What does it mean to develop a recipe? What does it mean to test one? What does it mean to adapt a recipe? What is a truly original recipe? These questions represent the fundamental core of what I do as a recipe developer and food writer.
To develop a recipe means that you start at square one, with an idea, and make some hits and misses along the way. You tweak, you taste, you tinker. Until the recipe is just right. Sometimes all it takes is one shot. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, and years (like my ongoing quest for perfect biscuits and cornbread). To test a recipe means you are cooking a recipe, top to tail, exactly as written. You’re noting problems, making observations on timing, and perhaps suggesting shortcuts. The main goal is for the recipe to remain true to the creator’s intent–my fingerprint shouldn’t be detected whatsoever. To adapt a recipe means you take a recipe and change an ingredient or two. Perhaps switch out honey for sugar or take a recipe for a whole chicken and “adapt” it to be suitable for chicken breasts. It’s when a new idea totally piggybacks on someone else’s method.
I’m at my happiest when I’m developing. When I’m truly creating, thinking and imaging the possibilities of what could happen if.
It often starts with a concept. It hits me, starting like a small itch, and develops into a full on compulsion until I get the idea just right. A few months ago it was deviled tea eggs stained and marbled by tea and spices, and then halved and stuffed with deviled duck rillette. Then it was little cookie-cup s’mores stuffed with chocolate truffles and topped by a tanned marshmallow (stay tuned for that recipe). This week it was this risotto.
This risotto all began with the most innocuous butternut squash. When I cut the seemingly perfect squash open, the entire bottom half was semi-rotten. Useless, trash. But the neck of the squash was fine. Not enough to roast solo for a side dish, I decided to turn it into my main dish–which would be risotto. Instead of cooking the squash in the same pot as the risotto, I decided to roast it so it would retain its independence. Rather than cooking down and melding with the rice, roasting concentrates its flavors, making it extra sweet, extra browned, and texturally divine. Bacon and butternut squash are great friends, and a little bacon added a fantastic smokiness to the squash as well as the overall dish. Roasting apple with the bacon and squash gave the dish a sweet-tart tang and the peels offer petals of color. Fresh rosemary with its piney woodsy-ness can never hurt.
I stirred this combo into a basic finished risotto. It needed something, though…something crunchy and something sharp. Pumpkin seeds, or pepitas, fried with some cumin ended up to be a stellar choice. As they toast in the skillet, they expand into crunchy little pumpkin flavored footballs. Scallions add a pungent bite. Creamy/crunchy, earthy/buttery, roasted/fresh; smoky/sweet. The risotto is a great snapshot of balance and bite, and of what happens when you wonder.
Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Apples, Bacon, and Cumin-Popped Pepitas
Serves 4 or 6 as a side
To make this vegetarian, leave out the bacon and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the roasting pan when cooking the butternut squash. I like creamy, sturdy carnaroli rice for risotto.
For the squash
- 1/2 medium butternut squash, peeled and chopped into 1/4 to 1/2-inch cubes
- 1 apple, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
- 3 bacon strips, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
For the pepitas
- 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 2/3 cup pepitas (hulled green pumpkin seeds)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the risotto
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium red onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 1/2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine or Vermouth
- 6 cups hot vegetable or chicken broth
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- 4 scallions, trimmed and finely chopped
1. Roast the squash: Place the squash, apples, bacon, and rosemary on a rimmed baking sheet or in a baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast until the squash is tender and starting to brown and the bacon is crisp, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring once midway through.
2. Make the pepitas: Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Place the pepitas in the pan and cook, stirring often. Add the cumin after 6 minutes and then continue to cook until the seeds have popped and browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Turn the seeds out onto a paper towel-lined plate, sprinkle with salt, and set aside.
3. While the squash is roasting, make the risotto: Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until they begin to brown around the edges and soften, about 6 minutes. Stir in the rosemary and pepper and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and stir to coat with the aromatics. Cook until the rice begins to smell toasty and turn opaque, about 2 minutes. Pour in the white wine and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed.
4. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add about 1/2 cup of broth. Cook, stirring often (you don’t have to stir constantly, but you don’t want to leave the pot standing unstirred for longer than 1 minute), until the rice nearly absorbs the broth—the pot shouldn’t look dry at the bottom and there should be a slight amount of liquid remaining, enough to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom. Continue to add more broth, 1/2 cup at a time, and stirring between each, until you have added about 5 1/2 cups of broth (this will take around 25 minutes). Taste the risotto. You want it to be every so slightly al dente in the center—like pasta with a semi-white core. Continue to add broth and stir if necessary. Remember that, like a steak, risotto continues to cook once the heat is turned off. So it’s better to err on the side of undercooking than overcooking.
5. Turn off the heat and stir in the butter and the Parmesan cheese. Stir the squash mixture into the risotto and taste; add more salt if needed. Serve sprinkle with scallions and the pepitas.