Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To warm you up: a Butternut Squash, Sage, and Amaretti Risotto

No matter how cold it is outside, this butternut squash, sage, and amaretti risotto will literally warm you through and through.

And when I say 'literally', I mean it: this risotto is designed to be extra-warm. Enter:
Yes, a cinnamon stick and a dried chili pepper are the key ingredients to this (Jamie Oliver!) recipe (although the butternut squash, sage, and amaretti might have something to say about that!). These two ingredients bring very different, but complimentary kinds of warmth to the table. The cinnamon gives you something a little bit more earthy, while the chili gives you an ever so slight amount of heat. And the two together? A multi-layered warmth that is rich, subtle, and gorgeous.

But, the amazing thing is that as you have a bite, you won't be able to detect the cinnamon or chili. All you will feel is... warm. The cinnamon and chili just manage to bring out all those comforting things in the butternut squash. A perfect risotto for winter.

Not only are the flavors perfect for winter, but I also love making risotto in the winter. All that stirring and time spent over the stove. It just seems to fit.

Here's how I made this one:

First things first, get out your pestle and mortar and pound up a cinnamon stick, chilli, and salt, until you have a lovely, fragrant powder.

Now, brush your quartered squash with olive oil and rub that powder all over it. Just looking at it, you know it is going to be unbelievable.
Roast that for about 45 minutes until it is soft and smelling like heaven.
When the squash is cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh out and chop it up. If you want to be fancy, finely chop some of it and roughly chop some of it to give the risotto more texture.
For the risotto part of the recipe, there are a few things to keep in mind. The key to a good risotto is taking your time with it. You want to add the liquid to the rice a little bit at a time, so the rice absorbs the liquid and becomes rich and creamy. If you add the liquid all at once, you won't develop that wonderful creaminess that is the hallmark of risotto. And if you cook the rice too quickly, then the rice will be mush on the outside and hard on the inside. So, pour yourself a glass of wine, give the rice some love, and you will get excellent results.

Before you start on your rice, get your chicken stock simmering in in a pan. If your stock is warm, it will make it easier for the rice to absorb it. In another pot, get working on your risotto. The base of almost any risotto is onion and celery. So, over low heat, add some olive oil to your pan, and toss in onion and celery. Once this is gently cooked through, add your rice and increase the heat. But, be sure to stir it so nothing sticks.
As soon as the rice is translucent, add in either white wine or vermouth. And get ready for it to sizzle and steam! I only recently learned that you could add in vermouth. This is a wonderful piece of news as I always have a bottle of vermouth around, and sometimes I don't want to open up an entire bottle of white wine for 1/2 cup of cooking liquid (although if you do, and don't want to drink the rest of the wine, try freezing it (thank you, Mark Bittman).

After the alcohol evaporates, you are ready to start adding in the stock, a ladle at a time. Add in one ladle, stir, wait until it has been absorbed, and repeat. This can take up to 20 minutes, but it is worth it. When it is ready, it will be soft, but slightly al dente.
Remove the pan from the heat and add in the squash and salt and pepper to taste.
Once that is incorporated, add in your Parmesan and butter.
And here is the absolutely crucial step: cover it and let it sit, ooze, and make itself delicious for about 2 minutes. In the meantime, fry up some sage leaves.

To serve this glorious dish, sprinkle the crispy sage leaves and some crushed amaretti cookies over top. The amaretti cookies may sound a bit strange, but I promise you this is traditional, and delicious! And, think about it, we often add brown sugar or maple syrup to squash to bring out the sweet side of it. The amaretti cookies are performing the same job, but with a little bit more flair. Once the sage and amaretti are in place, it is time to enjoy this gorgeous dish.
How could this not warm you up?

Squash, sage, and amaretti risotto
(adapted from Cook with Jamie & a nytimes.com recipe by Jamie Oliver)

1 2 1/2 pound butternut squash, quartered and seeded
1 cinnamon stick
1 dried red chili pepper
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
2-3 stalks of celery, finely chopped
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
a little less than 1/2 a cup of grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
8-10 sage leaves (a handful)
3 or so amaretti cookies (a handful)

Preheat your oven to 400. In a pestle and mortar, pound the cinnamon stick, chili, and salt, until your have a coarse powder. Rub the pieces of squash all over with olive oil and then rub the smashed spices all over them. Put them in an ovenproof dish and cook for 45 minutes, until soft and caramelized. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh. Finely chop about half the pumpkin. Chop other half so that it is slightly chunky. Set to the side.

Place chicken stock in a small pan over medium-low heat. Bring to a simmer, then reduce to very low to keep warm. Place a large saucepan over medium heat, and add a tablespoon of olive oil, onion, celery, and a pinch of salt. Stir, cover, and cook for three minutes. Increase heat to medium-high and add rice. Stir constantly until rice is translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in wine until it is absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes.

Begin adding broth to rice, a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly. Allow each ladleful to be absorbed before adding next; process will take about 20 minutes. When ready, rice will be soft with a slight bite. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove rice from heat. Add chopped squash, and stir vigorously until mixed; fold in squash chunks. Mix in butter and Parmesan. Place a lid over the saucepan, and let sit for 2 minutes. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized frying pan, heat a generous glug of olive oil. Fry the sage leaves for a minute, until crispy. Then remove with a slotted spoon onto some paper towels.

Serve with a sprinkling of sage leaves and crushed amaretti cookies (and a little extra Parmesan, if you like).

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