Originally published Oct 21, 2001
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
CHOOSE A DAY when you can feel a noticeable chill in the air. It’s best if the sun is shining and the leaves are turning red, or golden, or even brown. Find yourself a green kabocha squash by 11 o’clock in the morning so you can have pumpkin risotto ready in time for lunch.
Kabocha is Japanese for pumpkin. Maybe you have never noticed it before, but chances are there’s one of them at your local grocery store. It might be underneath the produce stand in a basket on the floor. It might be at the farmers market, or in your neighbor’s backyard. Somewhere one is waiting for you.
If you already have another kind of winter squash or pumpkin, take a good, long look at it. Maybe it can pretend to be kabocha long enough for you to make risotto. Buttercup squash and so-called “Sweet Mama” squash are almost identical to kabocha; they will do. Hard, dense-fleshed sugar pumpkins, red kuri squash and gold nugget squash will work, too. A butternut squash is OK, if it isn’t too intent on being a butternut. But watery, stringy or thin-skinned squashes are out.
Once you have the squash, think about how it felt to stay home from school on a fall day, when the house was quiet and the light was pouring in and you had all your thoughts to yourself. Think about your grandmother. If you can’t remember her, think about mine. She wore dresses even on weekdays. She had pointy glasses and preferred sensible shoes that wouldn’t hurt her bunions. She laughed a lot, but she usually tried to hide it, acting straight so we would take her seriously. She cooked up things in her kitchen that she liked to eat, and if you had sense enough to know what was good, you would like them, too.
While you’re reminiscing, put the pumpkin on a solid wood cutting board set atop a sturdy counter; approach with your biggest knife and most serious look. These squash have a skin as hard as life itself, and you have to cut right through it. Cut about halfway in, and if you’re feeling strong and the squash seems compliant, push and push some more to cut it in half. If you’re feeling weak or timid, and the knife is wedged deep in the squash like the sword in the stone, pick them up together and whack them down hard to break the squash in half; you’ll feel stronger then.
Once you’ve cut the pumpkin in half, the rest is easy. Lay the cut side down so the thing is stable, then cut the half pumpkin in half again to make two quarters. Don’t worry about the other half-pumpkin for now; you won’t need it. Use a soup spoon to carve out the seedy middle, then, using your knife again, cut the skin off the pumpkin and cut the peeled and seeded flesh into 1-inch cubes, or shapes as close to cubes as you can get. You should have a generous 2 cups of diced pumpkin.
Measure yourself a cup of rice. For now, forget what Marcella Hazan and Lynne Rossetto Kasper have said. They don’t know who you are or where you live, and you don’t need Arborio or Carnaroli rice. Use ordinary short-grain rice from Japan. You can use the kind from Louisiana or California if you want, but I like the plain white, unwashed pearly-shaped grains from Asia. And I like to imagine I’m high above the Earth looking down at the Pacific Ocean: I’m on one side, raising my cup of rice in a kind of salute, and Asia’s on the other side, where the sun is barely rising. Far off behind me is Italy, where the sun has already set.
Now light two burners, and put a small saucepan on the back one and a nice, heavy-bottomed 3-quart stew pot on the front one. I have an enameled iron pot with sloped sides that works nicely. Put a can of chicken broth and half a can of water in the back pot; don’t put anything in the front one yet. Instead, chop half a big onion while the pan gets hot. Now put a tablespoon of oil in the front pan and a tablespoon of butter. The butter will sizzle and melt in the oil. Sauté the onion until it is soft. Peel a few cloves of garlic and slice them paper thin; add them to the onion.
Add the cubed pumpkin, and stir for a minute or two to warm it up. Add the rice, and stir for another couple of minutes until the rice is translucent. Think about translucent. Think about light passing partway through and not coming out the other side. Where did it go?
Stir in a half-cup of white wine. If there is no wine, stir in a half-cup of apple juice. No one will know. When the wine has hissed and boiled and evaporated, stir in half a cup of the hot broth from the back burner. And keep stirring until the rice is crying out for more liquid, until the pan begins to sizzle every time you stir and the risotto sounds like it’s trying to fry again. Lower the heat a little, add another half cup of broth and think about the salad you will serve with the risotto.
Whether it’s lettuce or spinach, dress it simply with nothing but three tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, plus salt and pepper. You can think about my grandmother’s great-grandfather if you like. Desiderio Chini came over from Bologna, Italy, in 1809. Think of how he must have missed his home, the food there, the balsamic vinegar that his mother kept in a barrel in the rafters of the house. Think of how he missed the Parmigiano-Reggiano that in his time was rubbed with crushed grape seeds and ashes so the 40-pound wheels stood in black stacks in the open markets.
Sneak a short break from the constant stirring to grate some Reggiano, and think of how my old Italian ancestor must have missed the patter of his own language in his mother’s kitchen. He married a 25-year-old woman named Margarita Bauve from New Orleans in 1813 and lived with her until he died in 1830. She was 42 then, and would live to be 75.
After 10 or 15 minutes, the pumpkin cubes will soften, and their corners will disappear. The rice will swell, and the broth will grow creamy and smooth. Keep adding broth as the rice demands it.
When the last of the broth is almost absorbed, stir in a handful of grated Reggiano, and demand that everyone who is eating with you come at once. There is a moment when risotto is at its peak, and it must not be allowed to pass. If the cheese makes the grains look flat, stir in another tablespoon of butter to make them shine, and ask someone else to toss the salad. The light will sparkle off the surface of the risotto as you spoon it into shallow bowls.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup diced onion
3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cups diced kabocha, or other dense, sweet pumpkin
1 cup short-grain rice
½ cup white wine
3 cups light chicken broth, boiling hot
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 tablespoon butter, optional
1. In a heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil and butter. Sauté the onion briefly, and add the garlic. Stir in the diced pumpkin, and cook until the pumpkin is hot and just beginning to brown. Stir in the rice, and cook 1 minute, or until the rice is translucent.
2. Stir in the wine. When it has boiled off, add ½ cup of the chicken broth. Stir until the broth is absorbed, then add another ½ cup broth. Continue stirring and slowly adding broth for 20 minutes, or until the rice and the pumpkin are tender.
3. When the last of the broth has been added, stir in the cheese and, if desired, the extra tablespoon of butter. Serve the risotto hot, followed by a green salad.