Not an easy week this is, with so many dinners over $2. However, some meals are worth surviving the rest of the day on bread and coffee for, and this is one of them. Butternut squash used to be a hard sell for me (texturally, it still kind of is) until I had it in a risotto at a restaurant not long ago, in which the sweet chunks of squash against a savory background made me a believer. That particular risotto, though, was so heavily loaded with butter and cheese that it took me nearly two days to find the strength to even walk the dog. To say I felt disgusting is to describe the Republican-candidate debates as mildly alarming. Good food needn’t always be an assault on your system; this version gets big flavors from stock, vegetables, and cooking technique, not fat.
The recipe below, adapted from Cooks Illustrated (with some significant technical changes), makes 4 very generous servings. It’s not a “typical” way to make risotto. Risotto should be creamy, not watery, stiff, or gluey. It should spread out on a plate if served that way, with each rice grain still having a good firmness, and this is the only method I’ve found that consistently produces that result.
• 1 small butternut squash: $1.41
• 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted in a dry skillet over medium heat: $2
• 1 large onion, finely chopped: 25 cents
• 2 T olive oil: 11 cents
• 4 T butter: 24 cents
• 2 garlic cloves, minced: 2 cents
• 2 T fresh sage, finely chopped (garden): $0
• 4 oz. baby spinach: 50 cents
• 3/4 cup grated Parmesan: 53 cents
• 4 cups chicken stock or broth, OR vegetable stock or broth (I used frozen turkey stock): $0
• Pinch ground nutmeg: 2 cents
• 2 cups Arborio rice (try to buy this from the bulk bins at a co-op or WinCo if you can. It’s laughably expensive elsewhere, but you really can’t use any other rice. I’ve tried.): $2
• 1 1/2 cups dry white wine: $2
• Salt & pepper to taste: 2 cents
TOTAL: $9.10/4 = $2.28/serving
Peel your butternut squash. (A sharp vegetable peeler should do the trick.) Cut it in half; scoop out the seeds and stringy parts and put them in a bowl, because you’ll be using them later. Chop the flesh into small 1/2-inch cubes.
Heat the oil in a large (12 inch) sauté pan or deep skillet with a lid over medium-high heat. Add the squash cubes in an even layer.
Brown as best you can without stirring too much, as it will disintegrate the squash. (Even if you can only get one side really brown, that’s OK.) Add a large pinch of salt and pepper, cover, and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove to a bowl and cover.
Reduce the heat to medium. In the same pan, add the squash stringy parts and seeds, sauté until lightly browned. Remove to a large saucepan, add the broth or stock (the idea is to make a double stock of sorts, using the squash) PLUS one cup water, and bring to a simmer. Then reduce to low heat to keep it hot.
Add a very small splash of olive oil to the sauté pan or skillet, add the spinach, and cook, covered, for 2 minutes or until completely wilted. Set aside.
Melt 3 T of the butter in the sauté pan or skillet, still over medium heat. Add onions, garlic, a large pinch of salt, and a large pinch of pepper. Cook until onions are translucent, about 4-5 minutes, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the rice and stir until translucent around edges, about 3 minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine and cook until wine is fully absorbed, about 4-5 minutes.
Strain the broth into a bowl, pushing on the solids with a rubber spatula. Return broth to saucepan and keep on low to stay warm.
Add 3 cups of the broth to the rice.
Add the reserved squash and stir to combine. Cover and simmer on medium-low for about 12 minutes, stirring once or twice.
Remove the lid and add about 1/2 cup broth, stirring until absorbed—do this as many times as needed until rice is al dente. (I only had to do it twice.)
Remove from heat, stir in reserved spinach, 1 T butter, Parmesan, sage, and nutmeg. Add a little more broth if necessary to loosen the texture, taste for salt and pepper and adjust. (I added quite a bit more salt.)
Serve in wide, shallow bowls, topped with the pine nuts.