I grow squashes, a lot of them. Even though I know that I’ll end up giving most of them away. Even though there isn’t room in the larder for the annual haul. Even though I don’t really like them. I grow them because they unfailingly instil a giddy school boy wonder in me. How can nature be this bountiful? A plant that is joyously productive and whose fruit will sit for months on end without even blemishing. I still have bags of steamed squash in the freezer from two years ago. Actually, make that three. This plant is the botanical version of the Magic Porridge Pot
When growing, they need space, food, water and warmth – all in vast amounts. If they get these, they are rampant, obscenely so. This is another reason I grow them, because my allotment is way too big for me to cope with, I grow things that’ll obscure the weeds from the allotment police. And I’ve never been adverse to a bit of obscenity.
But, my God, whilst they may be stupidly fecund and pleasing on the allotment, they’re boring in the kitchen. I know people who rhapsodise about their ‘nutty flavours’ that intensify with storage, their versatility, their betacarotenes. But essentially, they are just orange starch. This is, I’m sure, why they have such a mythic status in East Coast American culture, all those early Puritans must have known they were in God’s promised land when they discovered a food so prolific, so sustaining and yet so, so dull. Take pumpkin pie: packed with sugar, spice, evaporated milk: throw enough flavour at anything orange and it’s bound to stick. Or any recipe for soup that involves a squash; first add generous amounts of garlic/ginger/smoked paprika. Squashes exist to carry flavour, not to impart it. They are the Typhoid Mary of the vegetable patch, without the blessed relief of typhoid.
However, there is one thing that I adore about them; often you need an axe to break into them. And there are precious few things that you’re allowed to legally attack with an axe
So here I am with my mind all set on the blandness of squashes. And then the Sicilian comes along and does his trick of taking a few ordinary ingredients and giving the damn things a culinary ascension. It’s a risotto, that you eat in autumn and winter (or year round if you’ve got three-year old frozen squash), it’s delicious and simple and comforting and easy. There are all sorts of recipes out there that add sage, or bacon, or mushrooms, or saffron, or chestnuts. It doesn’t need any of them, just rice, squash, onion, some white wine, stock and cheese. And it’s bloody brilliant!
Risotto for four
Around half a kilo of winter squash or pumpkin, peeled, de-seeded (hang on to the seeds – I’ll explain later) and grated (or you can use the same amount of presteamed).
300-400g risotto rice (depending on how healthy your appetites are)
One large onion, finely chopped (if you want you can add garlic too, but it’s not essential)
About a third of a small smoked scamorza
Parmesan – amount is up to you – but around 25-50 grams
A glug of white wine (not vermouth, the flavour is too overwhelming)
At least a litre of cooking liquid (the Sicilian prefers water, so as not to overwhelm the delicate squashiness of the dish, but you can use a veg stock if you prefer).
Start by melting half the butter in a deep frying pan and then add the rice. Stirring it so that all the grains are coated. You then want to cook this so that the rice becomes slightly toasted; not like burnt toast – more like sugar puffs. This is where you get the nuttiness into the risotto, believe me, not from the squash.When you’ve reached your desired level of toastiness, put the rice into a bowl, for the time being.
Lightly fry the onion (you don’t want to brown it) in the remainder of the butter before adding your squash. Heat it through and then add the wine. There will be a whoosh of boozy steam which will make you feel like you’re a proper cook.
This bit will take some time: essentially, you want to break down the individual cells of the squash, so that it becomes a smooth paste. If you’re using steamed squash it’s much easier. Keeping cooking and stirring the onions and squash until you get to that paste consistency – add a little stock if necessary, to keep it wet.
Once you’re there, add your toasted rice back into the pan and the grated scamorza, along with more stock – about a third of it at first. Bring it up to a simmer, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking on the bottom. When most of this first lot of stock has been absorbed by the swelling rice, gradually add more in dribs and drabs until the rice is cooked how you like it (I prefer a bit of bite). You’re aiming for something the consistency of warm rice pudding – so don’t add all the remaining stock at once, as you may not need it.
Then turn off the heat, get a big wedge of parmesan, grate enough to indicate that it’s about to go out of fashion and stir into your risotto, leave it to melt for a couple of minutes. Add loads of black pepper. Serve
There is magic at work in this dish. It is smooth, unctuous, subtle and comforting. It will make any day better.
Oh, and remember those seeds….
Wash any pulp off them and then soak for a few hours in a brine as strong as the Dead Sea.
Drain, throw them into a baking tray and scatter with sea salt. Dry roast them in a hot oven for 10-15 minutes. These make a brilliant snack with a martini (more of which another time). Treat them like a mini-pistachio.