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Continuing the exploration I began of using autumn pumpkin and its other hard-skinned winter squash cousins in savory dishes, I would like to talk about cooking this orange-fleshed vegetable/fruit as a side dish -- or even an appetizer.
Both first courses and sides have an amazing ability to make or break a meal. Appetizers, of course, set the tone: If they surprise and delight the people gathered around your table, you've already succeeded at making the evening memorable. And, of course, a delicious side makes any main course it accompanies taste better -- and if it's also beautiful, it will almost certainly elicit the "oohs" and "ahs" that mark a successful dinner party.
I had perfect evidence of the powers such pumpkin sides or appetizers possess when, about 10 years ago, I visited Las Vegas for my Food Network television show and prepared pumpkin risotto for my friends Siegfried and Roy, the great showmen. They were delighted with the dish and, dare I say it, they found the results magical.
Making a great pumpkin risotto is one trick whose secrets I can reveal. It starts by selecting the right pumpkin. If you want to use a true pumpkin for this recipe, look for the smaller round specimens specifically labeled "pie pumpkins." Otherwise, go with a close relative, butternut squash, which will offer consistently good taste and texture as well as a deep golden-orange color.
As for the risotto itself, you'll find the right type of plump, short-grained Italian rice for sale in most well-stocked markets today, as well as in Italian delis. Arborio is the most common variety, but you can also use Carnaroli or Vialone Nano types, which vary slightly in cooking times and textures but will deliver similar desired results: tender but still chewy grains surrounded by a rich, creamy sauce formed by their surface starch, which dissolves into the broth during cooking.
My final tip for great risotto is to keep stirring it while you continually add hot broth. Doing so ensures that the rice cooks evenly and promotes the formation of its sauce.
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 6 as a side dish
1 medium-sized butternut squash, about 3 pounds (1.4 kg)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup (125 ml) plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup (250 ml) finely chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 cups (500 ml) Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano rice
1 cup (250 ml) dry white wine
About 6 cups (1.5 l) organic chicken broth or vegetable broth, heated to a simmer
1/2 cup (125 ml) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives or Italian parsley
First, prepare the butternut squash. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 C). With a sharp, heavy knife, carefully cut the squash lengthwise in half. Use a sharp-edged spoon to scrape out and discard the seeds and strings. Lightly spray a baking dish with nonstick spray and put one-half of the squash in the dish cut side down. Bake until tender, about 45 minutes, and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, carefully use the knife to peel the other half; cut it into 1/4-inch (6-mm) dice. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter with 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the squash cubes, and saute, stirring frequently, until tender, about 10 minutes; set aside. Scoop out the pulp from the bake squash half into a bowl, and mash thoroughly; set aside.
In a medium-sized heavy saucepan, heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, and saute, stirring continuously, just until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the rice and continue to stir, using a wooden spoon, to coat the rice with the oil.
Add the wine and continue cooking, stirring often, until it has been absorbed by the rice. Ladle in enough of the hot broth to cover the rice completely, about 3 cups (750 ml). Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and continue to cook, stirring often, until all the liquid has been absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.
Ladle in 1 cup (250 ml) more of the remaining broth and stir and cook until it has been absorbed. Repeat with 1 cup (250 ml) more. Add the remaining broth and cook, stirring, until the rice is al dente, tender but still very chewy, and most of the liquid has been absorbed.
Stir in the pumpkin puree and the diced pumpkin and reduce the heat to very low so that the risotto no longer simmers. Stir in the Parmesan and butter to give the risotto a nice, creamy finish. Spoon it immediately into heated shallow serving bowls. Garnish with chives or parsley and serve immediately.
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