Continuing the exploration I began last week of using autumn pumpkin and its other hard-skinned winter squash cousins in savory dishes, this week I would like to talk about cooking this orange-fleshed vegetable/fruit as a side dish -- or even an appetizer.
Both first courses and sides have an amazing ability to make or break a meal. Appetizers, of course, set the tone: If they surprise and delight the people gathered around your table, you've already succeeded at making the evening memorable. And, of course, a delicious side makes any main course it accompanies taste better -- and if it's also beautiful, it will almost certainly elicit the "oohs" and "ahs" that mark a successful dinner party.
I had perfect evidence of the powers such pumpkin sides or appetizers possess when, about 10 years ago, I visited Las Vegas for my Food Network television show and prepared pumpkin risotto for my friends Siegfried and Roy, the great showmen. They were delighted with the dish and, dare I say it, they found the results magical.
Making a great pumpkin risotto is one trick whose secrets I can reveal. It starts by selecting the right pumpkin. Most sold today are grown specifically for use as holiday jack o' lanterns or other autumn decorations, sacrificing flavor and consistency for size. If you want to use a true pumpkin for this recipe, look for the smaller round specimens specifically labeled "pie pumpkins." Otherwise, go with a close relative, butternut squash, which will offer consistently good taste and texture as well as a deep golden-orange color.
As for the risotto itself, you'll find the right type of plump, short-grained Italian rice for sale in most well-stocked markets today, as well as in Italian delis. Arborio is the most common variety, but you can also use Carnaroli or Vialone Nano types, which vary slightly in cooking times and textures but will deliver similar desired results: tender but still chewy grains surrounded by a rich, creamy sauce formed by their surface starch, which dissolves into the broth during cooking.
My final tip for great risotto is to keep stirring it while you continually add hot broth. Doing so ensures that the rice cooks evenly and promotes the formation of its sauce.
But that's not the last trick I had up my sleeve for Siegfried and Roy. My visit to them came around Halloween, and I drizzled the finished risotto with a little reduced beet juice, which looked beautiful -- and also resembled blood! You could achieve the same effect by boiling tomato juice to a thick consistency, or heating a little bottled tomato-based pasta sauce. Serve the risotto this way on October 31, and along with the "oohs" and "ahs," you'll probably get some "eeks" too.
Serves 4 as an appetizer, 6 as a side dish
1 medium-sized butternut squash, about 3 pounds (1.4 kg)
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