an adventure into my cookbook collection: soul-searching, doing things differently & the truths I learn along the way...

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Thursday, 27 January 2011

Butternut Squash Risotto with Sage, Hazelnuts and Blue Cheese

Its quite rare, but sometimes I have the kind of week that reminds me that possibly the world doesn’t suck as much as I generally think.  The reasons for this strange turn in my perspective, were the Willesden Green Wassail, and the reaction of the Daily Mail readership to Melanie Philip’s ‘penguins and single dads are gay’ article.  Im not going to go into the ins and outs, but basically, people are lovely, and the world is lovely.  Don’t worry im sure that I will be back to my normal state of cynical misery soon enough.

Like the excitement of finding £10 in a pocket, or forgotten bag, or a whole pound coin under the sofa, a few days ago I found a butternut squash in my bedroom!!  I think I bought it about 3 weeks ago, and shoved it in a bag under my desk because I didn’t have anywhere to keep it.  I decided to celebrate the finding of the squash and the happiness of the week with one of my favourite things, risotto.  I love the kind of food you can eat out of a bowl, with just one piece of cutlery.  There is something so comforting and simple about it, but then of course, as with most things, it depends what you put in it.  My earliest memory of really loving risotto is from when I was 8 years old, on holiday in Sicily.  The local specialty of the town we were staying, Taormina, was a risotto made with salmon and pistachios.  It was heavenly, and appealed to my 8-year-old sensibilities by being flecked with pink and baby green, just like the tutti frutti gelato that was another Sicilian revelation.

I first had butternut squash and hazelnut risotto in a restaurant on Goodge Street called Ooze, a ‘rissotoria’ that I highly recommend.  Hazelnuts are amazing, its so rare that they are munched on I think, in comparison to peanuts, cashews etc.  I ate one while I was cooking and I thought wow, this is so yummy, I could sell this as a kind of ‘low fat’ ferrero rocher.  Although they are seemingly desserty, they work fantastically in this dish, and actually add a very rich and savory element, beautifully complimenting the sweetness of the squash.

Time: about 40 mins.  Difficulty: 3/5  Taste: 5/5

Butternut squash, diced into around 2cm square pieces.  You only need about half, but cook the whole thing and put the rest into a couscous/ bulgur/ quinoa salad, or simply with dark green salad
Around 2 teaspoons of dried sage, or a couple of springs fresh
1.2 litres stock (half pretend chicken, half onion soup mix) use just chicken for a lighter risotto, and just onion for a richer one.
400g Risotto rice.
1 large onion, diced
125 ml white wine (vermouth, pear cider works well too)
Olive oil
Knob of Butter/ vegan margarine (this risotto can be vegan if the cheese is omitted, still very delicous)
Black pepper
handful of Hazelnuts roughly chopped
crumbled blue cheese, or goats cheese

Serves 4-5, depending on how hungry you are, and whether you want leftovers for breakfast the next day.

Preheat the oven to quite hot, around 200, or 180 with the fan (see previous notes on oven temperature issues)

Put a tablespoon of olive oil in a large bowl, add the dried sage (if using), and a generous shake of salt - preferably coarse sea salt or pink himalayan salt.  Add the squash and mix until all the pieces are coated in the spiced, herby oil.  Spread the pieces on a baking tray, all in one layer, and roast for about 40-50 minutes. This gives you enough time to then make the risotto, and have everything ready at the same time. I noticed that the long bit on the squash takes on a different texture to the round bit (where the seeds were) when cooked. I think the round bit contains more moisture, and so it goes much more caramelized. Add the chopped hazelnuts to the oven tray (and fresh sage if using) when there is about 10 minutes cooking time left.

In a large saucepan, fry the onion in a glug of olive oil on a low heat until soft and translucent (about 10 minutes).  Add the rice, and turn over in the onions until its all mixed together.  Add in the alcohol and let it bubble for a few minutes.  It is traditional to use white wine or vermouth, but I experimented with pear cider (cheaper, yummy and comes in cans) and it worked really well.  Add the stock a ladleful at a time, stirring and waiting for all the liquid to be incorporated before adding the next ladle. This can take around 25-30 minutes.  When all the liquid is incorporated, check that the rice is cooked through.  Season with black pepper (the cheese and butternut squash is quite salty so only put a little more salt in it) and stir through as much butter or vegan margarine as your arteries can take.

Just before serving, mix the butternut squash, hazelnuts and sage into the risotto. Serve with the blue cheese (or goats cheese) crumbled on the top.  Serve with a salad of dark green leaves, such as rocket, so the bitterness can cut through the richness of the risotto.  Enjoy, preferably sitting on a couch with a glass of wine and an archetypal ‘feel good’ movie, and a good friend, the kind that bakes you peanut butter cookies.


So here goes…a foray into cross-cultural cooking, gilding the lily and mediocrity.
Time: about 30 minutes. Served 3. Easiness: 2.5/5 (5 being the most difficult). Tastiness: 2.5/5. Make it again? In variations.

  • 2tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large red onion, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed (I used 2)
  • 115g/ 1 ½ cups brown mushrooms, sliced (I used about a bowlful, don’t wash them, just wipe them clean with a bit of paper towel, they just soak up the water)
  • 1 tsp dried oregano (I forgot this, but I wouldn’t bother)
  • 115g mozzarella, crumbled (I love the fresh mozzarella that comes in a big ball, Niki Sengit The Flavour Thesaurus writes about eating the entire thing ‘not for gluttony’s sake, but simply for the pleasure of taking the whole thing in your hand and biting into it like a juicy apple.’  However for this recipe you need the slightly harder, rectangular pizza sort, which might be labelled ‘mozzarella cucina’. I didn’t weigh it – who can be bothered? Just sliced and plonked on the pizza as needed)
  • 1 tbsp pine nuts (according to the book these are optional, which is good as pine nuts are crazy expensive at the moment, also I don’t think they are that necessary)
For the pizza base
  • 50g plain flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 115g polenta (quick cook)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 150 ml milk
  • 25g freshly grated parmesan (I left this out because it is so hard to find vegetarian parmesan, and the kosher stuff is dandruff)
  • ½ tsp dried chili flakes (the only dried chilies I have are the teeny, lethal, Birds Eyes, and the massive tasteless and a bit of a waste of money really ones – so I used chili powder instead)
  • I tbsp olive oil
  1. To make the topping, heat half of the oil in a heavy-based frying pan, add onion and fry on quite a low flame for as long as you can possibly bear it.  The book said 10 minutes, but they don’t get to that perfect jammy state until like (yeah, I say like) 30 minutes. I got bored after about 15 and turned the heat up. The trick is to not stir them as often as you might think. If you have idle hands, like me, put a dvd on or read a book or something. Remove the onion from the pan and set aside.
  2. It seems unnecessary at first but if you do make this then do fry the onions and mushrooms separately – it keeps the flavours much more defined at the end.  Fry the garlic in the fan for a minute or so, and then add the mushrooms and oregano if using.  Cook for about 5 minutes until the mushrooms are tender, turn the heat up so that the mushrooms fry before turning all soggy. Big thanks to DY for looking after the mushrooms.
  3. To make the base, add the dry ingredients to a large bowl and make a well in the centre.  Add the egg to the middle, and gradually add the milk, mixing with a fork to create a thick batter.
  4. Preheat the grill to high. Heat the oil in a large heavy frying pan until very hot.  Add the batter to the pan.  It cooks rather like a big pancake. Use a non-stick pan and you can sneak peeks at the underside to see it set.  Little bubbles will pop up all over the surface, and it will smell amazing.  After about 3 minutes, its ready to flip over – slide it onto a large plate (I used an upside-down oven tray) and turn back into the pan. If you are nervous just do it really quickly, like pulling off a plaster and it’ll be fine, promise. It’ll only need a few minutes more, and then its done! It should look golden and feel a bit spongy.
  5. If your frying pan cannot go under the grill turn the polenta onto an oven tray (yes I used mine upside down – because of the ridges, not because I’m weird or anything).  Spoon the onions over the base, followed by the mushrooms, and then the cheese.  Grill for about 6 minutes until the cheese has melted.  At this point you could add the pine nuts and put under the grill for another minute or two, but I didn’t bother.

So that’s it! For me the most difficult part of the whole bit was having the patience to wait for the onions to cook, and using a grill with no numbers on.  it was served with the most unpretentious spinach salad –big handfuls, grabbed greedily straight from the bag (Nigella Lawson style physical imagery and alliteration).

It tasted ok, nothing particularly amazing.  My main problem with this recipe was that it wasn’t polenta pan-pizza, it was cornbread.  And it was tasty but completely clashed with the topping.  The bread was rich and cakey, almost sweet.  To be honest I was really impressed with how easy it was, essentially it’s a bread that cooks in under 10 minutes from opening the bag of polenta, but I would stick to southern-American/south American style dishes with it.  To prove my point, there was a small slice left after all the washing up was done, and I pushed all the topping off it and ate it plain, sprinkled with chipotle Tabasco, and it was great.  It would make a fantastic carb-accompaniment to a chili con carne/quorn/TVP, or even a simple bean and tomato stew with a smokey/ sweet/ spicey flavour.  If you want to do an Italian style polenta, then simply cook it with water, butter and parmesan in a saucepan to the consistency of mashed potatoes.

The best thing about this week’s food adventure was the fact that I bought the ingredients in Waitrose.  And for the ten minutes I spent in the supermarket, I felt like the classiest person ever, until I stepped back out into Brent Cross and remembered who I was: tired, poor, and with makeup smudged all over my eyes.

I’m really not sure what I will be cooking next week, possibly something using mackerel/trout, or maybe something completely different – any requests?

Base with the onions

Finished result

(from - 7.01.11)

The Beginning of the Adventure

Two relatively significant things have happened lately, first I turned 25, and then the year turned 2011.  ‘Big’ birthdays and new years are times when we traditionally look at ourselves and reassess things, and make plans for the current year.  As both of these milestones happen at the same time for me, I have been doing a lot of re-assessing lately. I seem to spend so much time making plans, but hardly any time at all making them actually happen.  So I am going to start. 

The first step to overcoming addiction is admitting you have a problem: I am a reading-cookbooks-and-not-using-them-aholic.  I own 26 cookbooks.  Now I suppose the simple answer would be to just stop buying them, or give some away or something, but I don’t want to do that, I’m cultivating a collection.  What I actually want to do is start cooking from them, in the style of those wonderful cooking blogs that get so popular (but without Julie/Julia’s ambition temper or affairs, or smitten kitchen’s perfection and glossy photos).  Each week I will make something I haven’t made before, from one of my books.  And I will write about it, giving the full recipe the way that I actually made it, and all the gory details.  Currently the oven is a bit of a major handicap: there is only one shelf, and no information on the oven of any kind - until I get an oven thermometer I will be mainly sticking to the hob, or things that require temperatures a bit more vague ie. a bit hot’, ‘quite hot’ and very hot. Or possibly things that don’t require cooking at all.

My dear readers, please feel free to nominate a book, a recipe, course etc, or if something particular is in season, let me know. Also if you want to come and help me eat it, or help me cook, that would be great too.

The first recipe (to be cooked tomorrow for housemates’ movie night)  will be ‘polenta pan-pizza with red onions, garlic mushrooms and mozzarella’, from Complete Vegetarian ed. Nicola Grimes (which by the way, loses major points for putting stuffed mushrooms on the front cover).

Some kind of cliche/pun is called for here involving 'putting my money where my mouth is' but i cant really think of it - winning suggestion will be posted in next note.

if you have got this far, thanks for reading my first ever blog!
love Miri 04.01.11