Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Week of Food & Friends and a Butternut Squash Served Three Ways

 I just returned from a magical week away at the lake with friends. At one time or another, all of us have cooked professionally, so in addition to long walks and long conversations, we cooked up a storm. Since I was more interested in talking, cooking and eating than in documenting the things we made (I was on vacation after all), I don't have any exact recipes to share. Even if I did have detailed recipes, a post documenting all of the wonderful things we had (fish tacos with Nancy's fresh homemade tortillas, orange and pecan cream scones, herb butter baked salmon, roasted beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts, a chocolate cake called Miette's Tomboy from Rose's Heavenly Cakes...) would be impossibly long. Instead, I thought that today I would write about one humble ingredient that wove its way into three of our meals through the creative impulse of three different cooks...a butternut squash.

The night we arrived in Chicago, before meeting up with the rest of our group the next day and heading on to the lake house, three of us shared a meal at a fun little Italian restaurant in Wicker Park called Francesca's Forno. Inspired by a risotto we had shared there, Molly suggested that we make a main course risotto and a simple salad for one of our evening meals. I suggested one of my favorite combinations of Butternut squash and mushrooms. This was what we tentatively had in our minds as we set off for the Garden Market.

Anyone who cooks knows that your plans often change once you actually start shopping. This is especially true at a produce market. We had picked up our butternut squash and some mushrooms when I spotted some fresh lima beans.

Fresh lima beans are almost never available where most of us live, so we decided to get some thinking they would be a nice addition to our "Autumn Risotto". There were also some lovely first of the season parsnips that we grabbed knowing that we would find some way to use them during the week.

To prepare the squash, I halved it horizontally at the point where the neck begins to widen into the seed cavity. I peeled and diced the neck

 and halved and seeded the cavity end.

My plan was to roast the two cavity halves "whole"

in order to make a coarse purée that could be stirred into the risotto during its early stages and to roast the diced neck pieces so that they could be folded into the risotto at the end (along with the sautéed mushrooms and cooked lima beans).  

As I cooked the risotto, the plan changed. The squash was pretty large—way too much even for the pound of risotto that we were preparing. We didn't weigh the one we purchased, but I have one here at home now that weighs just under two pounds and it is smaller than the one we purchased for our risotto. We decided to roast the diced pieces and put them away for another meal and just use the mashed cavity end of the squash in our risotto.

To prepare our Autumn Risotto, dice a medium onion and mince a fat clove of garlic. Sweat the onion and garlic in 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter along with a pinch of salt and 6 or 7 large sage leaves cut into a fine chiffonade. When the onions are very tender, add a pound of Arborio rice and continue to cook for a few moments until the rice is hot and sizzling in the butter. Add about 3/4 cup of white wine and cook until the wine has been completely reduced and/or absorbed. Begin to add the stock a ladleful or two at a time, waiting for each addition to be absorbed before adding more. The risotto does not have to be stirred constantly, but it should be stirred regularly and frequently. For a more complete description of the risotto process, see my earlier post on risotto. Be sure to continue to salt the risotto with the successive additions of stock, so that the resulting risotto will not be flat or bland. Pay attention to how salty your stock or broth is when adding salt and remember that the final addition of Parmesan will add to the saltiness of the dish.

After three or four additions of stock add the coarsely mashed squash purée and continue to cook.

While the risotto cooks, sauté a half pound of sliced Crimini mushrooms in some olive oil and butter; set aside.

The lima beans should be prepared before you begin to cook the onions since they will take at least 20 to 30 minutes to cook. To cook them, simply simmer them in some lightly salted water until they are soft and tender. Set the lima beans aside; reserving the cooking liquid too. 

We only purchased a quart of broth, so we used the lima bean cooking liquid as part of our cooking liquid for the risotto. Just use as much as you need.

When the risotto is almost finished fold in the drained lima beans and mushrooms with an addition of broth or bean liquid. When the rice is cooked through, but still has texture, remove it from the heat and add 4 tablespoons of butter, a handful or two of Parmesan and a sprinkling of minced flat leaf parsley.  Correct the seasoning with salt and pepper and the consistency with bean liquid—the risotto should be fluid, but not soupy, and very creamy. 

We served the risotto with a green salad and a Vouvray. The five of us sat at the table and continued to nibble, so there was only a small amount left, but under ordinary circumstances I think there was easily enough risotto for six entrée portions. To my mind, the unplanned addition of the lima beans was actually what put this risotto into the memorable category. I love lima beans, but have never had them in risotto and the combination of the soft limas with the creamy risotto was a revelation.

The next evening Nancy put some of the roasted cubes of butternut squash into a wonderful salad...sort of a vegetable crouton addition to a green salad.

 She dressed the salad with a sherry-shallot vinaigrette that included a little bit of garlic, Dijon and honey. She also added toasted pecans, thinly sliced red onion and a generous amount of shaved Parmesan to the salad. It was beautiful and tasty—nicely complimented by a roast chicken, mashed potatoes and the parsnips, roasted and then finished with a small amount of maple syrup.

The following day for lunch, Molly turned the remaining diced roasted squash into one of my favorite dishes of the week—a favorite because it was so simple and beautiful, with nothing extra and nothing missing. She warmed the squash, remaining limas (we had cooked all that we purchased and only used a generous cup in the risotto) and leftover slices of maple-roasted parsnips, creating a simple autumnal vegetable medley. The colors and shapes were lovely together. Unfortunately, I didn't get a good picture of it.

As you can probably tell, the food at the lake house was wonderful. We even received another lesson from Bonnie for her special Cardamom Bread (someday I'll convince her to write a guest post).

I will savor the tastes of this week for months to come. But as I look back, it is not just the food and cooking that made it so very special. Rather, it was the laughter, conversation and camaraderie in the kitchen and at the table. And now that I am home, it isn't just one more meal that I crave. How I long to have more time...  for one more walk through the woods...

or along the beach...

in the company of my very dear friends.

1 comment:

Katrina said...

So glad you had such a great time. Love that last photo with the shadows.