A little while ago I had an idea for a seasonal risotto: finely grated butternut squash, which would disintegrate into a creamy “sauce” during cooking; diced squash put in just a minute or two before serving, so it would remain crunchy and retain its fruity flavor; and toasted walnuts. It wasn’t very good. For one thing, the al dente squash and the toasted nuts required too much chewing (I’m not joking: it was exhausting to eat). It also tasted kind of flat, which was the fault of the cook, i.e. me.
I was pretty confident that the idea had potential and that a reworking would be more successful. Mainly, I would bring the nuts into greater prominence: I’d ditch the cubes of al dente squash (the grated squash had worked beautifully) and use a mixture of nuts, which would add interest. Another problem with the first attempt derived from my use of vegetable stock: Normally, this is ideal for risottos, but here it simply tasted blah. This time I would opt for the more conventional chicken stock.
So, when friends came over for dinner I gave it another whirl – with a stricture that made things a little more interesting: one of our guests will eat no butter, cheese, milk, cream or eggs. He’s not allergic; he’s not a diet faddist: he has just hated all those things since boyhood. Hence, I couldn’t finish the risotto with butter or parmesan. The grated squash and the rice’s own starch would yield a passably creamy consistency, but I wanted something luxurious to stir in, just as an insurance policy.
Nut “milk”: when I put a good handful each of shelled walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans into a 360-degree oven to toast (which took about 15 minutes), I also added some of each to a blender and ground them up with about 3/4 cup of boiling water. I let this steep for 15 minutes then squeezed it through a cotton cloth, yielding a flavorful mixed-nut infusion, which I set aside.
When the toasted nuts had cooled enough to handle, I chopped them coarsely and set them aside, too – leaving any small fragments behind. Then, I used the fine holes of a box grater to shred a chunk of raw butternut squash the approximate volume of a quarter pound of butter (this was for four small appetizer portions). I sweated a shallot in olive oil (you can use butter unless Alberto is coming over for supper), added the shredded squash and some salt and stirred this over medium-low heat for a minute. I added a quarter cup of white wine and let it reduce to nothing, then 2/3 cup of carnaroli rice. A moment later I began to add nicely seasoned chicken stock, a quarter cup at a time, stirring fairly constantly and adding more stock as needed.
Apart from the squash, which formed a nice orange-colored sauce as it cooked down, this was standard risotto-making. When the rice was done, I vigorously stirred in around 1/3 cup of nut milk, then added two handfuls of chopped toasted nuts. I could have added a few more or a few less; use your own judgement when you make this.
After dishing it up, I drizzled each serving with excellent pumpkin-seed oil from Austria, which added further toastiness (and which looked great). If you don’t have any, you could try good-quality walnut or hazelnut oil, or you could skip it altogether.
This time, the idea panned out. The grated squash did its job, adding flavor, color and consistency, the assorted nuts were really delicious (be sure to toast them well – but not to burn them), and the nut milk – which had been a shot in the dark – worked beautifully as a finishing touch. I’ll bet the leftovers would have made great deep-fried rice balls. But there weren’t any.