Monday, October 26, 2009

Butternut Squash Risotto: Transcendence in a Bowl

Today on Serious Eats: Butternut Squash Apple Cranberry Bake. Mmm ... autumn.

It’s tough avoiding cliché when attempting to explain Chez Panisse’s Butternut Squash Risotto. Not because it’s lame. Nope. Rather, it's because the dish assaults your senses, leaving them huddled in a corner, murmuring happily to themselves about how they never had it so good.

So, you gotta resort to phrases both tried and true: “best recipe ever,” springs to mind, as do “NOM,” “mmm … risotto,” and, “I would marry this food.” All of them are overused and a bit hyperbolic, but in this case, totally appropriate. Because this risotto? It’s a Sunday meal. It’s a birthday dinner. It’s something you’d make to impress the bejeezus out of your parents. And it’s cheap and relatively healthy, natch.

You’d never expect such a creamy richness from a recipe that’s less than 400 calories per serving, but that’s risotto for you. The Arborio rice gives off starch, creating a smooth texture and eliminating the need for Paula Deenesque quantities of butter. Instead, you’re only adding a few tablespoons of unsalted, plus a half cup of parmesan. It tastes positively sinful, but your soul remains miraculously clean.

Of course, if you don’t make it to eat, then make it to whiff. As a rule, sage smells like Xanadu. Sauté it with onion and white wine, and it creates an aroma Yankee Candle would kill for. I swear, while I was cooking, one of my roommates floated into the kitchen on a cloud of fragrance, Bugs Bunny-style. It was a sight.

The only drawback to the dish is that it can’t be abandoned. Risotto needs constant vigilance, so expect to be tethered to the stove for a little while. Look on the bright side, though; it’s not great for socializing, but it’s excellent for not socializing. Picture it: “Aunt Myrtle, how are you? Oh, your hiatal hernia’s been acting up again? And PBS keeps repeating the same episode of Lawrence Welk? And the America you used to know doesn’t exist anymore? I’d love to talk about it more, but my risotto needs stirring.”

In conclusion, make this. Make it now. You will win friends and influence people.


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Butternut Squash Risotto
Makes 6 1-1/2 cup servings.
Adapted from Chez Panisse via The Wednesday Chef.

1 medium butternut squash (about 1 pound whole or 12 ounces cut up)
24 sage leaves
Salt and pepper
7 to 8 cups fat-free chicken (or veggie) stock
1 medium onion, diced small
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups uncooked Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup parmesan, grated

1) Peel squash, then dice into very small (1/4- or 1/3-inch) cubes. Combine squash, a few sage leaves, 1 cup stock, and a little salt in a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender (but not too soft) about 5 to 10 minutes. (You want the cubes to keep their form when they’re stirred into the risotto.) Drain and reserve liquid, just in case.

2) While squash is cooking, add the rest of the stock to another pot, bring to a simmer, and keep it there. Meanwhile, finely chop 6 large sage leaves.

3) In another, larger, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter over medium until melted.  Add chopped sage and cook about 1 minute. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn heat to low, add rice and a pinch of salt and cook for 3 minutes, stirring often, until rice has turned slightly translucent. Turn the heat back up to medium, and add the white wine. Once the wine has been absorbed, add enough hot stock to cover the rice. Stir well and reduce the heat back down to medium-low.

4) Gently simmer the rice, stirring occasionally, until stock is absorbed. Add another 1/2-to-3/4 cup warm stock, and stir occasionally until new stock is absorbed. Repeat the process until all the stock has been absorbed by the rice, and rice is tender. This could take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. (It took me closer to 30.)

5) While all this is going on, sauté 10 sage leaves in a 1/2 tablespoon of butter until crisp, about 30 to 60 seconds, turning once halfway through. Rest on paper towel.

6) When rice is mostly tender, add cooked squash, parmesan, and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, until dairy is melted and squash is heated through. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot, using sage leaves as garnish.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, and Price Per Serving
371 calories, 10 g fat, 1.4 g fiber, $1.77

1 medium butternut squash (12 ounces cut up): 153 calories, 0.3 g fat. 6.8 g fiber, $0.72
24 sage leaves: negligible calories, fat, and fiber, $1.50
Salt and pepper: negligible calories, fat, and fiber, $0.03
7 to 8 cups fat-free chicken (or veggie) stock: 120 calories, 8 g fat, 0 g fiber, $3.00
1 medium onion, diced small: 46 calories, 0.1 g fat, 1.5 g fiber, $0.18
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter: 356 calories, 40.3 g fat, 0 g fiber, $0.21
2 cups uncooked Arborio rice: 1280 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g fiber, $2.49
1/2 cup dry white wine: 96 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g fiber, $1.23
1/2 cup parmesan, grated: 172 calories, 11.4 g fat, 0 g fiber,
TOTAL: 2223 calories, 60.1 g fat, 8.3 g fiber, $10.72
PER SERVING (TOTAL/6): 371 calories, 10 g fat, 1.4 g fiber, $1.77

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