Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Long Drive Home: Pumpkin Risotto

Whenever I have to drive somewhere over two hours away, I listen to audiobooks in the car. I realize that this is highly unusual behavior for a 23 year old, yet it is genetic seeing as my mother is the one who got me hooked on the habit. She can also be credited in part for my love of cooking and ever-increasing mastery of my own kitchen. It was inevitable that one of these days the book Julie & Julia would wind up in my queue amongst the historical fiction and political jabber.

Despite my rather spotty use of my blog, I think this book resonates with anyone whose started and attempted to maintain a cooking blog. We do this for relief from everyday stress, as something to break the monotony of our lives or just for the hell of it. Keeping this blog is one thing that has pushed me to cook things I never would have thought of in the past. So not only is it a blog for my friends and relatives to check in on to see what's going on in my kitchen, it's my way of preserving recipes that I hope will become a part of the family tradition. Listening to Julie Powell's story reminded me of why I started this blog a few years ago and inspired me to update it with several recipes I've tried lately.

I know I've written about risotto before -- the lemon chicken version with lots of white wine and herbs. A relatively light choice when the cheese is limited, but true Italian food doesn't abide by the rules of caloric dieting. However, its methods are simple and archaic at times and the food can be light yet flavorful or hearty and rich enough to bring about a post-dinner coma. Risotto can go in either direction, although the recipe I'm about to share would fit more appropriately into the latter category.

Pumpkin is seasonal, and while I won't hold it against the most practical cooks to use canned pumpkin pulp in place of the freshly made stuff, it does make a difference in my experience. So this is perfect for when those little soccer ball sized pie pumpkins go on sale in autumn.

To make your own puree, a pie pumpkin should provide somewhere close to the right amount. I tend to make a large pot of risotto at a time so I just add the entire contents of the pumpkin -- this is definitely a dish to be shared with guests! Anywho, you will need a small pumpkin, big sharp knife, large spoon, large deep roasting pan and a big bowl to put all the innards in. Some people save their seeds and roast them, but that's another entry and I'm no expert. Fill the roasting pan with an inch or so of water and preheat the oven to 350. Slice the top off the pumpkin, clean out the fibers and seeds and cut it in half. Make sure there are no dangling fibers before putting the pumpkins, rounded (skinned) side up in the pan. Bake for around an hour. Take them out and let them cool for about 15 minutes, then using a towel or potholder, hold the pumpkin in one hand while using a large spoon to scoop out the puree into a mixing bowl. Using either a mixer or pastry cutter, mash it until most of the lumps are gone. Set aside.

Once you have the pumpkin pureed, you will need the following:

3 cups of arborio rice
3-4 quarts chicken stock (I used mock chicken stock for this and it turned out just fine)
1/2-3/4 cup room temp lager (I used Baltika 7, a Russian beer)
3 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp allspice
3-4 tbsp oil or butter
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 cups roasted macadamia nuts, loosely crunched
Shredded parmesan cheese (1/2 cup to 2 cups is a typical range, it just depends on what you like and how many are being served)

Heat the stock in a pot until it reaches a slow simmer, you want it to remain quite hot but not necessarily boil -- otherwise it will reduce and you may wind up having to add salted water midway through the process. I like to put the stock pot on the back burner and the risotto on the front, which keeps the mess from repeated ladeling minimal. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium to medium high heat, depending on your stove.

Once the oil is hot add the onions and stir, cook them until the edges begin to brown slightly. I like to use a wooden spoon for this, as it helps agitate the arborio rice without breaking the grains. Add the rice and stir again, making sure to coat it evenly with the oil and mix well with the onion. Stir constantly until the rice begins to look slightly translucent, usually around three minutes. Take the beer and add it, if the pot is hot enough you will get a surge of steam and a hiss so stand back -- it shouldn't be so hot that the beer explodes on impact nor should it be so cold that it goes off without a hitch. Stir this concoction until the beer reduces and the rice appears to be creamier, usually 2-3 minutes. Using a ladle or heatproof measuring cup, add 1/2 to 3/4 cup hot stock and stir into the rice for a few minutes, until the liquid is gone and the rice appears creamy, about the consistency of a pudding. After youve done this two or three times add a cup of pumpkin puree instead of broth. Alternate the two until you have no more pumpkin left. Add your spices and stir very well. At this point you should use a fork to lift a few grains out of the pot and taste -- expect that they will have softened but will still be hard in the middle. Keep adding broth and stirring, tasting often to make sure it doesn't get overcooked. Once the rice is cooked all the way through but still firm, stop adding stock and give it one good last stir.

This is where I and most other people who make risotto differ -- they make smaller batches and add the cheese directly to the batch while I make a large pot and let guests put the desired level of cheese over their own serving. If you want to be authentic about it you take the pot off the heat, mix in the cheese and throw half a stick of butter over it and cover for ten minutes. If you're like me, you let it rest for a few moments before serving. Top each plate with the roasted macadamia nuts and you're ready to chow down! Just make sure you have a place to take a nap when you're done eating :)

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