But, conveniently, J was out this evening, attending opening night for the New Jersey Devils with a friend (and man, am I jealous…) so I had the perfect opportunity to make this dish all for myself.
Thanks to Rachel of Rachel Likes to Cook for picking such a great recipe!
Now, onto the food.
For the most part, I stayed true to Ina’s original recipe. I wouldn’t be me, though, if I didn’t make a couple small changes. First, as usual, I halved the recipe. I added a few extra seasonings along the way (most notably garlic) because it felt necessary. I had to omit the saffron because I forgot that I was out and didn’t buy more, and didn’t realize this fact until I was gathering my ingredients tonight. Doh! Same goes for the shallots, which I subbed with red onions because, much like the last BB recipe, I realized belatedly that we’d used all of our shallots in the previous evening’s dinner. Also the parmesan, which I subbed with 1-year-aged manchego because I had it in the house and I thought its nuttiness would complement the autumnal flavors in the finished dish. And the white wine, which I subbed with a mix of lemon juice and red wine vinegar – may sound weird but added a really wonderful tangy undertone to the finished risotto that I happen to love. I also cut way back on he butter, because I just don’t think there’s any need for even 4 tablespoons of butter in my halved version – 1 did the job just fine.
Actually, I guess I made a lot of changes… but, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The first step in the recipe is to cube up some fresh butternut squash and roast it. I think this was the most difficult part of the whole process, honestly – cutting butternut squash is HARD. Its really dense and hard, and even using our heaviest and sharpest chef’s knife I really had to lean on it to get through the squash. I ended up using just the thinner “neck” portion of the squash for this, saving the round base for another as-yet-undefined use. Peeling was easier than I’d expected, and once I’d gotten the big piece halved it was a lot easier to cut up the rest of the way. I made rather smaller cubes than Ina specified, because I didn’t really want massive chunks of squash in the finished risotto – they were probably closer to 1/2″ cubes than 3/4″.
The cubes went into a foil-lined baking dish and got tossed with some olive oil, a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and a bit of garlic and sage for some extra flavor. Then it was into 400 degree oven for about 20 mins while I got some of the other prep work done.
First, the easy step – putting some chicken stock on the stove to heat up. Then the slightly-harder-but-really-nothing-resembling-a-challenge step of dicing up some red onion, garlic, and pancetta.
Slight aside, but I love the way pancetta looks. I love the spiral pattern of the slices, and then striated white and red layers when you cut into it…. its one of those ingredients that looks lovely just as it is, with no adornment.
Anyway, at this point I looked in on the squash and decided that it was just about soft enough, but I wanted it to be a little more browned, so I switched the oven from bake to broil for about 5 mins – that way they came out soft and golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside, sort of like roasted potatoes. I ended up snitching quite a few cubes while I was cooking because they were insanely tasty just as they were.
Once the squash was out of the oven, it was time to start the risotto.
I got a tablespoon or so of butter melting in a large saucepan, then added the pancetta cubes and let them render slowly over medium-low heat to bring out their tasty fats and crisp the cubes. Ina’s recipe has you add the pancetta and shallots (or in my case, onions) at the same time and just leave them all in the pan while the risotto cooks, but I knew that’d just make the pancetta chewy. So instead I did added this rendering step, then removed the cubes from the pot and tossed them in with the squash cubes to add later – this way, they’d stay somewhat crisp in the finished dish.
The onions and garlic got added to the melted butter and rendered pancetta-fat and stirred around until they were softened and just a bit golden around the edges. Then, in went the rice, which was also stirred around until the outer layer of each grain turned translucent.
I deglazed the pan with an equal mix of lemon juice and red wine vinegar, about 1/4 cup total, and cooked until the liquid had almost entirely evaporated. Then I added my first ladleful of stock.
And this is where the magic of risotto happens. From Wikipedia:
“The rice is first cooked briefly in butter or olive oil to coat each grain in a film of fat, this is called tostatura; white wine is added and has to be absorbed by the grains. When it has evaporated, the heat is raised to medium high and very hot stock is gradually added in small amounts while stirring gently and almost constantly: stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid.” More…
So, I spent the next half-hour adding hot stock to the risotto one ladleful at a time, stirring not constantly, but often enough to be sure the liquid was moving around the individual grains of rice and nothing was sticking.
While that was going on, I went ahead and grated some manchego so it’d be ready to toss in at the end.
Finally, all the stock had been added and the risotto was cooked, creamy and barely al dente. I took the pot off the heat and stirred in the grated cheese, roasted squash, and crispy pancetta. Spoon onto a serving dish, top with some extra cheese, and its time to eat!
Oh. My. God.
This was good. Terribly good. Wide-eyed-back-of-the-throat-moaning good. Rich and creamy, highly flavorful, savory and ever-so-slightly tangy, with shots of slight sweetness from the pieces of squash and saltiness from the pancetta. This was the best risotto I’ve ever made, by far, and easily the best thing I’ve put in my mouth since last week’s visit to the North Fork (more on that later). And I almost think that J might like it, as the squash flavor itself wasn’t really that strong.
It is, however, VERY rich – I was only able to eat a small bowl for dinner, and had to put the rest away for probably at least two more meals. I definitely think its best eaten as a side, perhaps with a green salad or a simple herbed chicken breast, or some roasted vegetables. I’d actually intended to make some roasted brussels sprouts to have with, but I forgot, and its just as well because I couldn’t have eaten them with the amount of risotto I dished out for myself.
Not the healthiest dinner in the world, but definitely delicious… and one of the things I love about risotto is that although it looks and tastes decadent and horribly fatty, when it comes down to it, its really not that bad in terms of fat content. A bit of butter and olive oil (the way I make it anyway, which I guess is significantly lighter than s traditional), and the fat from the pancetta – that’s it.
I may just have to bring this out at the holidays this year – I think it’d be popular at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, and it’d certainly impress the hell out of either of our families. 😉
UPDATE: J tried some of my leftovers last night as a late-night snack, and he loved it so much he ate it all! (Though I did manage to snitch a couple bites myself.) I guess this one really is a keeper. Plus, I now understand that the only application of butternut squash that he’s had is halved and roasted squash, which is apparently what he doesn’t like, and he’s open to trying it in other ways. I think we’ll have to use the rest of the squash a side one night this week and see if I can change his mind about it.