Winter Bounty

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

            For me, one of the best things about childhood was the snack. I was never much of a full on meal kind of kid and, in fact, I remember more than one occasion in which my mother would stand in frustration over my full plate and me; my mouth resolutely shut. While playing with friends, or simply meandering for hours on end outside our tiny Massachusetts home, I would come in with a hankering for crackers and my grandma’s rhubarb jam, celery with cream cheese or a fat carrot fresh from my grandma’s garden, calling my name from the crisper drawer.
            However, the king of all snacks for this girl was mashed butternut squash. Rich, orange, creamy, sweet, delicious squash, one delightful forkful after another. I never wanted anything in it- not a dab of butter or a pinch of salt. My mother would butcher the impenetrable looking plant on our counter, hacking it into squares, slicing off its creamy thick armor. She would put it in her space ship looking vegetable steamer and lower it into a pan of boiling water where it slowly relaxed into mashable goodness. Because I so frequently asked for a little cereal bowl containing a pillow of my favorite friend of the pumpkin, mom would often steam and mash huge batches of the stuff and parcel out portions into freezer bags. I could then go to the freezer when I felt the orange calling my name, defrost it in our microwave and enjoy at will. 
            Butternut squash, a relative of the famous pumpkin, is common in Australian and African fare. You can often find Moroccan style butternut squash recipes in which the pulp is flavored with nutmeg and cinnamon and stewed to soft, palatable textures. Although as a child I was staunchly in the camp of steaming, as an adult I have discovered that, much like a sweet potato, butternut squash’s flavor and sweetness can be enhanced by roasting it, either chopped into chunks or simply cleaved in half.
            I had no idea at the time, but my younger self was craving one of the most nutrient rich winter foods out there. This squash is absolutely laden with magnesium, potassium, and of course, as indicated by its lovely fall color, vitamins A and C galore. Mother nature is genius in her web of edible delights, and in the dead of winter when we need an immune system booster the most, out of the root cellar comes this beauty.
            As an adult I have carried my love of the humble butternut through the years and now, when I’m feeling fancy, I break it out for the following recipe. The risotto grains echo the butternut’s creaminess, the rich stock compliments its earthy origins and the tangy cheese elevates it to a complex, Italian influenced dish strong enough to be a main or a scene stealing side.

Butternut Squash Risotto
            When I make this at home, my boyfriend will easily tuck away two plates worth while I am still happily walking down memory lane with my first helping, hunting for the orange gold nuggets hidden in the creamy risotto. 
            I recommend using the highest quality vegetable stock you can find; I like the Imagine brand but not all stores carry this. As always, don’t forget to look at the label; if you see anything bizarre just put it back on the shelf. Store bought or homemade, your stock should be dark, rich and fragrant, not a broth by any stretch.
            In order to find a perfectly ripe butternut, look for one with a uniformly creamy eggshell colored rind. The end with the stem should not be cracked or wrinkled. The stem should still have just a few veins of green running through it. When you spot one like this and pick it up to find it heavier than you anticipated, you’ve struck butternut gold.

1 butternut squash, about 3 pounds in size
4-6 cups high quality vegetable stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 medium Vidalia or other sweet onion, cut to approximately 1 cm dice
salt, coarse kosher is preferable
1 cup risotto rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

Note on salt: if you are using table salt, which is harsher than coarse kosher, cut the quantity of salt used in half

   Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut the ends from your butternut squash then cut it crosswise into 2 inch circles. Set the circles on their flat sides and use your knife to slice away the thick rind. Scoop the seeds out of the bottom. Cut each circle in half and place them in a glass casserole dish. Cover with tin foil and place in the oven (you don’t need any liquid or oil in the pan).  This will cook for about 30 minutes while you move on with the rest of the recipe.
   Pour your stock into a saucepan and set over medium heat. It needs to be just simmering as you add it to the rice later on in the recipe. In a heavy bottomed dutch oven or other pot, gently heat the butter and olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the onion and stir. Sprinkle with salt (about a teaspoon). Allow to cook gently until the onion is fragrant and starting to become translucent, but NOT starting to color- about 5-7 minutes. Add the rice and stir constantly, allowing the rice to heat through- about 3 minutes. Add the cooking wine and cook constantly while the wine cooks off. Once the liquid has been absorbed, add a half cup of your stock at a time, stirring all the while. When you add each half cup, stir gently and allow the rice to cook at a simmer until the stock is absorbed, then add your next half cup. The rice should be simmering in the liquid, not at a full boil.
After you’ve added 4 cups, test the rice. It should be al dente- not crunchy in the middle but with a nice tooth quality to it. When it doubt, add more stock!
After about 30 minutes test your squash with a fork, it should be fork tender. Remove from the oven and set aside.
When you’ve reached al dente with the rice, add a half cup more stock and the parmesan cheese. Stir to incorporate. Add about 3 cups of butternut squash- you may have excess. Stir in the squash, but don’t completely mash it in. There should be small chunks of it hidden throughout the risotto.Taste and season with salt to your liking.
Serve on its own or accompanied by your favorite protein and a dry white wine such as a French white Bordeaux. 4-6 servings.

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