Risotto: Right & Wrong

In my last In My Kitchen post I mentioned being served what was called butternut squash risotto at a London restaurant. I was stunned by the blatant mislabelling of this dish “risotto” as it was more like soupy rice. In fact, I was so shocked that I didn’t even think of taking a photo of the offending dish. So, I’ll paint you a word picture instead.

It was watery, not creamy. The butternut squash (what there was of it) was in relatively large chunks and tasteless. It was overwhelmed by peas – obviously used as a filler to bulk the dish out. There was no evidence that cheese had been added. Finally, it was topped with a dusting of dried brown particles – probably something that originally marketed as a generic “Italian Seasoning” but had sat on the shelf so long that all the flavours had been leached out. Not only did it look wrong, but the taste was equally awful.

I should preface this by saying that I like a good butternut squash risotto. In fact, it is one of my go-to risottos for the autumn, using the best ingredients of the season. The following are a few tips that that London restaurant might have benefited by following:

  1. Rice: only specific small to medium grain, semi round rice should be used for risotto – such as Arborio (the most common), Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. There are others, but this is these are the ones usually mentioned in recipes. The starchiness of the rice is what creates the creamy texture and the rice also retains its shape while absorbing flavours.
    What they used was standard long grain rice that has less starch and the grains remain separate. Basmati and Jasmine rices are long grain. Also, do not use parboiled or “quick cook” rice that gelatinises the starch in the grain, cooks quicker and is separate like the long grain rice. None of these produce a creamy texture when cooked.
  2. Stock: the stock, along with the rice provide the backbone on which the risotto is structured. It also adds to the complexity of the overall flavour, so only use good quality stock, preferably homemade.
    What they used looked suspiciously like salted water or a very weak broth made from cubes or powder. Stock cubes can be used in a pinch if you don’t have any other stock available, but use a good – preferably organic – brand that is low salt.
  3. Butternut Squash: like any ingredient, you should aim for good taste. I usually bake my butternut squash first to intensify the flavours and to keep them from becoming soggy. Once baked, scoop out the flesh from the shell. When adding to risottos, I mash it a bit so that the flesh dissolves a little in the mix, but still has a few (small) chunky pieces.
    Theirs was boiled chunks, possibly from big industrial size bags of frozen pieces thrown in at along with frozen peas. I have nothing against some frozen vegetables, but they should be good quality. I often freeze packets of my own roasted squash to be used in future dishes.
  4. Herbs: I prefer to use fresh herbs. I like the combination of squash and rosemary, but have also used thyme or sage.
    Do not use nasty dried herb mixes. If dried herbs have been sitting on the shelf too long, throw them out.
  5. Dairy: cheese and sometimes a small knob of butter are often added at the end to add to the creaminess and flavour.
    Theirs had no creaminess and no dairy. Although risottos can be made without dairy (particularly if you want to create a vegan dish), they do enhance the finished dish.

I needed to right this wrong.

Butternut Squash Risotto
Luckily, I had some fantastic homemade chicken stock that was just right for the job. Substitute vegetable stock if you want a vegetarian dish.

  • 200g baked flesh of butternut squash, approx. 1/2 of a small butternut squash
  • olive oil
  • 1 small onion (about 60g chopped)
  • 250g risotto rice
  • 50ml white wine
  • 600ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
  • 2-3 sprigs of fresh rosemary, stripped and finely chopped
  • 1-2 chopped dried hot peppers, optional
  • 30g Parmesan cheese
  • 10g butter
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Bake your butternut squash like you would pumpkin: Cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and lie flat side down in a baking pan, adding a little water around the squash. Bake at 180 degrees C for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the skin begins to get flecks of brown and the flesh is softened. Scoop out the flesh and measure how much you will need and freeze the remainder for other recipes. Slightly chop or mash the cooked squash you will be using for this recipe and set aside.

Bring the stock to a simmer while you prepare your other ingredients. Chop your onion finely. Add the oil to a pan and put it on medium heat. Add onions to sauté and get soft, then add the rosemary and optional hot pepper. Stir. Add the rice and the wine. Stir and let the wine become completely absorbed before adding the chopped squash. Stir. Begin adding stock – a ladle at a time, stirring after each addition.

Continue until the last ladleful is added. Test to make sure that the rice is cooked, then fold in the grated Parmesan and the knob of butter. Adjust with salt and pepper.

Serve a simple, but beautiful golden squash risotto.

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7 comments

  1. Lovely reminder of the classic Lombardian risotto di zucca, although those good folk would never use any chilli, or anything else that their nonna or zia nenver used. Your photo shows a nice balance of wet and dry and creaminess from the ‘ mantecato’. One of the other risotto stuff ups comes in the timing of the rice: I had some awful hard centred risotti in Italy last year, which left me with severe indigestion.

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  2. Now that’s a butternut squash risotto. We also love risotto and butternut squash is a fall favorite. Our recipes are similar, except I use fresh sage in mine. I like the idea of rosemary and will be giving it a try. I hope you forwarded your post to the restaurant in London.

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  3. yes i would not usually order a risotto at a restaurant as i have been disappointed before. it seems such a hard thing to make for restaurants:) on the other hand, my hubby makes a fab risotto with baked pumpkin and chicken. so delish! cheers sherry

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