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Less butter, more butternut: an easier, healthier risotto

By Anthony Pesce

April 26, 2009 9:50 p.m.

In a previous column, I wrote that in order to make excellent risotto, you have to stand over it, stirring continuously for 45 minutes. I also wrote that you have to add at least a stick of butter.

I was wrong. Oh boy, was I wrong.

Since I wrote that column, I’ve been waiting for a good opportunity to try making it a different way.

This week, I chose to make a less fattening and labor-intensive risotto with a wonderful ingredient: butternut squash.

I also roasted a variety of vegetables to go with it including yams, broccoli, zucchini and carrots.

I have to admit that this was my first time actually cooking with butternut squash, and it was a bit more complicated than I anticipated.

The first challenge was peeling the thing, which is tough because the vegetable is shaped like a baby’s rattle ““ round on one end with a long and slender neck that juts off of the base quite suddenly. You can’t just peel it like a potato because there are too many abrupt and rounded corners.

By the time I finished peeling I was sweating profusely, and the formerly smooth surface of the squash was pocked with more craters than the moon. If you can tell me a better way to approach it, e-mail me and I will include it in next week’s column.

Anyway, that was just phase one of the squash disassembly. You need to chop it into little chunks that are uniform in size so it will roast evenly. I went for about one third of an inch and started by lobbing off the neck, making circular slices and then breaking those down into smaller chunks.

When I cut into the base I got two startling surprises.

The first was that my exceptionally sharp knife was having a fair bit of trouble penetrating the thing (it is apparently quite dense), and the second was what I found on the inside. If you’ve ever prepared a pumpkin for carving, you know how to handle removing the seeds in the butternut squash.

Basically, you take a large metal spoon and scrape out the walls of the cavity until there are no seeds or stringy bits in sight.

Then you still have to finish chopping it. I began by cutting the base in half, then scraping it.

From there, I cut it into half-moon slices, cutting from the inside outward and finishing by cutting it into smaller cubes.

Once you finish preparing the squash you need to roast it.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and toss the squash bits in olive oil and generous amounts of salt and pepper. Dump them onto a baking sheet and leave them in the oven for about 30 minutes, tossing them once to make sure they cook evenly.

While the butternut squash cooks, prepare your other ingredients. I peeled and sliced the carrots into even chunks, broke down the broccoli into even florets, peeled and sliced the yam and sliced the zucchini into circular pieces.

Set all of the vegetables aside for now and begin prepping the other ingredients for the risotto.

I was cooking for friends, so I made enough rice to serve six people and have some for lunch the next day. If you’re cooking for one, adjust the recipe accordingly.

I used a whole sweet onion, minced, and sliced about 15 cremini mushrooms.

Once you’re done prepping the ingredients, the butternut squash will probably be done roasting. Set it aside under some foil for use in the risotto later.

Before you get started on the risotto, toss your vegetables in olive oil and add generous amounts of salt and pepper. Load them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven at 400 degrees. They should finish up at about the same time as the risotto.

Heat up a large, deep pan over medium heat and cover the bottom in olive oil, then melt in about a tablespoon of butter. When the pan is hot, add in the mushrooms and onions and let them saute until the mushrooms turn dark and the onions are soft and translucent.

Add in two cups of risotto and stir. Let the risotto toast for about two minutes, then begin adding in liquid.

You can use water, but it generally tastes much better if you use something that will add flavor.

I started with about a cup and a half of dry white wine, waited for the rice to absorb it, then added vegetable stock until the dish was done.

I previously thought you had to stir the risotto continuously for it to cook correctly, but that’s actually not the case. If you stir it briefly every time you add additional liquid it will cook just as well and it’s much less work.

Just make sure you warm up the water or stock before adding it and wait until the rice absorbs the liquid before you add more.

It should take about half an hour to cook, but try it periodically.

When the rice is plump and only slightly firm, stop adding in liquid and toss in the roasted squash. Stir it very well, then add in Parmesan cheese to taste. The vegetables should also be done roasting, so pull them out of the oven and set them on a dish for serving.

Top both the risotto and vegetables with a bit of Parmesan, and enjoy this seasonal meal.

If you release your aggression by assaulting butternut squash with a tiny vegetable peeler, then e-mail Pesce at [email protected]

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Anthony Pesce
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