Risotto: Comforting companion for winter

Sarah Hull/For the Nevada AppealSage roasted butternut squash risotto is a heart-warming dish for cold winter nights.

Sarah Hull/For the Nevada AppealSage roasted butternut squash risotto is a heart-warming dish for cold winter nights.

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As the temperature drops, there's nothing more wonderful than a warm, comforting, hearty risotto. The bowl warms your hands, the food warms your belly, and the smell warms your soul. This cold weather treat is fantastically versatile, so once you learn the technique you can use whatever flavors your heart desires. My current favorite? Sage Roasted Butternut Squash.

I'll admit it, I've never been a fan of winter squash, but I received a beautiful butternut squash in my CSA box (Community Supported Agriculture) a few weeks ago and was determined to find a recipe that I liked. Most often I have a good rapport with the vegetables that arrive weekly, but I adore the challenges that arise when vegetables I don't usually cook with come along.

After a quick perusal of the Internet and through some of my favorite cookbooks, I found a butternut squash lasagna recipe that looked promising. However, once the filling was cooked I no longer liked the flavor or the texture.

To create the following recipe, I took the best parts of the lasagna recipe (original recipe by Michael Chiarello) and adapted them to fit a basic risotto. The risotto recipe allows the natural sweetness and silky texture of the butternut squash to shine through, while the savory undertone of the sage lends an earthiness that works nicely with the hardy texture of the risotto. The result: The perfect comfort food for a cold winter evening that is markedly better for you than some more traditional comfort foods.

Sage Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto

For the squash:

1 large butternut squash

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage leaves

1 tablespoon Fennel Spice* (to save time you may mix pre-ground spices)

2 teaspoons coarse salt

1⁄2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

For the Risotto:

2 cups Arborio rice

4-6 cups chicken stock

3-4 tablespoons olive oil

1⁄2 large, or 1 small, yellow onion, minced

3 tablespoons white wine

Coarse salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the squash's shell. Cut the stem ends off of the squash. Cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop the seeds out with a spoon, and coarsely chop the squash into 1⁄2-inch chunks. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. In a bowl, toss the squash with the oil, sage, spice blend, and 1 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper. Spread the squash in a single layer on the baking sheet.

Roast the squash in the oven until very soft and starts to brown, 40 to 50 minutes, stirring once or twice. Remove the squash from the oven and puree in a food processor with fresh nutmeg (if mixture is too thick, add 1⁄4 cup chicken stock or water).

In a large bowl, mix the squash puree and Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1⁄2 teaspoon pepper. Cover and refrigerate the mixture until ready to use.

Heat a medium pot over med-high heat. Add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of the pot. Sautee onion until soft and opaque. Add dry risotto and stir to coat with the olive oil. Add white wine and stir until absorbed. Add 1⁄2 cup chicken stock and stir, let simmer and stir frequently (adjust heat if necessary to maintain a moderate simmer) until absorbed. Repeat this process until the risotto is al dente (slightly chewy, but not crunchy), this process usually takes 30-45 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add about a cup of the squash mixture at a time, stirring in between additions, until the mixture is well incorporated into the risotto. You will probably use about half of the squash mixture, but it freezes nicely to be used at a later date.

*Fennel Spice

(Recipe by, Michael Chiarello)

1 cup fennel seeds

3 tablespoons coriander seeds

2 tablespoons white peppercorns

3 tablespoons kosher salt

Put the fennel seeds, coriander seeds and peppercorns in a heavy pan over medium heat. Watch carefully, tossing frequently so the seeds toast evenly. When light brown and fragrant, pour the seeds onto a plate to cool. They must be cool before grinding, or they will gum up the blades. Pour the seeds into a blender and add the salt. Blend to a fine powder, shaking the blender occasionally to redistribute the seeds. Store in a tightly sealed glass jar in a cool, dry place, or freeze.

• Sara Hull is the mother of two little girls who believes strongly in supporting local agriculture by cooking healthy food purchased from local sources.


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