Butternut is one of the “winter squashes,” so named in the days before refrigeration, because they have hard shells and could be stored throughout the cold months in a root cellar to provide “fresh” vegetables in the off season. There are many types: Hubbard, Turk’s turban, Boston marrow and butternut among them. The miracles of modern transportation make them available virtually year-round, rendering the “winter” designation somewhat moot. But, the appetite still recognizes and relishes squash in its original season — even in Florida.
Butternut is one of the milder and more popular hard-skinned squashes, its taste pretty well described by its name. One of the most delightful ways to enjoy it is in this risotto, which Giuliano Hazan recently prepared for this column. Hazan is a cookbook author, award-winning cooking teacher and the “Today” show regular, who lives and gives cooking classes here in Sarasota.
In the classic Italian meal, risotto is a piatti primo — served after the antipasti and before the secondo of meat or fish. (In an informal American supper, it could be the entrée, preceded — or followed — by a salad course.) With nothing added except cheese, it is risotto Parmigiano. Add saffron, and you have risotto Milanese. Risotto can be made with a vegetable or vegetable mixture, fish or seafood, meat or poultry.
In all variations, risotto making is a unique Italian way of cooking rice to a “creamy” consistency. “Creamy” is in quotes because there is never cream in a risotto. Its elegant texture results when the starch coating of the rice (arborio, canaroli or vialone nano) breaks down, or “melts.” Do not attempt risotto with conventional, long-grain American rice.
A risotto is not difficult to prepare. Rule one is stir constantly and energetically while adding the broth. The risotto is done when a grain of rice is “al dente” — firm to the tooth, neither crisp nor mushy. In Milan, it is served quite dry, so a serving holds shape on the plate. Elsewhere, it is served ad onda, or wavy, so it spreads out. Rule two is to serve it from pan to plate. Risotto doesn’t wait for the diners; the diners wait for the risotto. In a fine Italian restaurant, it is assumed that anyone who orders it expects to wait 20 to 25 minutes, but it is risky business to order risotto at an American restaurant. Make it at home instead.
BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO
Yield: Serves 4 to 6 people
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound butternut squash (about 3 cups diced)
1 3/4 cups rice for risotto (carnaroli, vialone nano or arborio)
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 beef and 1/2 chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 5 cups of water
2 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
1. Put the onion and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Sauté the onion until it turns to a rich golden color.
2. While the onion is sautéing, remove the rind and the seeds from the squash, then cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. When the onion is ready, add the squash to the pan with about 1/2 cup of water. Season with salt and pepper, and cook until the squash is tender, about 10 to 15 minutes.
3. While the squash is cooking, heat the broth in a sauce pot and keep it at a low simmer.
4. When the squash is tender and all the water has evaporated, add the rice and stir until it is well coated. Add about 1 cup of the hot broth and continue stirring. Add only enough broth to produce the consistency of a rather thick soup and wait until all the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Continue until the rice is al dente, 20 to 25 minutes.
5. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped parsley, the grated Parmigiano and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and serve at once.
(From “Every Night Italian” by Giuliano Hazan)
Hands-on cooking with Giuliano Hazan
• Friday, Nov. 12
• Wednesday, Dec. 8
• Friday, Jan. 14
All classes are 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Prepare and eat a four-course Italian meal with paired Italian wines at the Hazan riverside home.
Cost is $150 per person, per class. For more information, call 363-1258 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org