- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Want a quick trip to Italy? Put on your apron, go into the kitchen and stir up a creamy risotto.

This rice dish was once cooked and served to people of limited means. Rice was plentiful in the Northern Italian Po Valley, and this dish was hearty and inexpensive enough to feed a large family. Unlike our American side rice dishes, risotto today is served as a first course or even a main course, depending on what else is on the menu.

Look for superfine arborio rice from Italy, a small oval variety high in amylopectin starch. This starch lends creaminess to the finished risotto that is accentuated by the slow addition of liquid and constant stirring.

Another unique feature of arborio rice is the firm central core it retains when cooked, giving it a distinctive al dente texture. Other Italian rices for risotto are carnaroli and vialone nano, but they’re a bit more difficult to find. Feel free to substitute them in this recipe. Each of these rice varieties has its own characteristics, so try them all and see which you prefer.

This is a dish that takes a bit of patience. The technique of slowly adding the warm liquid ingredients in increments and stirring the mixture continually takes time. This is simple to prepare as long as you allow the time to make it. Believe me, it is worth it.

In the winter months, I like to combine the most colorful produce I can find. Sweet orange butternut squash is a fine companion to the slightly bitter crimson Swiss chard. Make sure to cut the red Swiss chard stalks very thin so they will cook properly with the leaves. Serve this as a first course to a more elaborate dinner and follow with veal or lamb chops. Or serve it as a main course, beginning with a cold-weather salad of beets and arugula.

Help is on the way: risotto tips

• Never wash the rice; you’ll be washing away the starch that gives risotto its creamy character.

• Use a heavy pot with a handle so you can mix the risotto with one hand while holding the pot with the other.

• Use a wooden spoon for stirring.

• Keep the rice at a very low boil so that it cooks evenly and retains a creamy yet firm quality.

• Serve the risotto immediately in warm shallow bowls.

• Any leftover risotto can be made into patties and sauteed in olive oil.

Winter squash and red Swiss chard risotto

1/4 cup olive oil

3 leeks, light green and white part only, cleaned and finely chopped

1 pound peeled butternut squash, diced into half-inch pieces (2 pound whole butternut squash)

3/4 cup water

1 small bunch red Swiss chard (about ½ pound), cleaned and finely shredded, red stalks thinly sliced

Salt and pinch freshly ground black pepper

5 cups chicken or vegetable broth

½ cup dry white wine

1½ cups Arborio rice

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Sage leaves and parsley leaves for garnish

Extra grated Parmesan for passing

In a large saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil on medium heat. Add the leeks and saute until softened and lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add the squash and saute for 3 to 5 minutes or until the squash is lightly browned and well-coated. Add the water, cover and cook another 5 to 7 minutes, or until the squash is crisp-tender.

Add the chard and mix to combine. Cover and cook about 3 more minutes or until the chard is wilted, stirring once or twice as it cooks. Remove the top, increase the heat and remove all the excess liquid, about a minute more. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth and wine to a simmer on medium high heat (or place in a large glass measuring cup and microwave for 2 minutes).

In a heavy large saucepan, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat. Add the rice and stir well, making sure all the grains are well-coated, about 2 minutes. Pour in ½ cup of the hot broth and stir, using a wooden spoon, until all of the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the broth, ½ cup at a time, making sure that the rice has absorbed the previous stock and always stirring to avoid burning or sticking. (It takes about 3 to 5 minutes between each addition.) The rice should have a very creamy consistency as you continue to add the stock.

Reserve the last ½ cup of broth and add it with the vegetable mixture, cooking on low heat for another 2 minutes. You may need to use a fork to mix the vegetables with the rice. Turn off the heat and add the chopped parsley, sage and Parmesan cheese, and stir well to combine evenly with the rice. Spoon into serving bowls and garnish with sage and parsley leaves. Pass remaining Parmesan separately. Makes 6 servings.


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