I love risotto and I can see I may need to introduce an entire ‘risotto’ category to the blog, but for the time being, this can be known as a ‘rice’ dish. (To find out more about the history of risotto, see my post: Fresh Tomato and Herb Risotto.)
For me, risotto is soul food: it nurtures me and it slows me down as I get into the pace of cooking it properly. You can’t hurry a good risotto, so when you go to your kitchen at the end of a working day, put on some mellow music, pour a glass a wine … and smile. This is your time and you are about to make one of the most comforting dishes possible.
Risotto is a very adaptable dish. I don’t think of it as either winter or summer; I adapt it according to the seasons so in the summer will add fresh-tasting vegetables such as courgettes, lots of fresh herbs and tomatoes; I love spinach in risotto, or, as an accompaniment to meat, maybe a simple Risotto Milanese with just onion, stock and saffron. The butternut squash I used today has a lovely sweet and earthy flavour, more suitable for a winter supper.
I’m quite surprised when people tell me they don’t often make risotto because either, it’s a lot of work, or because it’s too much trouble for one or two people. But actually, making it for just one or two people is a lot easier than making it for a large number! If I’m making it just for myself, invariably it ends up being enough for two … but I love any leftovers cold the next day for lunch, taken from the fridge early to get to room temperature, and then some fruity olive oil and balsamic vinegar drizzled over the top before I eat it: an instant lunch! Risottos are really very easy and they are also pretty quick. Since you can add almost anything you fancy – although I do prefer to keep it simple with only one or two main ingredients, not everything that’s lurking in the fridge – and it’s a good standby when you’ve nothing planned or your fridge is nearly empty. I often add frozen peas, for instance, and this is quite faithful to risotto’s Italians beginnings as piselli appear in many Italian recipes; and I always have plenty of Parmesan cheese.
Butternut Squash & Fresh Thyme Risotto
For two portions: peel half a butternut squash (mine weighed 800g) and then chop into small cubes. It’s quite tricky peeling a squash but I just use a very sharp knife and carefully cut downwards. Then finely chop a small onion. Heat about 3 cups of chicken stock (I took some of my ice-stock-cubes from the freezer – see Real Stock Cubes) in a small pan.
Melt about 25g butter with a good glug of olive oil in a frying pan and add the squash with a few sprigs of fresh thyme (if the stalks are woody then take leaves off and throw stalks away). Season with a little salt and then gently fry for about 15-20 minutes until the squash is cooked through and soft and the edges are just very slightly caramelising. Meanwhile, put the chopped onion in another larger pan (big enough to take the whole risotto) with a little butter and olive oil and gently fry till soft but not browning. Now add 1 cup risotto rice (carnaroli, arborio or vialone nano) to the onion and stir to coat each grain; this gentle frying gives the rice its flavour, or insaporito. Now add a good glug or white wine or dry vermouth (I don’t drink much white wine so always keep some dry vermouth for cooking). Allow the alcohol to be taken up by the rice and then add the prepared butternut squash and a little of the hot chicken stock and give it all a good stir.
As the stock gets taken up by the rice, add a little more, and keep stirring so that you eventually achieve that lovely creaminess that’s the sign of a good risotto. The stirring releases the starch from the rice and it’s this that makes it ‘creamy’. If you run out of stock, then just add a little hot water. Near the end, check the seasoning and add more salt if necessary (it will depend how much you added to the squash at the beginning and how salty your stock is). Also grate in a good amount of black pepper. The risotto is ready when most of the liquid has been taken up and the rice is al dente. In Italy, risotto is always served when the rice still has a little bite to it and is not completely soft (just as pasta is correctly served).
Turn off the heat. Now add 25g butter, a good grating of Parmesan cheese and a little more fresh thyme. Gently fold it all together and then put the lid on the pan for a couple of minutes – this step is called the mantecatura and gives the risotto a chance to settle and everything bind together for that perfect creamy effect.
Serve it in a nice bowl and I like to drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over the top and grate over a little more Parmesan cheese.