Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Beast: Mastering Risotto

Ah, fall is here! Even if it isn't technically autumn by the calendar, the chilly nights here in New England say otherwise. I am so happy to be back living in Massachusetts, especially as the new season approaches. And fall means a whole new batch of recipes.

As it gets colder, everyone on earth wants things that are warm, hearty, and, well, "fall-y." Risotto fits that bill in more ways than one, especially because you can design it with whatever fall ingredients you like. Today, I'll be talking about how to make Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto -- but more generally, how to make risotto. It took me many months to learn how to make it well, and at least a few of those months were wasted on discovering basic risotto tricks that aren't in any recipes for risotto. If you've ever tried to make risotto, you know that though the cooking time on a recipe says "40 minutes" it often takes, oh, 3 hours. Or the rice scorches. Or it never swells up. Well I am here to show you a fool-proof way to make risotto, with delicious fall touches.

Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto
4-6 starter portions

1 Tbsp of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of arborio rice (must have, don't use another kind)
1/2 cup of white wine
6 cups of chicken broth (you can use vegetable broth if you want, too)
1 small onion, chopped small
1 butternut squash, peeled, and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces 
2 Tbsp of brown sugar
6 leaves of sage (about) chopped very small
3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper to your taste

The first thing you want to do is roast the butternut squash, because it takes a while, and it can be a pain in the butt to peel. But it's worth it. Whenever I buy the precut stuff, it tastes grainy. Maybe you can find one that doesn't, but I would say just buy a whole squash and when you pick one, try to get one that is as "log" looking as possible -- the smaller the bottom bump the better. This will help you when peeling it, since peelers have a hard time negotiating a big curve. Here, on the right, is what the squash should look like after being peeled and chopped.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the squash with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, and put it onto a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Keep the squash in one layer, and pop into the oven.

Next, put all the chicken broth in a pot on a stove, and put it on low heat, so it just simmers there. Have a ladle handy because you will need to ladle this broth into the rice in a minute. 

Next, heat the 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a large sauce pan on medium-low heat. What kind of pan you ask? Yes, a sauce pan. Does this matter? YES. It turns out that cooking risotto in a deep skillet or any other shape of pot will not work. It doesn't allow the rice to absorb the moisture from the broth the right way. Use a pot like this one to the left.

Once the oil is hot, add in the onion and a bit of salt. Cook for about 2 minutes until you can start to smell it tasting delicious. Then add the rice, and stir it around. Toast it up for another two minutes, and then add the wine. Stir the rice and wine around. The rice will quickly absorb the wine in about a minute. When it does, add two ladles full of chicken broth to the rice. Stir it. Wait a minute or two. Stir again.  I know everyone says risotto is so labor-intensive because you have to keep stirring. Well guess what - if you stir it constantly, it never gets done! So stir every 2 minutes or so, keeping an eye on it. Whenever the broth you put in is absorbed, add some more, 1-2 ladlefuls at a time. You will need to keep doing this for about 30-40 minutes.
I promise it won't be more than an hour!

In the meantime, you can chop up the sage, shred the cheese, and flip the butternut squash that's roasting in the oven. When the butternut squash is cooked through and soft (try a piece, should be around 25 minutes), take it out and just let it sit until the risotto is done. It's ok if it cools off a bit.

After your risotto has gotten to be noticeably bigger in the pot than when you started, try tasting a small spoonful. The texture of rice you want is: not crunchy, but tender, so you can tell you are eating rice and not oatmeal (not super squishy). Keep trying spoonfuls until you get the right texture (don't worry about the taste yet).

Once you have the right texture, let the rest of the liquid absorb (if the risotto is still watery when you taste it), so it looks nice and creamy. Turn the heat down as low as possible. Add the butternut squash to the rice along with some salt and pepper. Stir that around so that the butternut squash breaks up a little and tinges the rice orange. Then add the sage and the cheese (a handful at a time), and the brown sugar, and stir until well combined. Taste it, and add salt and pepper (and brown sugar if it needs to be a little sweeter) until it gets to the taste you like.

And there you have it, a perfect risotto for fall - in an hour or less! Risotto might seem like a beast, but after a few tries at this, you will be making it on a whim!