (likely unnecessary): don't try to mix saffron with vanilla. The flavors just wage an epic battle for dominance that's neither enlightened nor satisfying. And if you're going to use cranberries, let their brash, bold and obnoxiously tart voice sing alone. But for the love of all risottos everywhere, please don't add fresh cranberries. Not to risotto. Just…don't.
Do add saffron. Nothing warms up risotto quite the same as a pinch of these delicately spiced stamens - and it pairs beautifully with butternut squash. Add a little smoked bacon for comfort and some chopped nuts for added texture - and you've got a sophisticated one-pot meal.
Only don't be intimidated by the word risotto. Or by the tomes written on techniques for crafting a perfectly creamy texture. Risotto is nothing more than little grains of especially starchy rice gradually cooked in a small amount of liquid until toothsome (which may vary if your name is Boyfriend Javelin). The starch released by the rice thickens the stock to give risotto its creamy texture. As long as you go slow and give the rice a chance to absorb the cooking liquid as it releases starch, you can't mess this up.
Well, you could. You could add cranberries.
|Start with 1 small butternut squash.|
|Peel and remove the ends from the squash.|
|Cut the squash in half.|
|Cut each half in half, lengthwise.|
|Scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp from the squash.|
|Evenly dice the butternut squash. I like to use my chopper gadget to make quick work of this.|
|Toss the squash with a small amount of olive oil (I use my Misto and just spray the squash). Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt.|
|Roast the squash in an even layer on a large baking sheet for 30-35 minutes at 400F.|
|You will need 6 rashers of smoked bacon.|
|Dice the bacon.|
|In a large pot or dutch oven, fry the bacon until crispy.|
|While the bacon fries, dice 1 medium yellow onion.|
|Optionally dice 1/2 of a yellow or orange bell pepper.|
|Add the onion (and bell pepper, if using) to the crispy bacon and saute for 5 minutes until softened.|
|Add 1 cup arborio rice to the pot.|
|Mince or press 3 garlic cloves and add to the pot.|
|Stir to combine the rice, onion, pepper, garlic and bacon. Let the rice cook for 2 minutes.|
|You will need 1 cup of white wine. I use whatever I have on hand at the time (it varies).|
|Add the wine to the pot and give everything a stir. Let the rice absorb the wine for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.|
|Finely grate 1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg, packed. If using ground nutmeg, reduce to 1/8 teaspoon.|
|Roughly measure 3/4 teaspoon of Spanish saffron.|
|Add the saffron and nutmeg to the risotto. Stir through.|
|You will need 3 1/2 - 4 cups of homemade chicken stock.|
|After the risotto has absorbed the stock, add 3 Tablespoons of unsalted butter.|
|The butter helps keep the sauce silky.|
|Add the roasted butternut squash to the risotto and stir through.|
|You will need 1/2 cup of chopped pecans or walnuts.|
|Add the nuts to the risotto and stir through.|
|Serve the risotto immediately with a grating of fresh parmesan cheese.|
Roasted Butternut Squash and Saffron Risotto
Prep Time: 45 min
Cook Time: 1 hr 15 min
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded and diced
- Olive oil
- 6 rashers smoked bacon, finely diced
- 1 medium yellow onion, diced
- 1/2 yellow bell pepper, finely diced (optional)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/4 cups uncooked arborio rice
- 1 cup white wine
- 3/4 teaspoon Spanish saffron
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, packed
- 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 4 cups homemade chicken stock, warmed
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
- Fresh parmesan cheese, grated
- Preheat the oven to 400℉
- Toss the diced butternut squash with a small amount of olive oil (I like to mist mine using a Misto), 1/2 teaspoon cracked black pepper and 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt; evenly spread the squash on a large baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes
- Meanwhile, heat a large pot or dutch oven over medium heat and fry the bacon until crispy
- Add the onion and bell pepper to the crispy bacon and sauté for 5 minutes until softened; stir in the arborio rice and garlic and sauté for 2 minutes
- Add the white wine, saffron, nutmeg and reserved salt and pepper to the rice mixture and stir thoroughly; allow the rice to absorb the wine for 5 minutes, stirring frequently
- Reduce the heat to low and add 1/2 cup of warm stock to the risotto and stir through; allow the rice to absorb the stock for 5 minutes, stirring frequently (but not continuously); repeat with the remaining stock, adding 1/2 cup approximately once every 5 minutes
- After the rice has absorbed the last of the stock, add the the butter and stir through until completely absorbed; stir in the roasted butternut squash and chopped nuts and heat through if necessary
- Serve immediately with a grating of fresh parmesan cheese; leftover risotto can be reheated with a teaspoon or two of milk (per serving) to restore original creaminess
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Hungry for Tips?
- Technique: Contrary to what I've often read, you don't have to stir risotto continuously. Just add a little liquid, give the rice a stir and let it cook for a minute or so. Then give it another stir, followed by more cooking. And so on. Keep adding liquid as the rice absorbs it and never let the rice get sticky or dry. When I make risotto, I'm rarely standing over the pot the entire time - I just stay close and keep an eye on things.
- Vegetarian: It's so easy to make risotto vegetarian or even vegan. For vegetarians, leave out the bacon, use vegetable stock (instead of chicken) and add an extra handful of nuts. Vegans can skip the added butter and grating of parmesan cheese at the end - I often forget it anyway! Thanks to the wonder of starchy rice, this dish is creamy and comforting without even a drop of dairy.
- Squash vs. Pumpkin: Come autumn, everyone seems to trip over themselves in a rush for the closest pumpkin. Personally, I don't think pumpkin is all that tasty and the texture is far from appetizing. I much prefer butternut squash with its warm flavor, lovely texture and vibrant color. But if you're bent on pumpkin, feel free to make the swap. But don't say I didn't try to persuade you otherwise.
- Bell Pepper: I often feel like risotto is heavy on starch and not enough on vegetable - especially if I'm relying on this as a one-pot meal. So sometimes I like to add a little yellow bell pepper, just to feel a little more healthful. If you go the bell pepper route, don't use red or green - they're far too intense in flavor.
- Orzo vs. Arborio Rice: If you don't care for rice, you can make this exact same recipe using orzo pasta instead. Use the same technique for cooking the orzo as you would the rice - the pasta will slowly release the starch resulting in a creamy (if faux) risotto. I've done this many times and it works well - and sometimes I'm just not in the mood for rice.
- Fresh Nutmeg: Freshly grated nutmeg is much more delicate in flavor and less-intense in potency compared to ground nutmeg. If using ground nutmeg, cut it back to 1/8 teaspoon.