Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ode to Butternut Squash

Butternut squash is truly a revelation. It's practically candy but a vegetable nonetheless, and although practically nothing need be added to make this squash delicious, there are so many various techniques and spices that can take this humble winter veggie into other worlds of flavor.

Another great thing about winter squash in general is that it's one of those few items you can buy at the grocery store and leave in your fridge for a while. When the time is right, this off-the-cuff purchase will be waiting happily in the crisper to save your dinnertime cravings.

On a night like this, I suggest the following simple roasted recipe.

Roasted Butternut Squash 

Butternut squash, cubed
2 Tbsp. Olive Oil
1/2 Tbsp. Curry Powder
1/2 Tbsp. Oregano
1 Tbsp. Muscavado/Natural Brown Sugar

1. Set oven to 400.
2. Toss squash cubes in olive oil and the spices.
3. Roast for about 20-30 minutes, or until soft to the fork. Always watch check often after about 15 minutes because based on the size of the cubes and your desired tenderness, the time will vary. Serve by itself, as a side or on top of rice or lentils.

Saffron gatherers on a Minoan fresco
Now if you have time to prepare, go to the store, etc., I whole-heartedly suggest this butternut squash risotto recipe which literally knocked my socks off the first time I tried it. The depth of flavor in this risotto is incredible. With the exception of the saffron, which has throughout history remained among the world's costliest substances, this recipe feature fairly simple ingredients at a low cost to produce a large bulk i.e. delicious leftovers for days! P.S. I don't recommend leaving out the saffron. It's lovely, aromatic and has no true flavor substitute among other spices. Also, this recipe can be made vegetarian by using vegetable stock and no pancetta. I have made it this way many many times, and it is still so great, but if you are a meat-eater I recommend using the pancetta because it really does add a great base to the flavor of the whole dish. 

Butternut Squash Risotto

1 butternut squash (2 lbs)
2 Tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups chicken stock (Vegetable Stock if vegetarian)
6 Tbsp (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta, diced (Can be eliminated if vegetarian)
1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 oz.)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
2. Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. (I find cutting the squash into cubes first and then cutting off the hard skin to be easiest.)
3. Place the squash on a baking pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
4. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.

5. Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock (or veggie stock) in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer. (If you are lacking stove space, just heat it up in the microwave. It's important to add warm stock to the warm risotto instead of cold into warm.)
6. In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the pancetta and shallots (or just shallots) on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned.
7. Add the rice and stir to fully coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes.
8. 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.
9. Continue to add the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. This is a recipe that take patience, so be prepared to give it time and attention to stir. When the mixture seems dry, add another ladle of stock, and repeat until the rice is cooked. This can take from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on luck is all I can gather. I don't know why, but this particular risotto recipe always takes longer to cook through than other risottos. But it's well worth the wait.
10. Remove from heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan. Mix well and serve with a glass of the white wine you used in the recipe.

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