Dear Dinner Dilemma…

This morning I returned home from a zillion errands to find the following email waiting for me:

Dear Dinner Dilemma:

I have a little challenge for you-

I made a baked risotto last night from the Food Network. It intrigued me… risotto that you don’t have to stir and is rated easy? I had to try it.

It was pretty good, passable even, a possible make again…but: the liquid and cooking time was off I needed to crank the heat to 450 to soften the rice and to reduce the liquid, the flavor was only okay- it lacked something.

I used chopped butternut squash, and the canned pumpkin and veggie broth… but it was missing something. I was thinking you would be able to doctor it up a bit to make it spectacular.

Yours Truly,

A Faithful Reader from Upstate

Well, I am never one to shrink from a challenge. As it happened, I had a window in my afternoon free up and I, like my faithful reader, was intrigued by the notion of a stir-free risotto. I was also suspect. Try as I might, I kept hearing old adage “when something seems to good to be true…” run through my head. Still, it was a cool idea made more so by the fact that we are less then two weeks from Halloween- so anything with pumpkin gets my attention!

I quickly found the recipe. The main ingredient list was just as my reader had said: very basic- vegetable broth, Arborio rice, diced butternut squash, pumpkin puree, half an onion, chopped basil, parmesan, and a little mascarpone cheese to smooth it at the finish. The directions were drop dead easy: you threw the broth, rice and vegetables in a pot- stuck it in a 400 oven for 35 minutes and out it was to come, cooked and ready for basil, cheese and mascarpone. Again in my brain I heard, “when something seems too good…” I battled with myself: “would you stop already…maybe this does work.” “Oh Caroline, you know better than that…”

I told the guys in my head to take it outside or be quiet, and I sat down to study the recipe. Immediately I saw a big problem- there was no spice. Sure, there was some delicate basil thrown in at the end- but pumpkin and butternut squash are quite bland on their own and they need some strong flavors to jazz them up. In fact, they demand strong flavors and spices. I’d have to fix that!

Next, I took the opportunity to read all the recipe reviews. Like my reader, many had commented that the dish needed more flavor and that the cooking time was off. The fact that the dish required more time at a greater heat to cook the rice and butternut squash seemed to be a universal experience. Clearly something needed to be tweaked.

I set to work. I began by emailing my reader and asking her just how “dump it in and let it cook” it had to be. Could she live with a few steps at the beginning…maybe 15 active minutes of cooking? Her response came back- she could indeed live with that!

So, 15 active minutes was my gauntlet. I began by roasting the butternut squash at 425 for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, I sautéed the onion and added garlic, nutmeg and cayenne. I poured in the rice and added white wine, stirring until the wine was incorporated into the rice. I added the pumpkin, butternut squash and chicken stock. I brought the whole thing to a boil, put a lid on the pot and popped it in the oven for 35 minutes. Total active time: 14 minutes. (I do not count the roasting time as active- just the time I actually had to do something.)

A heavenly aroma wafted through the kitchen. The timer rang. I opened the pot, gave the rice a stir to redistribute the liquid and squash. I added the rest of the ingredients- basil, Parmesan and mascarpone and tweaked the salt and pepper. Then we dove in. It was a huge homerun. And, it turns out that the guys in my head were each a little bit right- it was too good to be true as originally written; but, tweaked it was still the easiest risotto I have ever made! And, for October, a delicious and incredibly festive risotto at that!

One note: This would be a terrific main course with some ham thrown in at the end as well. As it stands now, I would say that it is a side- or a light entrée.

Caroline’s Crack at Creamy Baked Pumpkin Risotto
Serves 4 as an entrée, 6-8 as a side

1½ lbs of butternut squash, peeled, seeded and chopped (I bought mine store peeled and chopped)
olive oil
sea salt/pepper
4 T unsalted butter
1 onion, chopped in small chop
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ t cayenne
½ t nutmeg
2 c Arborio rice
1 c dry white wine
6 c chicken stock
1 ½ c pumpkin puree
½ c basil, chopped
1/3 c Parmesan, grated
2 T mascarpone cheese or heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425 degrees

1. Toss butternut squash with olive oil and salt and pepper and roast for 15 minutes in 400 oven.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium sized dutch oven or other ovenproof pot. Over medium heat, sauté the onion and garlic for 1-2 minutes until soft. Add the cayenne and nutmeg and continue cooking for a minute more. Add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally for another 2 minutes.
3. Add the white wine and stir constantly until the wine completely incorporated in the rice.
4. Add the butternut squash, pumpkin puree, and chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil, cover the pot and immediately place it in the 400 oven for 30-35 minutes.
5. When the timer goes off, check the rice to make sure it is tender. You will need to stir the pot to redistribute the contents. If not quite done- return to the oven for another few minutes.
6. Stir in the basil, Parmesan, and mascarpone. Serve immediately.

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