Always seasonal, I was inspired last night to prepare pumpkin risotto. Mostly due to the numerous small "candy" pumpkins that kept getting sent home with my three-year old son, Henry, when he returned from pre-school, prior to Halloween.
I used to work with a high-falutin Italian chef who would always insist that any risotto be cooked in a way that allowed the color of the finished product to reflect the ingredients. So, mushroom risotto was always brown, spinach risotto was green, our golden yellow risotto Milanese got its color from loads of saffron and golden chicken stock, and we even did a beet risotto that was a deep burgundy red. We did not do a risotto that was rice colored.
So since I was determined to prepare a nice pumpkin risotto for my family to eat, I was going for a nice strong squash-colored orange color from the rice.
First step--I split one of the pumpkins, removed the guts and seeds, and roasted it in a low oven until it was falling apart tender. After scooping out the flesh, I hit it with a stick blender and mixed it with a little chicken stock (out of a box) and pureed it until it was nice and smooth. Then I added the rest of the box of stock and let the stick blend it a while longer, essentially giving me pumpkin stock with which to cook the rice.
Next...bacon. I used about six slices of bacon (I buy Costco's Kirkland brand at four pounds for around eight bucks), cutting inch-long pieces across the slices and rendered them slowly in a nonstick pan over low heat.
Once the bacon was cooked, I drained it, reserving the grease. I took another pumpkin, split it, de-gutted it, and cooked it in the microwave in a dish with some water. I was par-cooking it, covered, just enough to peel it and get some nice half-inch dice out of it. This took about two and a half minutes in my microwave . Once it was par-cooked, I let it cool, and then got some nice dice that I added at the end of the risotto cooking process.
Ok...so now I needed some color to go against that strong orange field. Green. I had asparagus in the fridge, so I par-cooked that in the microwave as well, and then sliced off the tips and cut the stalks into about half-inch pieces.
Now for the rice. First, the stock must be *hot* when it goes into the rice. The key to cooking risotto properly is to add the liquid just a little bit at a time, forcing the starch out of the rice and giving you that creamy texture that risotto is known for. If the stock isn't hot when you add it, you'll slow the cooking process way way down and it'll take forever and also screw up the texture of the rice.
Risotto is one of those things that, to do it properly, you really have to stand over the pot, stir almost constantly, and baby. If you don't, it can get away from you.
So. I put the pot of stock on the back burner and got it going while I toasted the rice. I added the reserved bacon grease to a large pot and then added about a cup and a half of rice. Ah. The rice. For risotto, you cannot use just any type of rice. You have to use a short-grain starchy rice which lends itself to becoming risotto. Arborio is very good. Carnaroli is better (and more expensive). Add some salt and pepper now, but underseason it, since we'll adjust it at the end.
The rice goes into the hot oil (or, in this case, bacon grease) and it should toast a bit. Long enough that you can smell the toasty rice. Then you hit it with white wine. The wine should be allowed to boil long enough that it's almost all gone before you start adding the stock. Every time you add liquid, you should cook it, stirring, until almost all the liquid has absorbed into the rice. You should be able to see the bottom of the pan for a few seconds after you stir. Traditionally, a wooden spoon is used to stir, but I prefer one of those heat-proof rubber scrapers since they're gentler on the rice and better at scraping the sides and bottom of the pan.
Ratios? Who knows? I often run out of liquid before the rice is fully cooked and sometimes I'm left with extra. You have to watch, feel, and taste to know when it's done. Keep tasting the rice. When it's just slightly al dente, it's done. You can bite a grain of rice in half and look at it, and you should see a small dot of white inside of the rice which is the uncooked bit in the middle. This is also kind of cool, because you can see the color of the cooking liquid get absorbed into the rice grain. If you want measurements and cooking times, I'm probably not the chef to learn from.
Ok, so now the rice is almost where you want it. Now we're all about texture and consistency. Toss in your par-cooked veggies and then adjust the consistency. You want the risotto to be very loose at this point, as it will set up as it sits and once we add the cheese and butter. It should be almost soupy, but don't go nuts because if it's too loose, we'll have to cook it longer to tighten it up and you'll overcook your rice and veggies.
Once the veggies and rice are cooked, turn the heat off or to just barely on, and add about half a stick of butter, cut into pats, and a good amount of grated hard italian cheese. Most risottos call for Parmesan-style cheese (as opposed to Pecorino Romano, which is sharper). There are plenty of cheeses which will serve this purpose. I used Grana Padano in my pumpkin risotto, because I had a big chunk that I bought at Costco on hand. Parmeggiano-Reggiano is always a good choice, and there are plenty of other good "grana" style cheeses you could use. Don't use garbage cheese for this, as risotto is all about the rich, creamy texture of the rice, and the sweet, heady perfume that you get from a good Italian cheese melting into it really gives you what you're going for.
Ok, so butter, cheese...add the cripsy bacon, and chop some fresh sage--that goes in too. Give the whole thing a few stirs and taste it. Adjust your seasoning with salt and pepper. Maybe a bit more cheese, if it needs it, and then pour (yes, pour) the whole mess into a large shallow bowl. It should be pour-able. If it's not, you'll need to adjust the texture. It should be loose enough to pour when it goes into the bowl, otherwise, it'll set up and become a thick pasty mess once people start eating. Garnish it with some more cheese (use your potato peeler to get some nice big shards) and a few whole sage leaves.
We enjoyed ours with a Pinot Grigio, which is the same wine I used in the cooking process. My son Henry had soy milk with his. (He's three.)