Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Ultimate Comfort Food

During this month of endless political polls, I’m conducting my own survey—on The Ultimate Comfort Food. What’s yours? Many of you prefer to email me directly instead of leaving a comment, so feel free to do either, although other readers may find your choices interesting and inspiring. One of the best parts of fall in my opinion is the shift to cozy, heartier foods. What foods do you choose to make or eat to warm your soul?

For me, mashed potatoes top the list, especially the way Chris makes them with a whole stick of butter and plenty of minced garlic. Fortunately they’re a rare indulgence in our house. Mac and cheese is up there, made with extra cheddar and topped with buttery bread crumbs. My mom’s crab cakes are another favorite, although I’ve never made them myself and I can’t imagine they’d ever be as good. 

Chicken pot pie, with homemade crust, does it for me too. When I came home from the hospital after giving birth to Isabel, our neighbor Rita Elder stopped by with a savory pie fresh from her oven and it was so scrumptious that I nearly devoured the whole thing. And then there’s risotto.

Risotto is one of those amazing dishes where the simplest ingredients turn into the most satisfying of meals:  risotto rice (such as Arborio), olive oil, broth, butter, onions, garlic, herbs, Parmesan, and whatever vegetable, meat, or fish you’d like to add. It’s also healthy, a word not usually synonymous with comfort food. And it’s versatile, adapting to the seasons—depending on featured ingredients—and to different situations. I’ve served it at a New Year’s Eve dinner party for eight and to my family on a regular Tuesday night.

One of my favorite risotti starts with the humble butternut squash. 

This winter squash is aptly named, containing the word “butter,” since its rich, nutty flesh develops a creamy, buttery consistency when cooked. I love it in soups and purées, but when combined with Arborio rice and lots of Parmesan, it makes an absolutely dreamy risotto. 

I’ve never had any luck growing butternut squash myself, so I picked up a nice, good-sized one at New Leaf Organics, the CSA that we belong to. Butternuts can be challenging to cut up, so if I’m making a soup or purée I usually just bake the squash whole. For this risotto, though, the squash tastes best when it’s baked in chunks, so you need to scoop out its seeds and cut it up into three-inch pieces. When chopped garlic (also from New Leaf) and herbs are strewn over them, these chunks of squash become deliciously aromatic and flavorful. Here’s a before photo: 

And an after:

As I mentioned, the squash I chose was a good-sized one. This was intentional, so I would have more than enough to put into the risotto. I wanted to have some squash left over to snack on while the rice was cooking, and also to save to put into a winter salad. 

The first step to making risotto is sautéing a chopped onion in some butter and olive oil. While raw onions make my eyes tear, onions cooking on the stove is the ultimate comfort smell. 

When the indescribable fragrance fills my kitchen, it evokes a quintessential, almost primal, sense of hearth and home. You may have noticed that onions are often cooking on the stove at Williams-Sonoma. I once asked what they were making and the salesperson told me, with surprising candor, “We’re not making anything right now. We just have the onions cooking so the store smells inviting.” Some marketing exec probably got paid a hefty sum to offer that suggestion.

Once the onions have softened, I add the rice and stir to coat the grains with the butter and oil. It only takes a minute, but this is an essential step and really enhances the flavor of the final dish. I then add about two ladlefuls of hot broth to cover the rice and let it simmer. 

This is a meal to make when you have the time to give it your fairly constant attention, since the rice needs to be stirred frequently. But it doesn’t take much thought, so it’s a good dish to make with other people around since you can easily carry on a conversation at the same time. 

When the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid, I add more broth and continue to stir. Characteristic of this round, short-grain rice variety, the grains gradually release their starch and take on a creamy consistency. 

While rice continues to cook, I scoop the squash from its skin, an easy job now that it’s been baked. When all of the broth has been added, after about 20 minutes, I add a half cup of wine. The recipe I prefer calls for vermouth instead, but I don’t usually have that on hand. I’ve found that white or red wine works equally well in this particular risotto, and I happen to have a red wine open so I use that. Some recipes call for adding the wine first, before the broth, which makes the taste of the wine more subtle.

After I stir in the wine, I add the butternut squash, being sure to include the juices and bits of garlic from the bottom of the pan.  As I mix in the squash, it falls apart into smaller chunks and some of it blends in like purée. Finally I add a little more butter and the Parmesan. I recommend grating your own or, if not, using very high quality pre-grated cheese. 

The squash and cheese will absorb some of the risotto’s liquid, so you can adjust according to your taste by reserving a little broth to add at the end. I prefer a less soupy risotto. The most important thing, though, is to cook the rice al dente, so the grains end up with a soft, creamy exterior and a firm interior.

Add a little more Parmesan, and there you have it: a bowlful of comfort.

The next day, the leftover risotto is always begging to be made into risotto cakes. Maybe one of the reasons I make sure to have leftovers is because of the risotto cakes' resemblance to my mom's crab cakes? I just now realized that connection. To make these, I simply take a couple handfuls of risotto to form into patties and then pan fry them in a little olive oil until they’re browned on the outside and warm in the middle. 

Served over greens, they’re a plateful of yum.

So, tell me, what’s your Ultimate Comfort Food?

                                                Butternut Squash Risotto (adapted from a recipe for Pumpkin Risotto in Rogers Gray Italian Country Cookbook—I’ve tried a few different recipes and this is the best)

1 butternut squash, approximately 2 lbs.
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 T dried herbs (thyme, savory, marjoram, or herbes de Provence)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 quart chicken broth (preferably homemade or organic, free range, low sodium)
6 T butter
1 medium red onion, peeled and chopped
1 ½ cups risotto rice
½ cup wine
1 ½ cups Parmesan, freshly grated

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Remove the seeds and fiber from the squash and cut the flesh and skin into three-inch pieces. Place the squash, skin side down, on a baking pan brushed with a little olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and scatter herbs and garlic over the squash. Drizzle 4 tablespoons of oil over the squash, cover with foil, and bake until soft, about 50 minutes. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and then scrape the flesh from the skin.

Heat the chicken stock and, in a large, deep sauté pan, melt 4 tablespoons of butter with 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the onions and gently sauté until soft, about 15 minutes. Add the rice and, off the heat, stir about a minute until the rice becomes coated. Return to medium heat and add about 2 cups of hot broth, or enough to cover the rice, and simmer, stirring, the rice has absorbed nearly all the liquid. Continue to add more broth, 2 cups at a time, until nearly all the stock has been absorbed, which will take about twenty minutes.

Add the wine and squash, stirring gently, and then the remaining butter and Parmesan. Serve immediately. Leftovers can be made into risotto cakes, or reheated with a little more liquid. Serves 6.


  1. you've been busy cooking some scrumptious Risotto!! yyyyyyyyyyyyyummy! pictures say it all! :)

    1. Thanks, Louise. Great food at your house the other night. I can't believe you all were able to keep it a surprise!

  2. This looks wonderful! The butternut squash reminded me of the delicious butternut squash soup you made when Ken and I visited. It was the perfect welcome to Vermont.

    1. You guys are due for another visit. So great to see you in MD last month!