Risotto is justifiably famous as Italy’s greatest rice dish–and there’s no better way to showcase the bounty of the season. As we head into the holidays, this is one risotto I start looking for reasons to make. Every luxurious mouthful is a party, mingling the sweetness of roasted butternut squash and ham with the slight bitterness of winter-grown radicchio.
So okay, risotto might not push the cornbread dressing or sweet-potato casserole off your Thanksgiving table, but no reason it couldn’t show up the day after. Serving risotto as a first course is one idea, but a hearty risotto like this one can also make a satisfying piatto unico, or one-course meal.
It also makes fine use of ingredients on hand. Maybe you have remnants of a baked ham, winter squash left over from soup making, extra shallots or leeks. And, for sure, if you make turkey broth, save some for risotto!
In a recent cooking demo, I set out to demystify risotto making. Somehow it’s acquired the reputation of being very labor intensive, which is just not true. Here are some tips for confident risotto making.
Choose the right rice. Italian short-grain rice such as Arborio or Carnoroli is ideal because the risotto method keeps the grains separate, while drawing out their inner starchiness to create a creamy texture. That said, you can give the risotto treatment to long-grain rice or to a grain such as farro or barley–the flavor and texture will be different, but delicious.
Use good-quality broth appropriate for the ingredients. Seafood broth goes into a seafood risotto and vegetable broth into a vegetarian risotto–otherwise, use a mild poultry or meat broth. If you have time to make home-made broth, you won’t be sorry. Chicken backs, thighs or legs are great, but I’ve been using turkey because it’s so plentiful right now. Raw turkey is preferably to a cooked-out carcass–just buy a couple of hefty wings or legs.
Prep ingredients and arrange them in order of use. Keep the broth piping hot throughout the risotto making.
Create a flavor base by sauteing aromatics (almost always including some member of the onion family) in butter and/or olive oil. Next the rice is lightly toasted in the mixture to separate and coat the grains.
Wine adds an mildly acidic note that balances the richness of other ingredients. One demo participant who wanted to avoid adding alcohol proposed apple cider as a substitute–a delicious idea for this particular risotto. Or, the wine could simply be omitted.
Keep the mixture at a brisk simmer, replenishing with warm broth as it evaporates. Cold liquid would lower the temperature and impede proper cooking. Somehow there’s an idea at large that risotto requires constant attention, but it ain’t true. An occasional stir is enough (perhaps risotto making got confused with polenta, where the danger of sticking is real).
Taste a spoonful to check the seasoning and judge whether the risotto is done. How to know? The risotto will have a creamy, slightly runny consistency, but the grains remain slightly firm in the center. Toward the end, add quick-cooking ingredients such as fresh herbs, garnishes and part or all of the cheese. Finish with a final ladleful or two of broth for the thirsty risotto to “drink,” off heat.
Risotto with Winter Squash, Radicchio and Ham
Makes 3 or 4 servings
2 pinches saffron threads
Half of a small butternut or other winter squash (about 8 ounces)*
Extra virgin olive oil
4 to 5 cups vegetable or chicken broth, or a mixture of half broth and half water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
¼ cup finely chopped shallot or onion
1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1/3 cup white wine or 1/4 cup apple cider
1 cup firmly packed shredded radicchio
1 small thick-cut (1/4 inch) slice Italian prosciutto cotto or any baked or smoked ham, diced in small cubes (about 1/3 cup)
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other aged grating cheese
¼ cup snipped chives or flat-leaf parsley leaves, for garnish (optional)
1. Preheat the oven to 425°F. In a small bowl, crumble the saffron into ¼ cup water. Peel the squash with a vegetable peeler and dice in ½-inch cubes (about 2 cups). Place on a baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, stirring to coat the pieces. Roast until tender and lightly browned on several sides, about 20 minutes. Stir half way through the cooking.
2. Bring the broth to a boil and adjust the heat to a slow simmer.
3. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan or wide-bottom saucepan, melt the butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until golden. Stir in the rice and cook for a minute or so, until the grains are coated and smell toasty. Add the wine, stirring until absorbed.
4. Ladle on enough of the hot broth to cover the rice. Simmer, stirring occasionally and adding more broth as the liquid is absorbed. After about 10 minutes, stir in the roasted squash, radicchio and the ham. Cook until the rice is cooked through and the radicchio softens but does not lose its color and crunch, 5 to 10 minutes longer.
5. Remove from heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano, saffron water, and a final ladleful of broth (you may not need it all). Allow the risotto to collect itself for about 5 minutes.
6. Serve in shallow soup bowls, garnishing with chives or parsley if you wish.
* To make peeling easier, cook the whole squash for 15 minutes at 425°F; cool and continue as described; roasting time will be a little shorter. Or buy peeled, cubed squash in the produce department.