Buttercup Squash Risotto with Toasted Pumpkinseeds
What kind of a grocery shopper are you? Do you do it out of a sense of necessity and intolerable hunger pangs? I once had a friend who said, “I think of food as fuel. I eat it because I need to, but if I could just take vitamin supplements and maintain a healthy weight then I think I would.” And the fact that we’re no longer close has nothing to do with that statement. I think. Truth be told, I love to eat. I love eating food, planning food, and making food. Grocery shopping is far and above one of my favorite activities, ranking right up there with pedicures, receiving presents, eating chili-chocolate, and pretending to have cleaned the bathroom.
Despite the fact that my personal life is in a constant state of flux and havoc, I tend to be surprisingly militant and orderly when it comes to groceries. Sometimes I have a weekly food-plan in mind (not often, but occasionally) that the grocery list has been formatted around. And by ‘list’ I actually mean ‘lists’….the first one basically itemizes what I feel like making that week (particularly if I need to prepare things in advance for entertaining, which is, oh, every weekend and often during the week as well). The next list breaks down each dish according to the groceries that need to be purchased in order to make it happen. The THIRD list then segregates said groceries according to which store I will be buying them from and which aisle/section of the store they will be found in, starting from my entrance near the produce aisle, traveling through the bakery and deli, passing the dairy aisle and eventually breezing through the frozen foods on my way out. Yes. I am that person. Now riddle me this: how is it that someone controlling enough to have three (3!) G.D. grocery lists can’t even remember to water a couple of houseplants on a weekly basis? Sigh. I truly believe that I’m missing an integral part of my brain. I may also be too old to keep hoping that one day it will develop, and I’ll suddenly blossom into an organized, dignified, responsible woman. Oh, if only……
Anyway, despite my proliferation of lists and instructions, there are always those ‘others’ that make their way into the cart. You know, the random groceries that you must have. Like, oh, I don’t know, 6 jars of mini gherkins because they’re on sale for $1.25 each. Or a strange looking tin of something that you’ve never heard of, like Ackee (more on that one next week!), golden beets because they’re NEVER in your local grocery haunt, or 3 types of Chinese sausage that you don’t know how to cook. I like to think of these little extras as free-groceries (yes, I know that they’re most definitely not free), in the same way the cookie crumbs at the bottom of the jar have no calories, or how eating ‘buttery topping’ popcorn at the movies is health-food because it’s air popped.
Last week, the merchandisers had been busy. When I walked in, armed with my grocery lists and a sense of purpose, I got distracted by glorious piles of squash – so many varieties! – heaped all asunder and just waiting for me to plunder their earthy wares. Long ones, short stumpy ones, itty bitty little baby orbs, giant knobby brutes, and green! White! Orange! Yellow! I was totally overstimulated, and I walked out of there with two tumescent spaghetti squash, a butternut boy, a fetching kabocha, and my little buttercup baby. So…uh, it looks like we’ll be eating a lot of squash for the next few weeks.
Buttercup Squash Risotto with Toasted Pumpkinseeds
Serves 6 as an entree, 8 as a large side. I think. Man, I hate doing this part, I DON’T KNOW how much you eat! I eat a lot. A whole lot. And I like risotto.
- 1 buttercup squash, about 1 kg *
- 2 tbsp butter + 1 tsp
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 yellow onion **
- 3 large cloves of garlic, or 4-5 medium ones
- 2 cups uncooked arborio rice ***
- 1.5 cups white wine ****
- 2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp dried sage, or 1 tsp finely chopped fresh sage
- 1 bay leaf
- 1.5 tsp turmeric
- 6-7 cups chicken broth
- salt and pepper
- 1 cup freshly grated parmigiana + more to garnish, if you like
- 1/2 cup pumpkinseeds
* Buttercup squash is deliciously sweet and dense with a lovely yellow-orange flesh. If you don’t have buttercup, butternut is a good substitute – and much easier to peel. Delicata or kabocha squash could work in a pinch. Acorn squash is a bit TOO sweet and flavorful, and it would really overpower the other ingredients. Buttercups tend to be a bit drier than many of the other squashes, which means that they often take slightly longer to cook and they work really well in a braise.
** Perhaps I used one half of a ridiculously enormous yellow Spanish onion instead of 1 regular size yellow cooking onion. Well, what of it?!
*** Arborio rice is a short, squat, slightly pearly rice with a high starch content. The shape and character of arborio make it a perfect choice for risotto because you can easily achieve a lovely rich and creamy texture. If you see rice labelled ‘risotto rice’, there’s also a good likelihood that it would be good for making risotto. Really, any sturdy small grain rice will do, but a starchier rice will really yield the best texture.
**** This is my last (*) comment, I promise. Look for a wine which would complement the rich, earthy flavors of this dish. You could use a mild, buttery Chardonnay, or my favorite – a bright, young, slightly acidic Pinot Grigio to cut through the richness.
Pour the chicken stock into a medium sized pot and keep this on a medium-low heat to warm through as you prepare the other ingredients.
Finely chop the onion and mince the garlic. Heat up 2 tbsp of butter and the olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Keep the heat easy and low, and begin to gently sweat out the onion for about 5 minutes, or until they start to turn slightly translucent.
Buttercup squash has a thick, hoary-green kind of a peel. It’s not exactly easy to cut through. Using a very sharp, heavy knife, carefully (but forcefully) cut the squash and separate the halves. Scoop out the seeds and pulp with a spoon. You can either keep these to roast at a later date (or in lieu of the pumpkinseeds I used) or plant them in the garden. Or throw them out, I suppose, but that just seems like such a pity.
Back to the very sharp knife bit, slice off the green peel…and then go back and slice off those light-green bits and pieces that you considered leaving (temporarily still seen in the picture below) but deep down you know will be far too tough to eat.
Cut the squash up into a scant 1/2 inch dice. If the squash chunks are too large (3/4 – 1 inch) they will not cook with the rest of the risotto. If they’re too small (1/4 inch) by the time the rice is cooked they will have dissolved. These little nuggets will soften and just start to meld into the sauce, but still retain enough of their core integrity that you can clearly identify bits of sunny yellow squash.
When the onions have been cooking down for a quick five minutes, add the squash and let this cook together for 5-10 minutes, or just until the squash is starting to soften up a little bit.
Add the rice and stir it to make sure that each grain is coated in the butter and oil. Let this cook, stirring regularly, for a minute or two – just until the rice starts to lose some of the white and look less opaque.
Add the sage, thyme, turmeric and bay leaf. I like to season with salt and pepper at this point, and then check the seasonings again at the end – but really, it’s up to you. Stir to make sure that the spices are well combined with the squash and aromatics.
Pour in the cup and a half of wine and stir well. Let this cook for several minutes, stirring regularly, until the wine is almost all absorbed.
Your stock, which has been warming all this while, is now ready to go into the pot. Pour one ladle of stock into the rice and stir it often until it is almost all absorbed. Then, repeat. Again, and again, and again.
While the risotto cooks, and you pour, and you stir, might as well be useful on the other side of the stove. Heat up the teaspoon of butter in a smallish pan and sautee the pumpkinseeds over medium heat for about 5 minutes, or until some of them have started to brown. Spoon the seeds onto a plate or bowl to cool, because they’ll continue cooking in the pan.
Risotto is a lonely fool who can act rather spitefully if you don’t pay him enough attention. However, he’s easy enough to placate as long as you remember a few key points:
1. Stir regularly to make sure that the rice is able to absorb the liquid and also prevent things from burning on the bottom of the pan.
2. Don’t add too much liquid, and don’t do it too fast. Add little glugs at a time, and wait until almost all of the liquid is absorbed before adding more.
3. It is a common misconception that you have to stir your rice continuously when making a risotto. That’s a good way to end up with a gummy mess, because you’ll end up breaking the rice grains with all of your enthusiasm, and the risotto will be less creamy and more mushy.
4. Try the risotto near the end of the cooking to make sure that the rice is not al dente. If it is, add more stock or warm water and let it continue to cook until that amount is absorbed. You may also want your risotto to be slightly loose before you add the cheese, because the cheese will bind and thicken things.
From the time that you add your rice until the time that the risotto is ready, it will be about 25 – 30 minutes. As the rice cooks, so will the squash. When the rice and squash are tender, the risotto is creamy but still slightly loose (like a thick porridge), and you’ve checked and corrected the salt and pepper, stir in the cup of grated parm.
This risotto is a tasty little starter, a hearty side dish, or a comforting entree. I love risotto. It can be anything that you want it to be.
Freshly shaved parm is also manna from the Gods, in my humble opinion.
The pumpkin seeds give the risotto just enough nutty crunch, the rice is creamy and tastes far more fattening than it is, and the squash adds a soft velvety touch of golden sunshine to an already delightful winter meal.
Now then….anyone have any ideas for that kabocha?