Risotto is one of those simple, inexpensive dishes that, with the application of a little patience and technique, can transform itself into a rich, deeply flavorful creation that belies its humble beginnings. As long as you stay true to a few basics, you can take risotto in any number of directions.
The fundamental formula for most risottos is cooking onion, followed by rice, wine and warm stock and finished with a swirl of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. I cook other sauce items, such as shrimp, mushrooms or the butternut squash below in a separate pan and add them just before finishing the risotto.
There are three principle tenets of making risotto that cannot be ignored. First, you must use short-grained Italian rice. There is actually some science involved here that makes this imperative. This rice contains more amylopectin, a type of starch, than other rice and absorbs liquid more slowly, giving the risotto its creamy, sticky texture. Arborio is the most common type found in American stores and is easiest to cook correctly. Carnaroli is considered by chefs to be the best, closely followed by Vialone Nano (both available online), but for my money, Arborio works like a charm. Secondly, risotto doesn’t hold well (which is why it is best cooked at home rather than ordered in a restaurant), so make sure everything else is ready before the risotto is finished. Lastly, you must stir. Do not listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. To paraphrase my oft-quoted Italian sage Marcella Hazan, if you are not stirring, you are not making risotto. You may be making something, but it’s not risotto!
Risotto with Butternut Squash and Pancetta
Heat about a quart of chicken or turkey stock in a saucepan and keep warm.
In a skillet, cook ¼ cup diced pancetta until just crisp. Remove to a bowl. Add 2 cups butternut squash, cut into 1½ inch matchsticks, and cook until it is starting to soften but still has a slight crunch. Add the squash to the pancetta.
In a saucepan set over high heat, cook 2/3 cups minced onion and ½ teaspoon chopped rosemary in 1 tablespoon each of olive oil and butter until barely translucent. Add 1 cup Arborio rice and stir to coat. Continue cooking, stirring all the while, for about a minute while the rice heats through. Add 1/3 cup white wine and stir until almost completely evaporated. Add a ladle of warm stock and stir until it, too, is almost evaporated. Continue adding stock, one ladle at a time, until the rice is al dente, or barely crunchy when bitten. When the rice is almost done, add the pancetta and squash and gently stir to incorporate. Stir until the last of the stock is absorbed. Remove from heat, swirl in 1 tablespoon of butter and ½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Adjust salt if necessary and serve immediately.
Serves 4 Wine pairing: Barbera D’Asti from the Piedmont region of Italy