Eric Akis: Autumn-inspired risotto also a feast for the eyes

Eric Akis

Even when I’ve made a dish countless times, some still surprise me with how their key ingredients transform during the cooking process, from humble-looking to superlative.

Risotto is a fine example of that.

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You start with dry rice, and after you toast it, then slowly simmer it with a flavoured liquid, it blossoms into something comforting, rich and toothsome that looks almost creamy.

To ensure your risotto has those qualities, you must use the correct type of rice. They are stubby, short- to medium-grain varieties with a high starch content that absorb less liquid during cooking and enable the rice to maintain a pleasing texture when cooked.

Rice that works well for risotto is sold at many supermarkets and Italian/Mediterranean food stores. Bags of it are sometimes simply labelled “risotto rice” or “Italian rice.” You’ll also find specific varieties of rice that are good for risotto, such as arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano.

Don’t be tempted to wash the rice before cooking it, as you might do with other varieties. If you do, you might wash away some of the starchy coating that helps thicken the cooking liquid and give the risotto its creamy texture.

Washing it might also make the rice steam rather than toast in the initial part of cooking. Many recipes ask you to toast the rice in oil before you add the cooking liquid, to bolster the flavour and help prevent the individual grains from sticking together as they cook.

Wine is added to some recipes, but the primary liquid used to cook most risottos is stock. What type you use depends on what you’re making. For example, today’s recipe is meat-free, so I used vegetable stock. If you make your own vegetable stock at home, feel free to use it in the recipe. If you’re using store-bought stock, use a low-sodium one.

If it’s high in sodium, it will become even saltier when you simmer and reduce it while cooking the risotto.

You warm the stock before adding it to the risotto to help maintain a consistent cooking temperature. That stock is also traditionally added a bit at a time. That process, along with constant stirring, helps to evenly cook the risotto and help it develop that creamy texture.

Beyond stock and wine, I also flavoured my risotto with sautéed onion, garlic and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

When ready to serve, the rice will be al dente, tender but still nicely holding its shape. It should also be a creamy mass with enough body to stand up slightly when served.

For my recipe, after the risotto is set in individual serving dishes, it’s topped with toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted bits of squash, brussels sprouts and fresh sage.

It’s a fine autumn version of risotto. I served it with crusty Italian bread and buttery Chardonnay, which pair well with this style of risotto, as wine-pairing websites advised.

Risotto with Roasted Squash, Brussels Sprouts and Pumpkin Seeds

This risotto, flavoured with wine, vegetable broth, onions, garlic and parmesan cheese, is seasonally topped with toasted pumpkin seeds, roasted squash and brussels sprouts.

Preparation time: 60 minutes

Cooking time: About 60 minutes

Makes: Four servings

For the squash and Brussels sprouts

2 cups peeled and cubed banana, butternut or other squash, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

16 small brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved, lengthwise

8 medium to large fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

• pinch ground nutmeg

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set squash, sprouts, sliced sage, oil, nutmeg, salt and pepper on the baking sheet and toss to combine. Spread vegetables out into a single layer, and then roast 20 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the oven and set aside until needed below.

For the risotto

1/4 cup shelled unsalted pumpkin seeds (see Note)

6 cups vegetable stock or broth

3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling

1/2 medium onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)

1 1/2 cups risotto rice

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup white wine

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (not the dried, powdered type), plus some for sprinkling

Place pumpkin seeds in a non-stick skillet and set over medium heat. Heat and stir pumpkins seeds a few minutes, until lightly toasted, and then remove from the heat and set aside.

Place stock (or broth) in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium to medium-high heat. When simmering, turn the heat to low.

Heat the 3 Tbsp of oil in a second pot set over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook and stir until tender, about five minutes. Add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring, for three to four minutes, until the rice has a slightly nutty, toasted aroma.

Pour in the wine, adjusting and lowering the heat so that it very gently simmers. Simmer until the wine is almost fully absorbed by the rice. Add 1 cup of the stock (or broth), bring it to a simmer and cook until it is almost fully absorbed by the rice.

Now add the remaining stock (or broth) 1/2 cup at a time, cooking and stirring until the liquid is almost absorbed each time before making the next addition. You may not need all the stock (or broth) to cook the rice, which can take up to 30 minutes.

When the rice is halfway cooked, turn the oven back on to 400 F.

When the rice is tender and creamy, pop the squash and Brussels sprouts back in the oven to warm them up.

Now remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Taste the risotto and adjust the seasoning, if necessary.

To serve, divide the risotto between four warm serving bowls or plates. Divide and top each serving of risotto with some squash and brussels sprouts and the sliced sage you roasted with them. Also top each serving with some toasted pumpkin seeds.

Drizzle each serving of risotto with a tiny bit of extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with some grated Parmesan cheese and serve.

Note: Shelled pumpkin seeds are sold in the bulk food section of many supermarkets and at bulk food stores.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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