Fall Italian Comfort Food

Photo by Dana Gallagher

“How about making a risotto when I come in fall?” I suggested to my Today show producer.  “How about making two?” she replied.  Why not?  After all, if I’m lucky, I’ll have 4 whole minutes to do them in. Once, I was supposed to do two quick pastas and the time for the segment got cut down to 2 minutes and 15 seconds.  I still was able to get through both dishes and they liked it so much that they now always ask me to do two things.  Since it was fall, I decided to make a porcini mushroom risotto, so I could show how to use dried porcini mushrooms, and a butternut squash risotto that would be perfect for Halloween.  Al Roker was my host, and I love doing the show with him because he always has so much fun.  This time, I was explaining to him how in Italy we would make this risotto with a pumpkin called zucca barucca.  Well, Al just loved the sound of it and couldn’t stop repeating it, as you’ll see when you watch the following clip.

Risotto is one of the world’s best comfort foods and many people think it is very time consuming.  However, I often make a risotto when I don’t have much time to get dinner ready.  Once the base is done, it takes less than 20 minutes to make.  It is important to stir the whole time, because that is what makes it creamy (and kids love to help).  Stirring creates friction between the kernels which helps the translucent outside starch dissolve and become creamy.  As I said on the show, a risotto should be creamy not because of any ingredient that is added – such as tons of butter or cream, which we never use – but because of how it’s cooked and the kind of rice that is used.  Arborio is the best-known variety, but others, such as Vialone Nano and Carnaroli (often referred to as the prince of risotto rices) are now becoming more easily available in the U.S.

Butternut Squash Risotto

(From Every Night Italian by Giuliano Hazan)

serves 4 to 6 people
½ small yellow onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1 pound butternut squash (about 3 cups diced)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 3/4 cups rice for risotto (carnaroli, vialone nano, or arborio)
½ beef and ½ chicken bouillon cube dissolved in 5 cups water
2 tablespoons Italian flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated

1. Put the onion and 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large heavy bottomed pot over medium low heat. Sauté the onion until it turns to a rich golden color.
2. While the onion is sautéing, remove the rind and the seeds from the squash, then cut it into 3/4 inch cubes. When the onion is ready, add the squash to the pan with about 1/2 cup of water. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the squash is tender, about 10-15 minutes.
3. While the squash is cooking, heat the broth in a saucepot and keep it at a very low simmer.
4. When the squash is tender and all the water has evaporated, add the rice and stir until it is well coated. Add about 1 cup of the hot broth and continue stirring. Add only enough broth to produce the consistency of a rather thick soup and wait until all the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Continue until the rice is al dente, 18-20 minutes..
5. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped parsley, the grated Parmigiano and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Taste for salt and serve at once.