Without any doubt, Fall is my favourite season in the kitchen.
For one thing, the temperature pretty much screams out for oven baking, roasting, and broiling. And on a rainy, cold, blustery Fall day, spending the day in the kitchen seems natural.
So on with the Crocs to keep the feet toasty warm and cushioned, and bring out the Fall harvest.
This week, in response to my lovely wife's birthday request, it was time to make risotto. And thanks to our friends introducing us to a beautiful orchard out near Carp — where apples, squash and pumpkins abound — the squash was a must-add ingredient.
Risotto is a mysterious dish for most people. It's creamy as can be, without cream, and with a minimum of cheese. It can be a main dish, a side dish, a dessert (yes, a dessert!). It's so open in terms of flavour that the sky really does seem the limit. It seems fancy, yet it's so flexible that pretty much any dunce can prepare it, provided they know how to find the right rice.
Arborio rice, you see, has a higher starch content. Stirring "regular" rice makes it gluey, as we all know. Whereas stirring Arborio rice makes it creamy.
And to cut that creamy richness, you need an acidity. That's where the wine comes in. Adding lemon juice can also help.
Blah blah blah aside, in the kitchen of my honoured culinary pal — who we shall call Gregorio to protect his identity — on a late-September Sunday evening, came together a splendid birthday repast of roasted squash soup, squash risotto, pork loin with arugula and Wendsleydale cheese, and sautéed broccoli.
Never mind the half dozen empty wine bottles – any party that leaves behind four empty chicken stock containers must surely be successful!
1 small squash, or half of a larger one
1 cup chopped white onion
4 to 5 cups chicken or turkey stock (for vegetarians, use a mild mushroom or vegetable stock)
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 Tbsp butter
1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Halve and seed the squash. Butter cut sides, then place face down on a cookie sheet. Roast at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Remove from oven and cool.
Put your stock in a saucepan and simmer over low heat. You just want to get it warm, and keep it warm.
Chop your squash into 1/2 inch cubes. Set aside.
Put olive oil in a heavy pan or very large heavy steel skillet (not cast iron -- you want stainless steel for this delicately flavoured dish!). Don't skimp on that oil. Warm over medium heat, then add onion. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.
Saute the onion until it is softened. Add the butter, allow to melt. Add rice, give a quick stir to coat. Add the white wine, and stir until it is absorbed by the rice -- about four minutes.
Now, add about 3/4 cup of stock and the lemon juice. Stir fairly regularly until that too is absorbed, then add 3/4 cup more of the stock. Stir again until that is absorbed.
Here's where you get to decide how finicky to be. You can either stand at the stove for the next 20 or 25 minutes, adding stock a cup at a time and stirring constantly, or you can take the happy-go-lucky my-guests-are-interesting-so-I'll-go-join-them-in-the-living-room approach favoured by Gregorio and his enviably laid-back brethren.
In that case, add 3 cups stock, the squash, and the garlic. Mix well, then set on lowest heat. Set a timer for 20 minutes, and walk away. Since your guests are so entertaining, you'll need the timer to pull you back to the kitchen, see.
At the 20 minute mark, check your risotto. If the stock is all absorbed, add a bit more. Just don't add cold stock. If you need to add more, make sure it's warm.
If it's not all absorbed, give a gentle stir to make sure things aren't burning, and head back out for another five minutes.
By now, you've got a big, creamy pot of yum staring you in the face. The rice should be fairly al dente, but not crunchy. Check the seasoning, adding less salt than you might otherwise (because parmesan is salty, of course!). Turn off the burner, and add your parmesan cheese, folding it very gently into the rice.
This, my friends, is the end of the risotto road. Plates or bowls, with other foods or on its own, you're ready to serve the risotto. Get your guests up to the table, and prepare to receive your accolades.
Pairing risotto with wine is easy. For this roasted squash version, I would highly recommend an oaked California Chardonnay – something buttery and flavourful, with just the slightest tinge of dryness to cut the richness of the dish. If you're a dry wine fan, go with an oaked French Chardonnay, which is slightly less buttery sweet.