|Butternut Squash, Parmesan and Sage Risotto|
|Right Food for the Season - Late Fall|
|Written by R. Patrick Kent|
Dropping by the the Farm Stand at Verrill Farm on an unseasonably warm November day, I was greeted at the door by a wonderful array of winter squash, piled high in a jumble of overlooked abundance. Other shoppers browsed the bins and tables loaded with fruits and roots but seemed to assume the squash were decorative, as no one lingered to pick over the cornucopia. Winter squash, with their odd shapes and knobby exteriors, tend to be somewhat daunting to the modern cook, and are therefore generally underused and underappreciated. Intimidating at first, these vegetables relent to heat and give up a wonderful sweetness that can be either complimented or contrasted. When cooked, squash develops a consistency and flavor akin to a softer and less aggressive sweet potato. Butternut squash is simply one of innumerable varieties of winter squash and the most unassuming in its pear-shaped and permanently tanned appearance.
My earliest memory of squash relates to Thanksgiving. Growing up in Massachusetts I imagine I'm not alone in that. It's fitting, considering the first European settlers in North America learned how to cultivate maize and squash from the indigenous Native Americans. These were crops never before seen by the Pilgrims and learning the nutritional value of these vegetables likely saved them from certain starvation in the harsh New England winter. Squash, along with corn and beans, were part of the holy trinity of the Native American diet -- the cornerstone of life for the tribes, as they could subsist on these three foodstuffs alone when times were hard. Squash can be found year-round, but they are at their peak at their seasonal harvest time -- October and November.
Growing up, we served butternut squash baked and mashed, perhaps with a touch of nutmeg or cinnamon. Like many people, my family thinks butter, allspice, ginger and brown sugar when they think of squash, enhancing the natural sweetness suggested by the soft orange flesh. But one of the joys of cooking locally and seasonally is learning to coax the flavor out of the ingredient that most appeals to your palate. And I prefer the earthy, darker complements of herbs and aged cheese – rich and mysterious, lending a woodsy nuttiness to the natural New England terroir of the butternut squash.
I brought home a few of these wonderful winter "fruits" thinking a butternut squash soup with flavors of fresh sage and aged parmesan would be nice for supper. As the sun went down, the temperature followed, reverting back to a state more typical of mid-November. I began to think something hearty would be more appealing than the soup I first imagined - using the same flavor profile I decided to make a risotto instead. Here is the recipe - it should make enough for 2 - 4 people depending on whether it is meant to be the primary dish or an accompaniment to pork or chicken.
3 cups home made chicken stock or 2 cups store bought and 1 cup water
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tbsp olive oil
1 cup Arborio rice
1 shallot - diced.
1 - 1 1/2 cups of butternut squash, skin removed and flesh cut into 1/2 cubes
2 - 3 sage leaves chopped (or 2 table spoons of dried sage if you don't have fresh)
1/4 cup of grated aged parmesan cheese
1 tbsp sour cream, creme fraiche or marscapone
Sea salt and cracked pepper
2 sprigs of thyme (optional)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In an oven-safe baking dish, toss the squash with 1 tbsp of olive oil, salt and pepper. Add the sprigs of thyme and bake in the oven for 20 -25 minutes, stirring once or twice to cook evenly.
As the squash cooks, pour the stock (and water) into a small saucepan and heat to a low simmer. Then, heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a medium sized sauce pan on medium heat. Sweat the shallot and 2/3 of the chopped sage leaves. Cook for 3 - 5 minutes, until the shallot is translucent. Add the Arborio rice and stir it around to coat it with oil and "toast" it for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed. Then add 1/2 of the heated stock to the rice and let it simmer together for about 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Continue to ladel in the heated stock continously stirring so the rice doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. The risotto will take about 20 -25 minutes to reach the desired consistency, creamy but still structured. Stir in the squash, the parmesan cheese and the rest of the sage leaf until blended together. Remove from the heat and stir in the sour cream or marscapone and season with salt and pepper.