Butternut Squash Risotto with Sage Butter

When people ask me what my favorite meal is to cook, I always reply with risotto. It’s a dish that requires patience (risotto must be stirred continuously for 20-30 minutes) but the end result is worth every minute spent over the stove. Arborio rice is high in starch and the grain is small and rounded, like an oval. As it cooks, the grains become exceptionally creamy. It’s my version of curling up with a bowl of soup on a cold day – risotto is comfort food. Although traditionally served as a first course, I tend to offer it alongside meats like pork or turkey, or alone with an antipasto platter and a glass of wine.

I first made this recipe during my butternut squash "food phase." I define a “food phase” as a period of time when I go out of my way to find recipes that feature a particular ingredient I recently become obsessed with. About a year ago, at a corner table in the downtown Santa Barbara restaurant, Ca’ Dario, my butternut squash phase began. Before this meal I had rarely eaten butternut squash, but I was feeling adventurous and the sage butter sauce that would cover my ravioli sounded was extremely tempting.

(If you’ve never had sage butter, I urge you to make some immediately-scroll down for directions. Otherwise, please read on.)

I was officially enamored with butternut squash, and ready to attempt a recipe of my own. During a Food Network-filled afternoon, Michael Chiarello was making a butternut squash dish and I watched eagerly as he appeared to cut and chop the vegetable with ease, gently slicing off the skin and preparing the insides to be roasted. Off to the grocery store, I walked into the produce aisle spirited and confident, but my experience at home nearly turned me off from the vegetable all together. After hacking through the flesh with a butcher knife, and terrified at the force I needed to use in order to cut through the buff-colored skin, I wanted to give up.

Thankfully, the 2007 holiday season was nearly here, and I was saved by the Disneyland-for-consumers, members-only wholesaler that is…Costco! Here, you could buy bags of pre-cubed butternut squash. Jackpot! In order to save myself the certain disappointment of returning a week later to find them sold out, I made sure to take extra bags for the freezer. Problem solved. I could make risotto.

Since I adore many versions of risotto, it will certainly be featured more than once on this blog, but today we are starting with the subtle flavors of butternut squash and sage. I love this combination so much that I’ve gone out of my way to try them ("food phase" side effect) in every conceivable dish resulting in many successes (pizza and soup – posts pending) and several failures (chunky butternut squash puree is not appealing when tossed with penne, even if sage butter is involved). I can’t get enough.

Butternut squash and sage merry well. The smell of sage is so earthy and soft that it promotes a sense of relaxation. At a local restaurant called Sage & Onion (sadly it has closed), they wisely placed a single sage leaf on each customer’s napkin and I couldn’t help but bring it up to my nose and twist it between my fingers until the underside of my fingernails smelled of intoxicating sage.

Be confident that this recipe will make believers out of skeptics. If one of your friends has never tried butternut squash or is afraid of it for some reason, force them to take one bite and they will be craving seconds and/or asking you to make it again and again.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Recipe adapted from the Williams-Somona Kitchen

1 stick unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons

10 fresh sage leaves

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock

16 oz. butternut squash, cubed

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 medium onion

2 cups Arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Steam butternut squash over boiling water until tender, about 12 minutes. Puree squash in a food processor and place in a large saucepan with chicken stock. Whisk together the stock and squash puree. Bring just to a simmer, 8 to 10 minutes; maintain over low heat.

While butternut squash steams, make the sage butter. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt 1 stick butter. Rip sage leaves and add to butter. Heat until the butter browns, about 5 minutes. Strain the butter into a small bowl and place sage on a paper towel to drain, reserve. Cover bowl to keep warm.

In a large saucepan or risotto pan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the caramelized onions and rice and stir until the grains are well coated with the oil and are nearly translucent with a white dot in the center, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and stir until it is absorbed.

Add the simmering stock mixture a ladleful at a time, stirring frequently after each addition. Wait until the stock is almost completely absorbed before adding more.

When the rice is tender to the bite but slightly firm in the center and looks creamy, after about 30 minutes, stir in the remaining 3 tbs. butter, the cheese, salt and pepper. Add more stock if needed so the rice is thick and creamy. Let stand for 2 minutes. Drizzle with the reserved sage butter and serve immediately.