Risotto- The New Easy

I’m sure you’ve heard how difficult risotto is to make.  The stirring!  The measuring!  The stirring! The time!  The stirring!  Well, you’ve heard wrong and I will prove it to you.  But first, of course, a story.

My mother does not like to cook.  Well documented all over this blog.  True story.  When I was growing up, we ate out or at my grandmother’s or I cooked.  It was just How It Was.  And it wasn’t bad- I love Chinese food, Friendly’s and take-out of all kinds.  My grandmother was close by and it was free.  Plus it was always fun to sit around the table listening to Mom and Grandpa discussing her students.

But every once in a while, Mum would try to change.  She’d get on a healthy food kick or she’d decide that she needed to make dinner.  And once, oh, once, she and her friend (who was single and also disliked cooking) took a gourmet cooking class.

Let me say it again, for those of you that know my mother, she took a gourmet cooking class. At a culinary school.

Before anyone gets all excited thinking that Mum is now a gourmet chef, let me tell you how it went.  She and her friend did all the prep work and other people cooked the food.  She came home with a booklet of recipes for things like white chocolate hazelnut mousse and mushroom risotto.  Mum promptly handed it to me, with the recipes that had been really good circled.  She knew her limits.

She raved about the risotto.  This was about, oh, 20 years ago, when risotto was the hot new food fad.  I read the recipe and said there was no way I had the patience to make that.  So Mum made it.  No, really.  It wasn’t bad, just a little bland.  And I couldn’t quite tell what the big deal was- it just seemed like rice to me.  She didn’t bother making it again- my less than positively overwhelmed reaction didn’t match the amount of work she’d put into it.

Fast forward to now when risotto is ubiquitous and not so exciting.  Risotto, both good and bad, can be had at just about any Italian-themed restaurant you can find.  The really good stuff is creamy and flavorful without being overdone.  The bad stuff is mushy and flavorless.  Of course, I’m hard-pressed to find a starch I don’t like so even the bad risotto is fine with me.

And me?  Well, I’ve gotten over my fear of the stirring, the time and ingredients.  I make risotto quite often in the fall and winter as it’s pretty versatile and will accept differing flavors- my current favorite is squash, either delicata or butternut.  I don’t stand over it stirring- I’ve perfected a less intensive method of cooking.  And of course, Mum loves my risotto.  Especially since she didn’t have to make it.

A word about the squash.  Butternut is the most commonly found- you can even buy it pre-peeled and pre-chopped and I will not judge you if you do so as it’s a big time saver.  I’ll warn you, however, that often the pre-chopped, pre-peeled chunks are a bit dry and can’t match the rich, buttery, sweet taste and texture of a fresh squash.  Anyway, delicata are smaller and sort of bumpy, more gourd-like, if that makes sense.  And try to the name, they have a sweet delicate flavor, a little less rich than the butternut but good in a more subtle way.  Frankly, when cooked correctly, both varieties are like candy- sweet, soft, slightly sticky and just…..good.

Butternut (or Delicata) Squash Risotto

Ingredients

2-4 delicata squash, peeled, seeds/pulp removed and cut into bite size pieces  OR

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeds/pulp removed and cut into chunks

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

olive oil (some for the rice, some for the squash- probably about 1/4 cup in all)

1/2 cup white wine (I use Riesling)

2 1/2 – 3 cups chicken (or veggie) broth

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 c.-1 c. grated parmesan cheese

salt, pepper, sugar (optional)

Prepare squash.  For delicata, heat a bit of olive oil (maybe 1-2 Tablespoons) in a saute pan over medium heat.  When the oil is sort of shimmery, add the bite size pieces of squash.  Let them brown and caramelize  but don’t let them burn.  You’ll need to stir them and once they’ve browned on both sides, turn the heat to low and just let them soften.  Depending on the size of your pieces it will take between 5 and 15 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  I also like to sprinkle a teaspoon of sugar over the squash as they’re cooking to encourage the browning/caramelization.

For butternut, preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Toss squash chunks with olive oil, salt and pepper and place on a baking sheet.  I like to sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar over them, again  to encourage the browning/caramelization.  Roast in the oven until brown and soft, again depending on the side of your chunks- maybe 15 to 25 minutes.  (When I did this the other night, I roasted the squash the night before and then threw it in a saute pan to heat up as I was making the rice- it’s a nice do-ahead)

Either way, set squash aside to cool slightly.

Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil in a pot over medium high heat.  Add the onion and let it soften but don’t let it brown or burn.  Once the onion is soft, add the rice and stir it around for 1-2 minutes.  You just want to sort of toast the grains, not brown or burn them. 

Add the wine and stir.  If you want to be really fancy, heat the chicken (or veggie) broth before you add it to the rice.  Add the broth about a half a cup at a time.  Stir often and add the next bit of broth when you can see the bottom of the pot as you’re stirring.

Kind of hard to take a photo while stirring but see how you can see the bottom of the pot through the rice? That's when you add more broth.

Do this until all the broth has been used up and absorbed.  You’re looking for rice that’s not mushy but is soft and sort of  chewy yet firm- kind of just past al dente, if that makes any sense.  When I made this the other day, it took me about 20 minutes from the wine to the end of the broth.  You may want to adjust the heat down, as you don’t want it to be rapidly boiling, just hot enough to cook but not so hot that the liquid is evaporating before it can be absorbed.

In terms of stirring, you could stand in front of it and stir it constantly.  This encourages the starch to develop and makes it creamy.  I don’t do this because I am constantly multi-tasking while cooking- talking on the phone, listening to NPR, playing with or feeding the baby, etc.  Instead, I stir it each time I walk past it and try to keep an eye on it as I’m doing other things.  It’s important not to let it scorch at the bottom so lots of stirring will prevent that.

This is when I've added all the broth and it's almost done- probably only needs another minute or so before I stir in the cheese and the squash.

Stir in the cheese and season with salt and pepper to taste. I use a microplane to grate my cheese- makes it more fluffy and somehow makes you have more with less.  Plus, it melts more quickly and you don’t end up with chunks of unmelted cheese which in this case would ruin the texture. 

Finally, add the squash and stir gently to coat all the pieces with the creamy rice.  The squash will be sort of melty and the rice will provide a sort of chewy/firm texture.  Paired with the saltiness of the parm cheese it’s just delicious.  The perfect thing for a chilly night.

I probably should've used a different color plate- this one matches the squash but makes the photo very one-toned. It was still yummy.

Homemade Ricotta

So homemade ricotta is making the rounds of all the blogs and cookbooks and whatnot.  Making cheese isn’t something I really think about- except when my daughter is spitting up because it looks remarkably like cheese.  Probably not a parallel you wanted on a cooking blog, huh?  Anyway, I thought I’d try it.

As I was making it (it’s stupidly simple, really), I was reminded of the year my grandmother tried to make yogurt.  She bought a fancy yogurt maker.  It sort of looked like this one but less fancy and electronic (it was the late ’80’s, early ’90’s).  She was trying to be more healthy.  And usually when my grandmother attempted something in the kitchen, she nailed it.  This yogurt?  Not so much.

I’m not sure if it was the yogurt maker, the attempt to be healthy or the fact that she was making plain yogurt (not the new-fangled Greek yogurt that is all the range just now) but it was, well, yucky. None of us would eat it.  She wouldn’t even eat it.  We tried adding jam to it.  Nope.  We tried adding sugar.  Nope.  We tried it with berries.  Nope.  It was just Not Good.  One of the few failures I remember.  In fact, it may be the only time my grandmother failed at anything in the kitchen.

So I didn’t have high hopes for making ricotta.  I mean, it involved heating milk products and squeezing things through cheesecloth.  It sounded suspiciously like homemade yogurt.  In the end, though, it worked out really well.  It was delicious!

Homemade Ricotta (Thanks to Lady Gouda’s post)

Ingredients:

2 quarts whole milk

2 cups buttermilk

1-2 tsp. coarse salt (I used kosher salt)

Directions:

Line a colander or sieve with cheesecloth or a thin kitchen towel.  If you use cheesecloth, fold it over so that it is 4 layers.   In a heavy saucepan, mix the ingredients together.  Cook over high heat, stirring frequently and scraping the bottom to avoid scorching.

As it heats, small curds will start to form and float to the surface.  Once the milks are steaming hot, stop stirring (I still scraped the bottom occasionally).

Now you have two choices.  You can use a candy thermometer and wait for the mixture to reach between 175-180 degrees.  Or you can simply watch it and decide that it’s ready.  I actually did both.  You’ll know it’s ready when the mixture has separated into a whole mess of white curds floating over sort of gray, thin water.  This happened really quickly so pay attention- for me, one second it was all together and the next it was separated.

The Whey- Throw this out

The dregs of the cheese, in the wire mesh spoon I used.

Gently spoon or ladle the curds into the cheesecloth/cloth lined sieve/colander.  I used a ladle and then a slotted spoon and then a mesh spoon.  Discard the liquid in the pot (the whey).

After about 5 minutes, pull together the corners of the cheesecloth/towel and sort of twist it all into a nice little bundle but don’t squeeze it.  I ended up using a twist tie to keep mine together but I’m not sure I really had enough cheesecloth in the beginning.  Let it sit and drain about 15 more minutes.

Open up the cheesecloth/towel  and gaze in wonder at the fact that you have just made creamy, delicious ricotta cheese.

If it’s a little too crumbly/dry, you can moisten it with a little bit of buttermilk.

I used my ricotta to make the rest of the meal from Lady Gouda’s post above.  It was very good (go read her post and make it for yourself!) and looked like this: