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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto with Sage, Hazelnuts and Blue Cheese

Its quite rare, but sometimes I have the kind of week that reminds me that possibly the world doesn’t suck as much as I generally think.  The reasons for this strange turn in my perspective, were the Willesden Green Wassail, and the reaction of the Daily Mail readership to Melanie Philip’s ‘penguins and single dads are gay’ article.  Im not going to go into the ins and outs, but basically, people are lovely, and the world is lovely.  Don’t worry im sure that I will be back to my normal state of cynical misery soon enough.

Like the excitement of finding £10 in a pocket, or forgotten bag, or a whole pound coin under the sofa, a few days ago I found a butternut squash in my bedroom!!  I think I bought it about 3 weeks ago, and shoved it in a bag under my desk because I didn’t have anywhere to keep it.  I decided to celebrate the finding of the squash and the happiness of the week with one of my favourite things, risotto.  I love the kind of food you can eat out of a bowl, with just one piece of cutlery.  There is something so comforting and simple about it, but then of course, as with most things, it depends what you put in it.  My earliest memory of really loving risotto is from when I was 8 years old, on holiday in Sicily.  The local specialty of the town we were staying, Taormina, was a risotto made with salmon and pistachios.  It was heavenly, and appealed to my 8-year-old sensibilities by being flecked with pink and baby green, just like the tutti frutti gelato that was another Sicilian revelation.

I first had butternut squash and hazelnut risotto in a restaurant on Goodge Street called Ooze, a ‘rissotoria’ that I highly recommend.  Hazelnuts are amazing, its so rare that they are munched on I think, in comparison to peanuts, cashews etc.  I ate one while I was cooking and I thought wow, this is so yummy, I could sell this as a kind of ‘low fat’ ferrero rocher.  Although they are seemingly desserty, they work fantastically in this dish, and actually add a very rich and savory element, beautifully complimenting the sweetness of the squash.

Time: about 40 mins.  Difficulty: 3/5  Taste: 5/5

Butternut squash, diced into around 2cm square pieces.  You only need about half, but cook the whole thing and put the rest into a couscous/ bulgur/ quinoa salad, or simply with dark green salad
Around 2 teaspoons of dried sage, or a couple of springs fresh
1.2 litres stock (half pretend chicken, half onion soup mix) use just chicken for a lighter risotto, and just onion for a richer one.
400g Risotto rice.
1 large onion, diced
125 ml white wine (vermouth, pear cider works well too)
Olive oil
Knob of Butter/ vegan margarine (this risotto can be vegan if the cheese is omitted, still very delicous)
Black pepper
handful of Hazelnuts roughly chopped
crumbled blue cheese, or goats cheese

Serves 4-5, depending on how hungry you are, and whether you want leftovers for breakfast the next day.

Preheat the oven to quite hot, around 200, or 180 with the fan (see previous notes on oven temperature issues)

Put a tablespoon of olive oil in a large bowl, add the dried sage (if using), and a generous shake of salt - preferably coarse sea salt or pink himalayan salt.  Add the squash and mix until all the pieces are coated in the spiced, herby oil.  Spread the pieces on a baking tray, all in one layer, and roast for about 40-50 minutes. This gives you enough time to then make the risotto, and have everything ready at the same time. I noticed that the long bit on the squash takes on a different texture to the round bit (where the seeds were) when cooked. I think the round bit contains more moisture, and so it goes much more caramelized. Add the chopped hazelnuts to the oven tray (and fresh sage if using) when there is about 10 minutes cooking time left.

In a large saucepan, fry the onion in a glug of olive oil on a low heat until soft and translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add the rice, and turn over in the onions until its all mixed together.  Add in the alcohol and let it bubble for a few minutes.  It is traditional to use white wine or vermouth, but I experimented with pear cider (cheaper, yummy and comes in cans) and it worked really well.  Add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting for all the liquid to be incorporated before adding the next ladle. This can take around 25-30 minutes.  When all the liquid is incorporated, check that the rice is cooked through.  Season with black pepper (the cheese and butternut squash is quite salty so only put a little more salt in it) and stir through as much butter or vegan margarine as your arteries can take.

Just before serving, mix the butternut squash, hazelnuts and sage into the risotto. Serve with the blue cheese (or goats cheese) crumbled on the top.  Serve with a salad of dark green leaves, such as rocket, so the bitterness can cut through the richness of the risotto.  Enjoy, preferably sitting on a couch with a glass of wine and an archetypal ‘feel good’ movie, and a good friend, the kind that bakes you peanut butter cookies.

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