Butternut Squash Risotto

Ina Garten, aka The Barefoot Contessa, and her cookbooks are already a source of guidance for basic recipes but her show serves as my inspiration for more adventurous culinary efforts.  I’ll follow along with an episode of the Barefoot Contessa, then choose a recipe to try in my tiny New York kitchen. We’ll see if I can keep up with the Contessa!

  Butternut Squash Risotto   | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Butternut Squash Risotto  | Image: Laura Messersmith

Episode: “Weekend Lunch”

The Set-up: Ina and Jeffrey are booked solid with two weekend lunches. Ina’s solution: serve menus of easy, satisfying dishes to their friends.

The Menu: Warm Duck Salad, Blueberry Crumb Cake, Butternut Squash Risotto, Chocolate Sorbet

0:52 – Ina starts us off by declaring her love for entertaining at lunchtime (apparently well known among the Gartens’ friends.) I’m pretty confident that if Ina told people to show up at 4 am for dinner she’d still have plenty of takers.

1:17 – First up, the Blueberry Crumb Cake for Saturday’s lunch. Pro Tip #1: prepare the cake pan by rubbing a butter wrapper around the inside and dusting with a little flour. Tap the excess flour out for a light coating.

2:26 – Pro Tip #2: room temperature butter and eggs will result in a light, fluffy cake batter. It blew my mind when I figured out that the temperature of ingredients affects the outcome. But do I ever manage to take the butter out the night before? No.

3:39 – Mmm, this cake has blueberries, vanilla, and lemon zest in the batter; plus a sugar and spice crumb streusel.

4:44 – Ina is not playing - one stick of butter for the streusel alone. Good thing they’re having salad as the main course!

6:01 – Now a little field trip to Iacono Farm to buy the key ingredient for the Warm Duck Salad. Ina’s clearly a regular and the man tending the farm stand fixes her up with two picture-perfect duck breasts post haste.

9:05 – Back in the kitchen to make the salad and Ina explains that for lunch dishes she tries to balance lightness with substance. I presume this is to prevent the need for either an afternoon nap or an afternoon snack, neither of which I personally have a problem with…

10:14 – While the duck roasts she makes a vinaigrette (olive oil, sherry vinegar, chopped shallots, and orange zest) and says that duck has a fuller flavor and can stand up to a stronger dressing. The first time I can recall eating duck was during tapas at Dali in Cambridge, MA. The Pato Braseado (duckling with berry sauce) is so good I now order one just for me. Selfish? Yes. Necessary? Also yes.

10:24 – The duck comes out of the oven and Ina offers Pro Tip #3: cover the sheet pan with foil and allow the duck to rest for 10-15 minutes to allow the juices to return to the meat.

11:07 – Ina is assembling the salad and decides to use a blend of mache, endive, a supremed orange, some fresh raspberries, and toasted pecans. I definitely approve of fruit and nuts in salad – yum.

13:25 – The last step is to remove the skin from the duck, slice it into long strips on the bias, and place them on the platter. This is a gorgeous looking dish - the colors of the orange segments, berries and pink duck breast against the salad greens really pop.

14:25 – A final sprinkling of powdered sugar over the Blueberry Crumb Cake and it’s time for Ina and Jeffrey’s friends to arrive. Someone named Maureen and a second un-named woman? Anyway…

14:45 – Jeffrey continues to win points as the most complimentary husband in history - well done Mr. Garten - and everyone tucks in to their salad and crumb cake.

19:11 – It’s Sunday now and Ina is preparing for Weekend Lunch 2: Electric Boogaloo. She says “weekends are about fun and relaxing, so weekend entertaining should be too.” Truer words, my friend. There is nothing relaxing about killing yourself to make a fancy meal.

20:15 – Once again she’s starting her prep with dessert: Chocolate Sorbet and adds the twin chocolate flavor boosters: cinnamon and coffee. After all the ingredients are combined over low heat she pours the mixture into a plastic container to chill in the refrigerator. In her intro to this part of the show she says she has an hour and a half until her guests arrive, so I’m a little unclear how sorbet will set in that amount of time, but I guess we’ll see!

22:20 – On to the Butternut Squash Risotto. Ina is roasting the squash with the holy trinity of the oven: olive oil, kosher salt, and black pepper. This is how I prepare 50% of the vegetables I make. The other 50% are steamed and tossed with butter, salt, and black pepper. So, basically the exact same seasonings.

23:39 – Aha! The Secret of the Chocolate Sorbet  (which sounds like something Nancy Drew should investigate) has been revealed: an ice cream maker. Ina says it will take about 30 minutes. Mystery solved. Great work, Nancy.

25:18 – Back to the risotto – pancetta, shallots, and butter are sautéed in the most giant palm green Le Crueset french oven I’ve ever seen – followed by the Arborio rice. Then two ladles of hot chicken stock and some saffron threads.

26:56 – Some TV magic seems to take place at this point. We see very little ladling and stirring, but all of a sudden the risotto is done and it’s time to fold in the butternut squash and a finishing cup of grated parmesan.

27:12 – Ina, you know I adore you, but as a risotto-newbie I would have loved a little more handholding at this stage… Next time maybe?

28:27 – The risotto and sorbet are done, Frank and Stephen have arrived, and everyone is gathered around the lunch table again.

29:56 – They wrap up with meal with Jeffrey, possibly still drumming up boat-purchase brownie points, rhapsodizing about how he loves everything about this meal “the risotto, the sorbet…” and they all laugh as Ina prompts him “you love me…” Aww. They’re too much.

Final Thoughts:

Ina is totally right about lunchtime entertaining – make 2 courses and you’re good to go!

The concept of balance – both within a dish, but also across courses – is so important. I love that Ina pairs a lighter dish with a richer one.

I might need an entire episode devoted to risotto – I suspect this is a more subtle cooking process than Ina makes it seem.

  Butternut Squash Risotto  | Image:  Laura Messersmith

Butternut Squash Risotto | Image: Laura Messersmith

Lessons Learned: I took a page from Ina’s book and made the Butternut Squash Risotto when we had friends coming for dinner. Now that I’ve tried making it I see why risotto has such a reputation among professional chefs (see the Top Chef risotto curse) and home cooks alike. The techniques aren’t necessarily difficult in this recipe - dice and roast squash, mince shallots, ladle hot chicken stock, stir - but producing a perfectly cooked risotto is a definitely little tricky. The Kitchn has some great photos and descriptions of what the ideal risotto should look and taste like.

This was my first attempt and while the end product turned out really flavorful and delicious, the texture wasn’t quite right. Risotto should be ‘al dente’ and mine was too soft and a little too sticky rather than creamy - like rice pudding. What I need to diagnose the problem is more experience, but if I had to guess I’d say that either I added the stock too slowly and let the previous ladle-full absorb too completely, or that I didn’t actually need all 6 cups of stock. This is one where practice will be the key to nailing that elusive perfect dish.

Butternut Squash Risotto is fairly small kitchen friendly – I used one large french oven, a medium sauce pan (for the warm chicken stock), a sheet pan, one cutting board, and some basic kitchen tools like a ladle, chef’s knife, and measuring cups.

The Verdict: The flavors in this recipe are amazing – rich, complex, and satisfying. I understand why Ina uses this as a ‘stand alone’ entrée – a little green salad and you really don’t need anything else. Even though I didn’t get the texture on the first attempt all four of us really liked how the Butternut Squash Risotto tasted and I’m excited to try this one again and again until I get it just right.