Next to the famous meatballs, these were the first dishes I learned to make: the pesto, from a neighbor, the puttanesca from my first recipe book, The New York Times 60 Minute Gourmet by Pierre Franey (minus the clams), both of which became my early contributions to other members of my family. "The 60 minute gourmet" was my bible for the first few years of my marriage until I discovered The Classic Italian Cookbook by Marcella Hazan - the Italian Julia Child who taught me all about the world of Italian cooking that had otherwise revolved around gravy and meatballs, chicken cacciatore and sausage and peppers. Marcella prepared me for the years later when I would live in Italy and would learn more about Italian cooking that would differentiate my cooking from my mother and grandmother's but it all began with her risotto.
Yes, you need to make your own chicken stock and yes, you need to stand over the stove cooking it slowly for 20 minutes or more, and ok so there's lots of butter, wine and Parmiggiano cheese and sometimes even ingredients that I never even heard of growing up like pancetta and zafferano (saffron), but mastering a risotto has by far, become the most rewarding, versatile and personal favorite dish in my cooking portfolio. It is what I serve guests to make an impression and my family to warm them up. It can be served very simply alla milanese as a side dish for osso bucco or veal saltimbocca or as a main dish with porcini mushrooms, seafood, or, my favorite, zucca, a small squatty pumpkin very common in Italy that you can now find in supermarkets or local specialty markets in the US. If you make a visit to Italy, you will find risotto on every restaurant menu from north to south, getting heavier tasting and richer in ingredients along the way. I prefer to keep it simple..
I made risotto alla zucca for last night's dinner. I found a piece of squatty pumpkin in a small Mexican local vegetable market but if you can't find it, butternut squash is a good substitute. To serve 4 people, I used one small box (16 oz) of arborio rice and 1/4 of the whole zucca, equivalent to one butternut squash. When I make chicken stock for risotto, I make it very "plain" with only parsley, celery and onion which I strain and freeze in quart containers. For this risotto, I cheated a little and used one quart of my own stock plus 2 cups of College Inn low salt chicken broth.
Keep in mind that imported arborio rice is usually sold by the kilogram which is slightly over 2 lbs. If you are making that much for more than 4 people or you want leftovers as we sometimes do, use 1/2-3/4 of a whole zucca(2 butternut squash) and at least 2 quarts of stock. Although I love the saffron in risotto, I do not include it in my risotto alla zucca - the pumpkin turns the rice a nice orange color on its own and honestly, how orange is too orange? When making risotto milanese or risotto with seafood, the saffron should be dissolved in warm water and introduced in place of the broth halfway through the cooking process.
Any questions on this process or risotto in general, just ask. Remember, it takes time to master and time to cook, but hey, we're worth it.
Risotto all Zucca
1 small box (16 oz) arborio rice
1/4 of whole zucca or 1 butternut squash
1 large onion chopped fine
4 T. butter plus 2 T olive oil
1/2 c. dry white wine
1-1&1/2 quart homemade chicken stock or College Inn low salt chicken broth
4 T. butter
1 C. grated Parmiggiano cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
- Remove the outer skin of the zucca and cut into cubes. If using butternut squash, be extra careful as the skin is extremely hard. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds. Then cut in half crosswise and remove the skin. This will make it somewhat easier to cut the squash into cubes.
- In a heavy dutch oven or casserole pot (I usually use a copper pot but Le Crueset is heavier and just as good), melt the butter and olive oil together. Add the chopped onion and saute for a few minutes but don't brown. Add the zucca/squash with a touch of salt and stir constantly.
- Cook the zucca until soft but not mushy. Keep in mind that because butternut squash is harder than zucca, it will take longer to cook.
- Meanwhile heat the broth in a nearby pot almost to a boil.
- Add the arborio rice to the zucca mixture and stir to coat.
- Deglaze with white wine, stirring in gradually until the wine is completely absorbed.
- Here comes the tough part. By the ladleful, add the broth, stirring the rice slowly and gently until it is absorbed, being careful not to let the rice become too dry and burn the pot. After each ladle of broth, stir the rice until absorbed and repeat the process until the broth is completed. This should take about 20 minutes and the rice should be a little hard to the taste but not raw. If you prefer the rice to be softer, add more broth. (You can use College Inn or bouillon.)
- When the rice is cooked. Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 4 T. of butter, parmiggiano, ground black pepper and salt to taste. Serve with extra parmiggiano as needed.