Risotto.  The mere mention of the word often strikes fear in novice cooks.  Only stir the risotto clockwise.  Don't scrape the bottom of the pan.  Don't add boiling liquid. Don't add cold liquid.  Don't add the liquid too fast or too slow.  Don't overcook it.  Don't under cook it.  The list of do's and don'ts go on and on and on.  With all of these stipulations, and more, it's amazing that anyone can turn out perfect risotto at all.  Luckily, risotto is not nearly that finicky.  Yes, there are a few requirements to making, and serving, the perfect risotto, but it's not that difficult and with a little guidance, and a bit of patience, anyone can turn out great risotto.

Risotto is one of those great dishes that I absolutely love due to the fact that it is infinitely variable.  Depending on what you put into it, it can be light or hearty.  Healthy or indulgent.  It can be delicate or in-your-face.  It can be the perfect food for spring, summer, fall or winter.

Making Risotto requires a special kind of rice.  It is a short grained, very starchy rice.  While there are a few different kinds of rice that you can you, by far, the most common type that can be found in the US is Arborio rice.  Nowadays, it can be found in most supermarkets, usually in the specialty grains section.

With it being January, and many people starting New Year diets, I thought that I would keep this risotto pretty healthy, forgoing a lot of the butter, cream and cheese that many chefs like to finish their risottos with.  Not to say that this dish is completely fat free.  It does use a good bit of olive oil and gets finished with some Parmesan, this recipe keeps the fat content low and relies on the natural creaminess of the risotto to shine through.

For this recipe, I use Butternut squash as my squash of choice.  Winter squashes are often interchangeable so if you prefer a different type of squash then by all means use a different type.  Depending on what you use you may need more (pound wise) than what the recipe calls for.  You will need about 6 cups of diced squash for this recipe so adjust accordingly if you choose a different squash.

Squash Risotto with Red Wine Syrup

serves 8 as a side dish

1 each  Butternut Squash (3-4 pounds)

1 small  Onion

3 cloves  Garlic

2 cups  Arborio Rice

3 Tb.  Olive oil

1/3 cup  Parmesan cheese, grated or shaved




Chopped Parsley

Red Wine Syrup (see recipe below)

Peel, seed and dice the butternut squash into cubes about 1/2" per side.

Place in a pot and just barely cover with lightly salted water.  Bring to a simmer and cook until the squash is tender.

Remove approximately 1 1/2 - 2 cups of the cooked squash and place in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.

Once cool, drain well and set aside to use later.  Meanwhile, while the squash is cooking, peel and dice the onion and finely mince the garlic.  Set aside.  Puree the remaining squash along with all the cooking water.  This can either be done in a blender or much more easily using a stick blender, or immersion blender.

Measure the amount of puree you have and add water to make 8 cups if necessary.  In a large pot heat the olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sweat the vegetables (cooking without coloring or browning them).

Add the Arborio rice and stir well to coat all the grains with oil.

Saute for 3-4 minutes, cooking the rice without adding any color to it.  Add approximately 1 cup of the liquid puree to the rice and turn the heat down to medium.

At this point you want to make sure that you are stirring the risotto most of the time.  Not only does this prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, it helps to agitate the rice, gently scraping the starch off of the outside, which in turn is what makes risotto naturally creamy. It is this point of the process where much of lore and many of the wives tales surface.  First off it doesn't matter which way you stir, or if you change the way you stir at any  point in the process.  And you won't ruin your risotto if you stop stirring for a minute or 2 during the process.  My only suggestions are; 1.  Don't stir to hard or vigorously.  A nice steady stirring is the best method.  2.  Use a wooden spoon as opposed to a metal spoon as metal spoons can more easily cause the rice grains to break up.  But don't worry if all you have are metal spoons, just don't stir to vigorously.

Cook, and stir, until most of the liquid is absorbed.

At this point add another 3/4 - 1 cup of the liquid and repeat the process.

Continue this process, adding a bit of liquid and cooking the rice until it is almost all absorbed, until you have about 2 cups of liquid left.  At this point you should start checking the doneness of your rice.  Risotto should not be crunchy, but it shouldn't be mushy either.  Many novice risotto makers tend to overcook their risotto.

While the risotto still has just a bit of crunch left to it, it is time to fold in the reserved, diced squash and the Parmesan cheese. 

Adjust your seasoning, adding salt and pepper to taste.  Add a bit more of the liquid and call everyone to the table.  Yes, risotto, is one of those dishes that is best served if your guests have to wait on the risotto and not the other way around.

As soon as your risotto loses its crunchy texture but still has a bit of bite to it, it is time to dish it up.  Either pour out into a serving bowl or divide among plates.  Garnish with finely minced parsley and drizzle generously with the Red Wine Syrup.

Red Wine Syrup

1 1/2 cups  Red Wine

3/4 cup  Sugar

1/2 cup  Raisins

Combine all three ingredients in a non-reactive sauce pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce by about 1/3 and strain to remove raisins.  Allow to cool to room temperature before using.

When not writing for ChefTalk, you can find me blogging about food over at www.onceachef.com.