Winter squash – they come in what seems to be an endless number of varieties. If you ever find yourself wondering whether you have a summer or a winter squash, all you have to do is take a look at the seeds. All summer squash are picked before their seeds are fully formed and mature, while the winter squash is left on a vine to ripen until seeds are fully formed. So when you cut winer squash, you will find a bunch of seeds that you can often enjoy in their own right, usually roasted.
The types of squash that I can easily find in New England (USA) are acorn, butternut, buttercup, hubbard, and spaghetti squash, which makes lovely Pad Thai among other things. And, of course, pumpkin, which reigns supreme among others in terms of availability and easy of use given that I go straight for the can. Canned pumpkin purée (note: not the pie filling!), is a nice addition to many recipes, including meatloaf, as well as truffles. Actually, all winter squash are quite versatile and can be made into both savory dishes and main courses, as well as dessert.
One of my favorite way to prepare winter squash is roasting. Roasted squash is delicious, and does not require much work to get the roasting going. After it cools, you can enjoy roasted squash as is, or cube it, or purée it for use in number of different recipes, including the risotto below.
The inspiration for this risotto came from my search for ultimate comfort food. It struck me that combining soft and creamy rice, like the one you get in a well-cooked risotto, with slightly sweet and earthy winter squash is likely to deliver. And: I was right! What helps this risotto come together is nutritional yeast, which I use quite liberally, and bay leaf and thyme, two herbs that infuse the risotto with flavor. Here, I used vegetable stock, but you could use water, or mushroom stock if you like. The texture will not change, but the flavors will. Also: the recipe below does not include salt, so use as much or as little as you like.
The most important thing you need when cooking the risotto is patience, and adding the cooking liquid gradually and in small increments to allow the rice to absorb all the liquid bit by bit. At the end, I always find that risotto uses more liquid then what I expect, so here I recommend having a quart (about 1 L) of stock ready, but add it in small increments. Another thing that a good risotto needs is lots of stirring, so get ready!
Rich Risotto with Roasted Winter Squash
What you’ll need:
1 onion, finely diced
4 stalks celery, diced
2 cups winter squash (or pumpkin) purée (see below)
1 cup medium or short grain rice (for example Arborio)
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
up to 4 cups (1 L) vegetable stock, divided
4 bay leaves
6-8 springs of thyme, laves only
1 tablespoon olive oil
What you’ll do:
- I recommend using homemade roasted winter squash for this and any other recipes. Which means that your first step would be to clean and roast the squash until soft and fully roasted. This usually takes about 45-60 minutes at 425F (220 C) oven. You only need 2 cups of puréed squash for this risotto, so you will have some leftover for other things, like soups, pies or even hummus. If you are short on time but still want to enjoy this risotto, go for canned pumpkin. One 15 oz (425g) can of plain pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling!) will do the trick here.
- Place a large high-sided skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Add oil, diced onion and celery and let sauté for 5-8 minutes until done. Add puréed squash, mix well and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.
- Add the rice (without rinsing it, so that you retain all the sticky starch that will make the final risotto extra creamy), mix well and let the rice brown just a little bit on its own, for about 3 minutes.
- Add 2 cups of vegetable stock, bay leaves and thyme leaves and mix well. Bring the risotto to boil then lower the heat down to simmer. Check every 3-5 minutes, mix again and add more stock in 1/2 cup intervals as needed.
- After about 15 minutes, mix in all the nutritional yeast, and continue to simmer. Continue to check every 3-5 minutes and add more stock gradually. Any risotto needs lots of attention, and adding the liquid in small increments. So, be patient! The rice should be fully cooked in about 25-30 minutes (fully cooked here means that the rice will not be completely mushy and give sort of al dente resistance when you bite into it.
- Serve your risotto warm and enjoy with a nice glass of wine, some olives, or perhaps some nice Giardiniera (Italian pickled vegetables), which I love. That little bit of nice acidity complements the creaminess of this risotto really well.
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