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It’s winter, even though it doesn’t feel like it here in New York.  In the restaurant industry that means the inevitable million different iterations of butternut squash because that’s what is in season. I’m not quite sick of it yet so last night we did butternut squash risotto because, well, that was what we had in the house. My daughter will always eat rice, and because of the creamy nature of risotto, it has less of a tendency to end up flung around the house then say, rice pilaf. Or quinoa. Which I love but holy crap what a mess.

Another plus is that you don’t have to peel the butternut squash, or try to whittle a large lightbulb shaped mass into neat little cubes. You just half the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and roast it, flesh side down on a cookie sheet. What you end up with is a luscious almost purée that has enough richness on its own you don’t have to add much butter and parmigiano to finish the risotto.

Risotto is made with Italian fino or superfino rice which has the characteristic of absorbing liquid and releasing starch, thus plumping the rice and forming a creamy sauce around, all while keeping the integrity of the rice intact. Don’t try to make it with another type of rice, you will be disappointed. However, you can apply the technique to other grains such as farro, wheatberries, or fregola and end up with a similar result. In the grocery store you’ll probably see the three most common types of rice for risotto, Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. I suggest Carnaroli because it is the most forgiving, meaning that when the rice is ready it has less of a tendency to overcook, a common malady of the other types of rice.

What I also tell my students is that making risotto is a technique more than a recipe. The amount of stock to add is never cut and dry- it varies according to the rice (different batches will absorb liquid differently), the pot you are using (a higher sided pot will allow slower evaporation of liquid than a low sided one) and how high your heat is, among other things. Learn to look at and taste your rice- that is how even the professionals know that it is done. It should have bite but not stick in your teeth or be crunchy. It should always be creamy.

Leftover risotto can be spread out on a cookie sheet covered with parchment and cooled. You then make balls out of them, coat them with a breading of a sort and fry them. They are called arancini or suppli, depending on where you are (or risotto croquettes:) ) If you make them flat like little hamburgers you can use less oil and shallow fry them.

I usually figure about 4 oz of dry rice per person for a mid size portion. But if there is only a little more left in the box after that I always cook it.

Stock is a very important part of the risotto making process. Chicken stock is often used in most recipes, even vegetable ones,  because it is fairly neutral in flavor but adds a nice foundation to the rice. You don’t want the stock to be really aggressive and overpowering. If you don’t make your own, the boxed stocks or broths are better than the can. Some brands I have used are Pacific Organic and Brad’s and they are fine. Vegetable stock can work well too if you make your own. The store-bought brands tend to taste too tomato-ey or just plain gross so taste it before you use it so you don’t ruin the rice. You don’t want something too salty either, in fact, no salt in the broth works just fine, you just have to season in the pot each time you add liquid. If the stock is too seasoned add water to it. Remember, you don’t need a super intense stock. If all else fails and you have only water, you could get away with it, certainly if you are adding butternut squash to it which will impart tons of flavor. When I made this it was actually a rare occasion I had no stock in my freezer or cabinet so I make a quick one of carrot, celery and onion trimmings, bay leaves, garlic, thyme and the rind of a parmigiano. It tasted delicious.

I happened to have saffron in my freezer so I added a pinch to the rice in the first round of stock I added. The squash already adds a beautiful pumpkin color that the saffron helps to intensify. It also adds a background of flavor but is totally optional. If I didn’t have it I would still make this dish. And it would still rock.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Feeds 2 hungry adults and 1 toddler

the bottom (round part) of a butternut squash)

 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 of a medium white onion, finely minced

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 3/4 C Carnaroli rice

1 Bay Leaf

3/4 C white wine

salt

about 2 qts stock (you can definitely do I box stock and the rest water)

2 oz. unsalted butter

1/4 C  parmigiano grated, or more to taste

honey to taste

1. Cut off the round bulb part of the butternut squash and reserve the top part for later use. Cut the round part in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. You may reserve the seeds if you like, wash them, toss them with salt and toast them for a snack.

2. Drizzle oil on a cookie sheet and place squash halves, cut side down and roast at 300 degrees until a knife inserted meets no resistance, 35 min to an hour, depending on the size of the squash. When it is cool enough to handle, scoop flesh out into a bowl and reserve. You can do this step ahead of time and store in the refrigerator.

3.Bring your stock to a boil then reduce to a gentle, lazy simmer. The stock needs to be hot when you add it to the rice or you will slow down the cooking process too much.

4. Place onion, garlic and oil into a shallow saucepan. Ideally, you want something that is taller than a sauté pan, shorter than a regular saucepan, and has rounded sides so the rice doesn’t get stuck in the corners and is made of non reactive metal. No aluminum or non stick coatings. Cook over medium heat until onions are translucent but have no color. If the onions are cut too big they will not cook in the time the rice does and you will be crunching on onions, so it is important to cut them small.

5. When onions are ready, add dry rice to the pan and stir, with a wooden spoon and toast until rice is fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. You don’t want the rice to color, just to smell delicious and nutty.

6.  Add wine and stir to incorporate. Wine will cook off fairly quickly. When the rice is almost dry, add enough stock to cover the rice completely, stirring. A Chef that I worked for said the rice needs enough stock so that it looks like the individual kernels are dancing in it. You don’t need to stir it every single second, just consistently enough so that the rice isn’t sticking on the bottom. You also need to make sure that no rice kernels have crept up the side of the pot out of the liquid. They won’t cook at the same rate as the others.

7. Cook rice, stirring until almost dry. When you drag your wooden spoon across the bottom of the pot the rice should separate leaving a trail where you can just about see the metal of the pot. When you have reached that, add more stock. If your stock is not seasoned, add a little salt each time you add stock. The idea is to season the rice little by little along the way, building layers of flavor. If you forget to season  until the end, your risotto will taste like only the outside of the rice is seasoned. Conversely, if you over season along the way, it will be too salty to eat.

8. Keep cooking rice in this method, adding stock to cover, cooking off until evaporated, until rice is almost done. It usually takes about 20 minutes but can be as little as 12. Read the box for a guideline and be sure to TASTE!!! When rice is almost done add the pureed butternut squash and stir. Continue cooking in the usual manner until rice is tender but still with bite.

9. Pull risotto off the heat, add your butter and cheese and beat with a spoon to emulsify, or mix in the fat so that it incorporates into the sauce and becomes even more creamy. It is important to do this off the heat or your fat will separate out of the butter and cheese and become oily. If you wish to put more butter and cheese than do it up. Drizzle with honey and mix in and season with salt also to taste. You will probably need to add a little more stock, to loosen up the consistency. If you shake the pan back and forth it should rise and be wavy, “all’onda” the Italians like to call it. It should not run all over the place but also shouldn’t sit like a big ball when put on the plate.

10. Serve right away!

Before I go food shopping I like to make a nice hearty “clean out the fridge” soup. I do it to use up the odds and ends of vegetables, cut or whole, that I have laying around. When my daughter was an infant and had just begun to experiment with solids I would always have some kind of chunky vegetable soup on hand. The idea was for all of the components to be cut bite size, about 1/4-1/2″, and cooked soft, so she could easily pick up the pieces with her fingers but there is no danger of choking. Now that she is a toddler, and can be quite finicky at times. Soup is still the easiest way for me to get her to eat her vegetables. I make it with as little liquid as possible, just enough to cook it.

Minestrone is a hearty vegetable soup usually containing beans and sometimes pasta. This version was made with bacon (I like the uncured, nitrate free variety), dry cannelini beans and vegetables. However, you can make it with chicken, beef, or no meat at all. If you are not using meat make sure you have tomato in it, whether it’s tomato paste, jarred tomatoes (not tomato sauce) or diced fresh ones. The tomato adds acidity and richness which sort of makes up for the lack of meat.

Ideally, dry beans should be soaked the day before you are going to use them to rehydrate them before cooking. The main reasons for this are so that the beans cook evenly and don’t break apart and lose their shape, and because the soaking liquid removes some of the flatulence causing compounds from the beans. If you are making a soup it really doesn’t matter if the beans break apart a bit. The way that you “speed soak” dry beans is to put beans in a pot with 4 times the amount of water. Bring them to a boil. Reduce it to a simmer and simmer for 10 minutes and then shut them off and let sit for an hour. Discard the liquid, and cook them as you would if they were soaked. The beans I used take a really long time to cook. I know this because I have cooked them before. It’s not uncommon for the same type of bean but different batches or different producers to cook at different rates. So many factors influence this from how they were dried to how old they are. Don’t be freaked out if your beans are taking forever one day and last week they cooked up quick. That’s how it goes.

After my speed soak I cooked the beans right in the soup. If you get the beans going first before you start any cooking or cutting, your timing will work out perfectly when adding them to the soup.

If you are wondering if you can use canned beans, the answer is yes, but dry beans are so so so (did I say so?) much better than canned, once you start working with them, you’ll never go back. There will definitely be a future post on cooking amazingly delicious dry beans. My husband says I cook the best beans he’s ever had. I guess that’s a compliment.

  • Sweating the vegetables brings out the flavor and forms the base of your soup. Sweating is gently cooking in a little oil so that the liquid is released from the vegetable, therefore concentrating it and elevating the flavor.
  • As a general rule- carrots, onions, leeks, celery and garlic go in the post first to sweat.
  • Next goes starchy veg like potatoes, butternut squash and turnips.
  • green veg go last, especially leafy vegetables so that they keep their color. Brussels sprouts, cabbage, string beans go later on as well because they are less dense and take less time to cook.

The great thing about making soup is that you have a lot of freedom and you don’t have to follow a strict recipe. I am providing one to give you an example, and a delicious one at that. Just remember that anything with a strong flavor like the cabbage family or turnips are going to make your soup taste off. I’m not a fan of beets in a soup, unless it is borscht.

To clean leeks, you basically cut off the top 2/3 of the leek where it goes from white/pale green to dark green. The tops are very fibrous but still have flavor. They are good to reserve for stocks. The bottom is tender and is what you will dice for soups, etc. Slice them in half lengthwise through the root and then cut off the root. You are left with a rectangular leek with lots of layers. The layers however get smaller as you get to the where the middle of the leek would be so you need to take apart these layers to dice them evenly. Cut 2-3 layers together at a time. Another important fact is that leeks grow partially submerged in the dirt and if you don’t clean them well you will be eating that dirt. The proper technique is to cut your leeks and then agitate them in a bowl of water. Let sit so that the dirt falls to the bottom of the bowl. You then lift the leeks out, leaving the soil on the bottom. Never pour through a strainer because you’ll just pour the dirt back on the leeks. Do this about 3 times to ensure no dirt remains. About 7 years ago when I was a line cook it was 5 o’clock and I was checking all my mise en place and I came across melted leeks that were cooked by the day cook and they were sandy. I alerted the chef who then called down to the sous-chef who washed more leeks himself and brought them up to me to cook. It was dangerously close to service starting and I was sweating. I cooked the leeks as fast as I could praying that an order wouldn’t come in that I needed them for. I tasted them for seasoning and realized there was sand in them again. Of course I told the chef, because we couldn’t serve sandy leeks, and his loud deep voice boomed across the kitchen, “HANG YOUR HEAD IN SHAME, ALEXIS.” And I did. And I don’t want you to.

Clean out the Fridge Minestrone Soup

1 T oil, vegetable or olive

8 oz. bacon, diced

3 leeks, white part only, diced

6 small carrots, diced

4 stalks celery, diced

4 cloves garlic, smashed

1/2 bulb fennel, diced

1/4 red onion, diced

1 bay leaf

2 sprigs oregano

2T tomato paste

1 cup cannelini beans, soaked or speed soaked

1/2 tomato, diced

1 head spinach, removed from stem and chopped

Salt and Pepper

mmmmmm bacon

  1. Warm oil in the bottom of a large pot and add bacon. It shouldn’t be sizzling. We want to gently cook the bacon to get it going and begin picking up a bit of color.
  2. Add the leek, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, fennel and bay leaf. Cook gently over medium heat until veg become translucent and aromatic.
  3. Add tomato paste. Cook out so that paste caramelizes a bit.
  4. Add enough water to cover vegetables.
  5. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and add beans, tomato and oregano.
  6. Simmer until beans and vegetables are tender, anywhere from 30-50 minutes. Don’t worry if vegetables are soft but beans aren’t cooked. Keep cooking until beans are tender. About halfway through cooking taste for seasoning and add salt.
  7. When beans are tender add spinach and cook an additional 5-10 minutes, until spinach is cooked. You can leave the spinach just wilted, but I know my kid won’t eat it that way.
  8. Season with salt and pepper.
  9. Eat with a crusty loaf of whole grain bread to sop up all of the delicious juice.
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