Stirring up controversy with a baked risotto with squash and kale

Baked Risotto with Squash and Kale Jill Blanchette/The Day

My friend Myrna makes an amazing asparagus risotto. It’s creamy and chewy and cheesy and it tastes as if she stood over a hot stove all day to make it.

That’s because she actually did.

OK, maybe not all day. Truthfully, traditionally prepared risotto isn’t that difficult to make but it does require your full attention as you add your liquid, ladle by ladle — usually a bit of wine then a broth of some kind — then stir constantly to coax the rice to absorb the broth and release its starch with a miraculous result: a bowl of creamy, tender, chewy (did I say creamy?) deliciousness.

After I raved about it, Myrna gave me her recipe but, frankly, I enjoy it much more when she makes it for me. It’s just too much work for a regular old dinner and if I have company, I don’t want to spend all that time in the kitchen fiddling with the rice while my guests are laughing it up without me in the living room. On top of that, it doesn’t really hold up well as leftovers, a critical consideration when you’re usually cooking for two. As it sits, the rice absorbs all the remaining liquid so, when you warm it up, it’s kind of just regular old rice — albeit very tasty.

So I was intrigued when I first saw a recipe for baked risotto, which follows an up-start school of thought that says all that stirring is really unnecessary. Alton Brown (of the Food Network show “Good Eats”), among others, is an advocate of keeping the heat really low and walking away from your risotto as it cooks, checking back only periodically to see whether it’s time to add more liquid.

With a baked risotto, you start everything off just as you would for a traditional risotto, in a large saucepan, but when it’s time to add the liquid, you dump it all in at once and pop it into the oven.

All risottos basically have four things in common: Arborio rice (a plump, short-grain rice — the shorter the grain, the higher the starch content), onion, wine and Parmesan cheese. Where risottos differ is in their flavorings. Myrna’s focuses on asparagus. Mushroom is another one of my favorites. Then there’s seafood, chicken, tomato, sweet corn — really whatever you can dream up.

It is nice when your flavor of choice is carried into the dish not only by the ingredients you add but by the broth itself. With mushroom, for instance, use some portion of dried fungi so you can strain the liquid in which you reconstituted the mushrooms and use it as part of your broth.

You also can play with the proportion of rice to add-ins, so that sometimes your risotto can be simply about the rice and the cheese. Yum. Other times, as with this baked risotto recipe, the focus can be entirely on what you’ve added in.

I zeroed in on this particular recipe when it popped up on Pinterest. Pinterest is a great place to browse for food porn. People post photos of succulent treats that they may or may not have tried to make. It’s up to you to investigate the recipe and decide whether the picture will be anything like the result. I sort my recipes on the site into two categories, one called “Yum” for the ones with which I’m smitten but haven’t yet tried, and one called “Tried and True,” for the ones I’ve made that have proven to be delicious. Butternut Squash & Kale Baked Risotto falls into the latter category.

The recipe comes from a blog, “Once Upon a Cutting Board,” written by a woman named Natalie from Ontario, Canada. She says she adapted the recipe from Martha Stewart, and that the ultimate texture isn’t as creamy as traditional risotto, but it comes pretty close.

I agree that it is not as a creamy, but you can remedy that a bit by stirring in a handful (about 2 ounces) of Parmesan cheese and a generous pat or two of butter at the end, right before serving.

I also discovered that this recipe makes a lot. Natalie says it serves six. I think it serves closer to eight or 10, depending on whether you’re serving it as a main course or a side. I didn’t have a baking pan big enough to hold it all so I ended up baking it in two separate casserole dishes, which worked out just fine.

I served it with an amazing cod braised in chick peas, which I’ll share in my next column, but you very happily could enjoy this dish as an entrée, perhaps with a tangy salad on the side.

Check out this column online at www.theday.com for a bonus recipe this week, Myrna’s Risotto with Asparagus.

Enjoy!

 

Butternut Squash & Kale Baked Risotto

Serves about six (I’d say serves a crowd, eight-10)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1½ cups Arborio rice

Salt and pepper

½ cup dry white wine

4 cups peeled, seeded and diced butternut squash (1½ to 2 pounds)

1 carton (32-ounces) low-sodium chicken broth (I used vegetable broth)

1 bunch lacinato (or dinosaur) kale, tough stems removed, sliced crosswise into ½-inch strips (I must confess that my kale had been in the refrigerator too long so I had to throw away quite a few slimy leaves. I substituted some fresh asparagus, which worked just fine. I think broccoli or cauliflower also would be delicious.)

Grated Parmesan cheese for serving (½ cup Parmesan for adding at the end with more for passing later while serving)

2 (generous) tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven if you have one or in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes until softened. Add garlic and thyme and cook for 1 more minute, until fragrant. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes until the rice looks whiter and begins to appear translucent around the edges. Season with a bit of salt and pepper.

Add wine and cook until the liquid is absorbed, stirring often, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add the squash and broth and bring to a boil. Stir in the kale (and asparagus or other vegetable of your choice, cut into bite-size pieces).

If you’re using a Dutch oven, cover it and bake. If using a saucepan, transfer the mixture to a baking dish (or two), cover with aluminum foil, and bake. Either way, in about 25 minutes most of liquid should be absorbed and the rice should be tender. Take it out of the oven and let sit for about 5 minutes, then stir in the butter and ½ cup Parmesan cheese. Serve, adding more cheese as desired.

Original recipe from www.onceuponacuttingboard.com.

Jill Blanchette works at The Day and blogs about food on theday.com. Email her at j.blanchette@theday.com.

Bonus recipe: Myrna's Risotto with Asparagus

1 pound asparagus, bottom of each stalk snapped off
Nearly 6 cups broth (vegetable, chicken or beef) or diluted broth
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion
2 cups Arborio (risotto) rice
Black pepper
cup Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Steam asparagus stalks for 4 to 5 minutes and reserve the cooking liquid.
Cut off the tips (1 to 1 inches) and set aside. Cut the rest of the stalks into -inch pieces.
In a large saucepan, measure the asparagus cooking liquid and add enough broth to make six cups total. Bring the resulting broth to a slow, steady simmer.
Meanwhile, in a large, sturdy pot, cook onion in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of oil until translucent. Add asparagus pieces and stir to coat. Add rice and stir to coat. Cook for about five minutes until the rice begins to look translucent around the edges. Add cup broth. Stir.
When the rice has absorbed nearly all of the liquid, add another cup broth and stir. Continue in this manner until you have added all the liquid and the rice is tender but firm to the bite with a little, creamy liquid left in the pan.
Turn off the heat. Add the asparagus tips, pepper to taste, 2 tablespoons butter and the Parmesan cheese. Stir. Taste and add salt if you'd like. Add parsley. Serve promptly.

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