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Risotto is by no means a light dish, especially if made like the Italians from the North intended it to be. There’s no harm in enjoying it on an occasion though, as it is simply a velvety comfort on a plate like no other. Once you master the technique of making a risotto, you can start experimenting with other grains. I’ve tried it with quinoa and barley, and both grains were just as spectacular in the dish as their ancestor rice.

Below is my Prima Vera version with fennel, leek, asparagus and green peas. Know, however, that your risotto is limited only by your imagination. You can use mushrooms and squash, and meats, all the way to fish. I’ve seen sweet risottos made with fruits and berries. I’ve seen a Farro Risotto cooked with red wine in the place of the stock.

Go ahead, test drive it, play in your kitchen, challenge yourself, and have fun above all. The more JOY you add to your meal, the more flavor it will give you back.

BARLEY RISOTTO PRIMA VERA

Start with allocating the following items at your arm’s reach:

- 1 fennel bulb, cleaned & chopped

- 1 lrg leek, cleaned & chopped

- 3 cloves of garlic, minced

- 1 cup of frozen green peas

- 1 sm bunch of asparagus, bottoms snapped off

-1 cup pearl barley

- 1/2 cup white wine

- 3 cups veg or chicken stock

- lemon zest of one lemon

- 2 tbsp of mascarpone

- 1 tbsp butter

- 1/2 cup grated Gruyere

- salt and pepper to taste

- fresh thyme and tarragon, chopped

- fresh parsley, leaves picked

- olive oil

Making Barley Risotto is not much different from the traditional one, except it’s easier. You follow the same rules as with the traditional risotto, beginning with sautéing the veg. Start with the leek, then fennel and garlic at last, add fresh thyme and tarragon, salt and pepper, and stir occasionally until soft and translucent. Make sure you have enough olive oil in the pan to prevent any burning.

Next add the barley, and toss everything around, allowing all kernels to bathe in those flavors. Toast the grain for about 2 minutes, once again stirring and watching not to burn anything.

Splash some wine into the pot, thus deglazing the bottom. Add about two-thirds of your heated stock and stir. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat, cover the pot leaving just a small gap, so the barley can breathe, and leave it be. Come back once in a while to stir, and check on your grain. If it gets too dry, add more liquid. You may not need, however, the entire 3 cups of stock to cook the barley.

About half way through the process add the green peas and asparagus (cut in 1 inch long pieces), stir and cover again to finish cooking.

When the barley is fully cooked, but still slightly chewy, turn off the heat and add your butter, mascarpone, Gruyere and lemon zest. Mix about letting everything get incorporated evenly into the dish. Taste, fix the seasoning and serve immediately.

Dress with fresh parsley leaves.

If you’re feeling lost in my ramblings, take a look at another dish, my Butternut Squash Risotto, and note all the similar steps it takes to accomplish this Italian classic. Think of it as your light in the tunnel, or better–your GPS through these pages full of recipes scattered across the board.

Your efforts will be ten fold rewarded with the first forkful of your homemade meal in your mouth. Guaranteed.

Bye, bye, Year 2009. You have brought us many changes, moments of overwhelming joy … and sheer terror. (Remember the Mashed Rutabaga with Cauliflower?) I have discovered my pyromaniacal tendencies and started to play with fire in the kitchen on a regular basis. Knives excite me just as much.  Bring it on, Angelina! Who knew? All that led to turning our house into a science lab of food making. There have been plenty of experiments (steaks from a toaster oven is just one example), and so far Jason hasn’t complained.

We have serious reason to be concerned about the future of our kids on this planet (Koyaanisqatsi), but there’s still hope with the growing trend of getting fresh produce from local farmers (Feeling Peachy) and turning to alternative energy sources. We can get healthier with every bite of real food we put in our mouths and what we feed to our offspring. Preparing hearty meals with a variety of vegetables is not that difficult, and never boring. Every time I look at the photos of the Butternut Squash Risotto I made for dinner one night, or my Brussels sprouts on a Bed of Quinoa with a layer of Caramelized Onions, I experience such intense drooling that Jason is inclined to run for a stack of towels to cover the floor around me.

Do you want to hear about the best part? I lost about 15 lbs over the last year WITHOUT DEPRIVING myself of any food. There’s no diet plan, no counting calories, NO STRESS! Sometimes I may overindulge a tad, but who wouldn’t when served those scrumptious Veggie Balls over a bowl of Spaghetti Marinara? Duh! I eat whatever the hell I am in the mood for, and whenever my tummy screams HUNGRY. I hate fast foods with a passion. I avoid processed food products like the plague. However, I am on good terms with a bit of butter here and there. Cream poses no threat to me either. There are no sweets lying around the house, but it doesn’t mean I won’t occasionally get in the car and drive to the bakery for a piece of crunchy pastry when the craving strikes.

What I wish for myself, and for every single one of you, in 2010 is to live more in balance with Nature, stress less, laugh louder, breath lighter, and to age slower. Also, let’s not forget to bring the inner monkey out to play more often.

May all of us see a major shift in the collective consciousness and finally learn how to live symbiotically with Mother Earth so our kids and future generations get to experience the joy and innocence we were granted when growing up.

Thank you for being a part of my 2009. I hope we’ll be able to share and interact more in the upcoming year, and beyond.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

Every year about this time, the flu comes around and does its damage. Consequently, there’s a lot of sniffling, coughing, sweating, and pill-popping happening. This year we got the swine variety, and everyone and their mothers lost their minds, following shameless media propaganda. I almost got worried for a second myself, but thank god, Jason grabbed my shoulder just in time, span me around, shook me up with his manly might, and spoke to my senses.

“Woman, where’s your reason? Every year the flu takes down a few thousands of people. Those usually are the folks of older age, and with pre-existing illnesses. For those poor souls any kind of flu, some times even a cold could be deadly.”

Thus the man convinced the woman, and the sun shone again, and the birds chirped lightheartedly at the sight at dawn.

I’m not trying to dismiss the lethal potential of the flu. I’m not a doctor, so my opinion is rather vulnerable. However, I don’t think there’s a reason to panic. Several of my friends fell victim of the virus. They felt like shit for about a week, with fever of 103 degrees, and violent vomiting tormenting their bodies. Not fun. Still, doctors let them go home with no medication prescribed, as those were in short supplies and thus reserved for pregnant women, children and others with life-threatening symptoms. None of the people I know, that have gone through the piggy flu, had had any complications. They simply did what one does with a regular flu – let it wear itself out, while drinking lots of fluids, resting and watching Oprah.

My own weapon against the virus is my will power. At the slightest scratch in the back of my throat I simply say “Naha! It ain’t happening. I am HEALTHY and FLU-FREE”. (Say it fast five times in a row.) I block the concept of getting sick out of my consciousness. I’m not even kidding you, twenty-four hours later I barely remember I was coughing the day before. Works like magic every time. You should try it, too.

On most days I have an appetite of a small horse, which once again proves I’m a picture of health. I made a pot of BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO, for instance, and we destroyed it with Jason in two days over 3 meals. Part of the “problem” was Risotto itself – its symphony of flavors, the sweet juxtaposed against the savory, the heat, the comfort, the rainbow across the sky, the BUTTERflies…

Butternut Squash Risotto

Before I move on, I want to test if you’ve been paying attention. Does the post read a little funny today? Does my English “sound” Polish all of a sudden? Wonder why? I haven’t gone mad, and yes, I’ve been taking all my vitamins. I simply needed to let my editor (Jason) off the hook for a few days or so, as his work turned into a circus on wheels. Jason has been putting in 16-20 hr days. Yes, you’ve heard me – twenty hours just yesterday. He’s already doing more than an average person is capable of, so understandably I am on my own for now, and you just have to deal with my accent.

If you’re feeling a little under the weather these days, BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is an ideal meal to quickly boost your energy levels. Chicken soup is so last season. What you need to know about Risotto is that the dish requires some loving, as you can’t really dump the rice and veggies into a pot and walk away. You need to tend to it, gently stir the rice around, sprinkle with spice, love, and fairy dust, and whisper sweet things into the pot’s ear. Know it will all come back to you in a bowl – the food made of love. What BETTER nourishment than that?

Let’s get the ingredients ready:

-       Butternut Squash

-       6 cups of chicken broth (1.5 carton)

-       4 oz diced pancetta

-       1 onion

-       6 cloves of garlic, minced

-       3 tbsp BUTTER

-       1.5 cups Arborio rice

-       0.5 cups of white wine (the kind you’d enjoy drinking)

-       big pinch of saffron

-       1 tbsp dry marjoram

-       1 cup Monterey Jack Cheese (grated)

-       1 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped

-       salt + black pepper to taste

-       1 tbsp olive oil

Preheat an oven to 400˚. Cut the squash in cubes. Spread them in one layer on a sheet pan, sprinkle with olive oil, salt, black pepper, and some dry herbs (whatever you’ve got – marjoram, Herbes de Provence, oregano…). Shove the pan into the oven for about 25 minutes or until soft.

Cutting up Squash

Heat the chicken broth in a pot and keep it on over a very low heat. Throw pancetta into a separate pot, let the fat render, and then add the BUTTER. When it melts, toss the onion into that pool of yummy fat. Sprinkle all with salt and pepper, add the marjoram, and mix them together. Let the onions sweat for a minute or two to release their sweetness and fuse in with the herbs. Your minced garlic is next in line – into the pot it goes. Stir once more.

Here comes the rice. Chuck it into the same pot with the onions and cracklings, incorporate with all the flavors, and cook for a moment letting the rice kernels toast. Now pour in the wine and let it grab all the bits of flavor off the bottom of your pot. Reduce the heat to low.

The fun part begins with the first 2 ladles of the heated chicken stock you’ll add to the rice. You need to stir it almost non-stop as the liquid gets absorbed. With your free hand, season the dish with salt and pepper as you go. Every few minutes you’ll add another 2 ladles of the broth, and continue to stir. Keep going until all stock is gone, and the risotto is cooked.

Roasted Butternut Squash

Before you turn off the heat completely, add the roasted squash, your grated cheese, and fresh dill. Now, kill the fire. Give it two or three more stirs until the cheese melts and binds the dish together for the rest of its days. Your BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO is ready to serve. And it should be… served immediately.

In the end, your throat is warmly coated, your belly is fed and comforted, and your right bicep is twice the size of your left gun. It’s a win-win every way you slice it. And really, what’s BETTER than BUTTER? Particularly when it’s sweet and savory, not BITTER.

I’ll go take my vitamins now.

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