Thursday, December 4, 2008

Rice of a Lifetime

When I was a kid, I loved school. If I was sick, I actually feigned health in an attempt not to miss a day of class or an opportunity to see my friends. But, from time to time, I indulged by going to work with my dad on snow days or any day that school was closed. Like the nerd that I am, I always longed to work, a task that to my young heart and mind felt like the epitome of adult sophistication. After helping my dad choose a suit and tie, I'd dress in my cosmopolitan best for the ride to downtown DC, carefully matching my ensemble to the one I'd painstakingly chosen for him. Soon we were in his office and I was over his shoulder asking what I could do to help. I took whatever task his secretary gave me and accomplished it with gusto, confident that I was the best supply closet re-stocker ever, and made a mental note to list it on my future resume as "experience in commercial merchandising".

But the best part of the day always came around 1 pm, when the office closed and we'd break for lunch (a phrase I found fascinating and was sure I'd use often in my impending adulthood). It was time for lunch, one on one with my dad, a treat that maybe happened 10 times in my life. Knowing that I loved great food even at eight years old, we went to his favorite lunchtime haunt, a small Italian restaurant that specialized in Venetian cuisine. My favorite dish was a slow cooked delight not on the lunch menu, so my father always called ahead so the chef could prepare a double order that morning just for us. The sonatas playing quietly through the speakers and the constant stream of appetizers only added to my fantasy of adult working life, and before I knew it, I had a massive plate of osso buco before me. I always tore excitedly through the meat and marrow, leaving my favorite part for last. The shanks sat on a small bed of creamy, marigold risotto, my entire reason for ordering the dish. My father always asked me why I left it for last, and with a mouth full of food and eyes wide open I replied that it was my dessert.

In the coming years my dad would call ahead during my visits and let the chef know that he could forgo the buttered vegetables and the other side dishes, all I needed was the osso bucco and a double helping of risotto. I spent years trying to recreate that risotto, not quite sure what gave it that vibrant color, cheesy flavor and intense creaminess. I experimented with every type of cheese, broth and brand of arborio rice known to man, but nothing seemed to come within an inch of what I remembered as a tangy and slightly sweet dish. I considered calling the restaurant in the hopes that someone there would remember the dish almost 20 years later, but it had long closed after the area became trendy. It wasn't until recently when I decided to experiment with butternut squash that it hit me. I was too young at the time and with
(the eight year old me would be devastated to learn) too unsophisticated a palette to know that it wasn't just cheese risotto, but butternut squash risotto. Granted, squash wasn't the popular ingredient that it is today, in fact it only became en vogue within the last ten years, and certainly wasn't common in the 80's. And so, a twenty year-old culinary mystery has been solved, and with it some of the happiest memories of my childhood have resurfaced. Here's the recipe I worked out, I hope it makes you as happy as it once did me:

Butternut Squash Risotto

1 medium sized butternut squash, peeled and diced
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth (you may not need it all)
3 small or 2 large shallots, finely diced
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, finely diced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine (go for a dryer one)
3 tsp thyme, finely chopped
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

1. Sauté butternut squash in a non-stick skillet with 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil until tender. Puree in a blender until smooth (I had to thin mine out with a little broth to help my blender along). Measure out 1 1/2 cups of puree, reserving the rest for another use (I used it for soup the next day).

2. Heat remaining oil in non-stick skillet and add shallots, cooking until they just start to brown, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and half of the thyme, cooking a minute further. Add rice and cook until opaque, then add white wine and cook until absorbed.

3. Reduce heat to medium-low and add a ladleful of broth. Cook, stirring constantly until all of the broth is absorbed. Repeat until rice is almost cooked though, then add warmed puree. Cook, continuing to stir until rice is done, then add Parmesan cheese and remaining thyme. Taste for salt and pepper. Enjoy!


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