Another week another pumpkin. That said, I think the squat and lopsided vegetable above is technically a squash! A kabocha maybe, which means I really should burst into Kate Bush. Or is it a Turban squash? I did ask the girl in the canestro, but the all too familiar combination of queer Italian (mine,) apathy and complete disinterest (hers) meant vegetable enlightenment wasn’t to be. Let’s call it a zucca.
Yet again, I’m not entirely sure how we all made it home; la zucca, Luca, 2 bags of flour, a large bottle of detergent, an even larger bottle of Campari and I. Actually that’s not true, I do know, we staggered. At the corner of Via Bodini I undertook an emergency transfer and put the zucca and Campari in the baby sling and slung the wriggling, yelping 14 month old over my shoulder fireman style. Luca thought this was excellent. I did too when I realised that the position of the bottle in the sling was such that I could (if necessary) unscrew the cap with my teeth and take a swig of Campari en route.
Weighing significantly less than last week’s heavyweight, this week’s zucca tipped the scales at a rather more modest 1.8 kg. Once the fiendishly tough rind was carved away I was left – quite astoundingly considering my technique – with all eight fingers, both thumbs and 1.2 kg’s of startlingly orange, dense, sweet and almost velvety flesh. Perfect for my fit of kitchen management and orange plans. That is 300 g for another breakfast cake, 400 g for soup and 500 g for lunch. Lunch being risotto con la zucca.
You need good rice, a simmering panful, a firm hand and 18 minutes of undivided attention to make a risotto my Venetian student Andrea once told me. He was right. By good rice he meant good quality Italian risotto rice such as carnaroli, vialone nano or arborio. Rice that – as Elizabeth David reminds us – can be ‘cooked slowly in a small amount of liquid, and emerge in a perfect state of creaminess with a very slightly resistant core in each grain.’ By simmering panful, he meant the pan of stock you are going to add to the rice. The panful of good stock that should be poised, ladle within, on the back burner of your stove. The firm hand (clasping a wooden spoon) is what’s required to release the all important starch and the essential creaminess of the rice. And the 18 minutes of undivided attention! Well that’s what’s required from the cook.
Before starting the risotto you need to make a puree. You do this by cooking your diced pumpkin/squash/ zucca in milk until it is very tender, lifting it from the milk then mashing it with butter, salt and pepper and a shower of nutmeg. Remember to cover the puree with tin foil to keep it warm. The leftover milk, gently flavored and the colour of a desert sunset will become the base of your stock. You can add either light chicken stock or plain water to the milk to make it up to a litre. The back burner over a low flame is the best place for your stock pan. Position your ladle nearby and then set about making the risotto.
A heavy based saute pan is ideal. Open the wine, pour a glass for yourself, set the bottle on the work surface and note the time. First peel, dice and then saute the onion in a mixture of butter and oil until soft and translucent. Then add the rice and stir until every grain is glistening with butter and oil. Next the wine, it should sizzle and seethe before being absorbed and evaporating away. Now you can start adding the stock, a ladeful at a time, always stirring firmly and continuously. When the previous addition is nearly absorbed, add another ladelful. Each addition will take longer to be absorbed as the rice works stoically, its starchy coat being steadily eroded by you and your wooden spoon. Remember it is you and your feverish spoon work that is going to agitate the starch in the rice and coax the essential creaminess out.
After about sixteen minutes of adding stock, stir in your pumpkin/squash/zucca puree and start tasting. The rice is ready when it’s tender and creamy but still with a slight resistance at the center of each grain. Resistant not chalky. The consistency of your risotto should be thick and slightly sticky but not stiff. It should roll slowly off the spoon. You may or may not need to use all the stock. Once the rice is done, pull the pan from the heat and then let the risotto rest, covered, for a minute or so to enjoy a quiet swell. To finish – the mantecatura - beat the remaining butter and grated parmesan vigorously into the rice which should render it sleek and glossy.
Lately I’ve been roasting slices of well olive-oiled and generously salted zucca until they are very soft, wrinkled and slightly golden at the edges to put on top of my risotto. You may or may not like to do this. Either way, serve immediately.
For someone like me, someone who can always find a reason not to give undivided attention, making risotto, like Luca’s bedtime, fussing with my eyebrows or making my morning coffee is true solace. It’s one of the occasions in which I allow myself to become entirely absorbed in a task. Good job too, a lazily or distractedly executed risotto will almost certainly be a disappointing puddle of rice and juice. Whereas a well made risotto, one made with good rice, a firm hand, trembling stock and undivided attention is a glorious, complete thing: creamy and starchy, tenacious yet relaxed. For me it’s the ultimate in deeply satisfying comfort food. The zucca works beautifully, both savory and sweet. Don’t forget the nutmeg, just a grating, it lends a nice, slightly exotic, warm, dusty note.
Rachel eats her lunch.
Risotto con la zucca Pumpkin risotto
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s recipe (which in turn comes from the Jolanda and Valentino Migliorini’s restaurant in Caorso near Cremona) in The Food of Italy
Technically serves 4 but I’d make this for two (and Luca) for lunch.
- 350 g pumpkin / squash flesh, diced.
- 250 ml /8 fl oz whole milk
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium-sized onion
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 60 g butter – divided in three
- 350 g / 11 oz risotto rice
- 80 ml white wine or vermouth
- 1 litre light chicken stock, vegetable stock or plain water
- 50 g freshly grated parmesan
- 150 g roasted pumpkin to serve
In a small pan cover the diced pumpkin /squash flesh with the milk. Simmer the milk gently until the pumpkin /squash is tender (from 6 – 15 minutes depending on the age and type of pumpkin /squash.)
Using a slotted spoon lift the pumpkin from the milk into a small bowl and set aside. Mash the pumpkin pieces with a fork, masher or immersion blender into to a smooth (ish) puree. Add a third of the butter, salt, black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Add the stock or water to the leftover milk and set over a low flame.
Peel and small dice the onion. In a large heavy-based pan warm the olive oil and another third of the butter. Add the onion to the pan and sauté it gently over a medium flame until soft and translucent. Add the rice to the pan and stir well so it is completely coated with butter and oil.
Add the wine or vermouth to the pan and let it bubble away and absorb. Set your timer to 16 minutes. Start adding the milk/stock, ladleful by ladleful, stirring the risotto as you do so. Add a little more every three minutes or so, once the previous ladelful has been absorbed.
When the timer rings, stir the pumpkin /squash puree into the risotto and then start tasting. The rice is cooked when it is tender and creamy but still with a slightly resistant core in each grain. You may or may not use all the stock. Pull the pan from the heat and then leave the risotto to sit, covered for one minute.
Beat the last third of the butter and the parmesan vigorously into the risotto. Taste, season with salt if necessary and then serve with a slice of roasted pumpkin on top.