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By Maggie Blackwell
for the Salisbury Post
Chef Gordon Ramsey seems to talk about risotto quite a bit. If you’ve watched the popular “Hell’s Kitchen” on TV, you’ve seen him growl at the staff: “@#!, man, the risotto is undercooked!” or, “@#!, man, the risotto is overcooked!”
From this I made two assumptions: (1) risotto must be a challenge to prepare and (2) risotto must be pretty popular as the best kitchens are making a lot of it.
A quick tour on the Internet proves the second assumption true. Emeril has a recipe for it. Barefoot Contessa. Paula Deen. Rachael Ray. Wolfgang Puck. Bobby Flay. So I set out to prove ó or disprove ó the first assumption: Risotto must be a challenge to prepare.
A little background first. I learned I had been pronouncing it wrong for quite some time. (As if I use the word much at all. In fact, I don’t think I had said it until I said, “How about an article on risotto?”) Although I thought it was riss-OH-toe, apparently the correct pronunciation is riss-AH-toe. Ah.
Risotto hails from northern Italy, where they use it similarly to pasta. It’s a creamy rice dish and often has fresh vegetables cooked into it. In spring, risotto might include green peas or asparagus. In summer, look for tomatoes and zucchini. Fall might bring risotto with mushrooms, and winter risotto could feature slowly cooked tender meat.
We all know that some rice cooks up stickier than others. Our family usually likes brown basmati rice, cooked so that all the grains sit up individually. Sometimes I think we prefer it just because it infuses the household with a bright popcorn smell. But risotto is a smooth and creamy dish, so the best rice to use is Arborio.
It’s important to note that in risotto recipes, the rice called for is uncooked rice. Risotto recipes cook rice quite differently than we are used to. Generally they consist of three steps: sauté vegetables in butter; add rice to butter and vegetables; add warmed stock, ladle by ladle. Stir the risotto continuously so that it absorbs the stock and butter. In some cases, the vegetables are removed from the butter and added back into the risotto later, to prevent overcooking them.
Most recipes also recommend homemade stock. This is because commercially available stocks are really high in salt. I blew off the homemade recommendation and used a couple of cartons of organic beef stock. It turned out fine, but I did not check the blood pressure of my guests afterward.
I happened to notice that many of the big chefs had recipes for butternut squash risotto: Emeril, Sandra Lee (Semi-Homemade Cooking), Ina Garten (The Barefoot Contessa), Rachael Ray (30-Minute Meals), and Wolfgang Puck. All the recipes were rated with four or five stars of five, and most were rated as “easy.”
Being a Barefoot Contessa fan, I pulled out her cookbook, “Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa: Family Style ó Easy ideas and recipes that make everyone feel like family.”
Just a word about this cookbook. She gives tips in it that no one else thinks to offer. Because her key issue is making guests feel comfortable, she often advises how to cook and include others so that they feel at home.
Regarding the risotto, she says, “I used to avoid risotto because I thought you had to stand by the stove for hours, stirring ó not exactly my style! But I decided to give it a try and instead found a dish that’s so delicious and cooks in 30 minutes. Test this first on your family and then when you have a party, you can invite your guests into the kitchen for drinks while everyone takes turns stirring the risotto.”
Her tips are great. Because my get-togethers are invariably informal, we often gather at the island in the kitchen for wine while I pull together the last details. I often ask someone to pour something or chop something and I always find they enjoy helping and seem to feel a little ownership in the meal.
The recipe for “Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash” turned out just fine, even though I used bacon instead of pancetta. We did choose a high-quality bacon. I was a bit concerned that our 12-year-old would turn away from it, but to my surprise, she really enjoyed it.
One last note. A couple of years ago, I purchased a food scale. I had resisted it for years because it felt so frivolous, but I finally got one, mostly because I found a red one that complemented my kitchen beautifully. It has proven invaluable in cooking to the exact recipe.
For example, if the recipe calls for two pounds of butternut squash, and the store has only three-pounders, I can dice it and weigh the correct portion. After not buying one for so long, I now really enjoy using it.
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Saffron Risotto with Butternut Squash
serves 4 to 6
1 butternut squash (2 pounds)
2 Tbsp olive oil
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
6 C. chicken stock, preferably homemade
6 Tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1/2 C. minced shallots (2 large)
1 1/2 C. Arborio rice (10 ounces)
1/2 C. dry white wine
1 tsp. 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 1/2-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 sauté the pancetta and shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes or 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.
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Maggie Blackwell is a freelance writer who lives in Salisbury.

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