Sunday, December 27, 2009

Squash and Blue Cheese Risotto

Risotto is a rice dish originating in Northern Italy. The rices used to make risotto are characterized by high starch, low amylose and round medium grains – very different from the white rice most commonly consumed in the United States. The most common risotto rices used in Italy are Carnaroli or Vialone, though in American grocery stores Arborio is most more widely available. This is less desirable that the other varieties as it has less starch and is less firm.

To make risotto, first onions or shallots are sautéed in olive oil in a process called soffritto. Then the rice grains are added and coated in oil or butter in a process called tostatura. Hot stock is then added in small quantities while stirring the risotto. The agitation releases starch from the rice grains which forms a thick liquid. The final step is mantecatura when butter/oil and cheese are added and stirred vigorously to create a creamy sauce.

This risotto is adapted from a British recipe. Risottos tend to be mild but this one has strong flavors. The saffron provides fragrance, the squash creaminess, the
Gorgonzola some bite, and the pecans a crunchy texture. Many Americans are intimidated by risotto because rumors abound that it must be stirred for several hours. New York Times food critic Mark Bittman dispels this myth.

In Italy risotto is served as a primi piatti (first dish) instead of pasta; secondi piatti (second dishes) generally consist of meat or fish. In America risotto is often served as a main dish, though is sometimes served as an appetizer or side dish.

Serves 6-8 as a main dish

6 cups vegetable or chicken low-sodium stock (do not use bouillon cubes)
1 pinch of saffron
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 teaspoons crushed garlic
1 lb squash, peeled, seeded and chopped
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups Arborio or other risotto rice
1 cup dry white wine
8-12 ounces crumbled Gorgonzola cheese (or another mild to medium blue cheese)
1/2 lb toasted pecan halves
salt and pepper to taste
fresh Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. In a medium pot warm stock until simmering. Add saffron and stir well.
2. In a larger, heavy-bottomed pot on low heat sauté onion in olive oil until soft (about 10 minutes).
3. Add garlic and squash and cook until slightly soft.
4. Add the butter and rice. Stir until the grains are well coated.
5. Add wine and stir until absorbed (about 1 minute).
6. Add 1 cup of warm broth and stir until it has almost been absorbed. Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring occasionally until absorbed. The process should take about 20 minutes but check the rice after 15 minutes. The grains should be
al dente and will continue cooking once removed from the heat.
7. Once the risotto is cooked, stir in the Gorgonzola. Fold in half of the pecans and use the other half to garnish the dish before serving. Add salt, pepper and finely grated Parmesan cheese to taste.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Killer Brownies

Despite their popularity in the United States and my own personal predilection for them, this is only the second brownie recipe to be featured on this blog. The first was for Valentine’s Day almost two years ago. While these are not a traditional Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid or Kwanzaa recipe, Americans adore saccharine chocolate treats at any time of the year.

Brownies are dense chocolate, cake-like squares. They generally contain a higher proportion of eggs and chocolate and a lower proportion of flour than chocolate cake. They are sometimes frosted, and often made with nuts, chocolate chips, cream cheese, dried fruit or coconut. Most commonly brownies are served at room temperature, but many restaurants serve them warm and topped with ice cream, whipping cream, chocolate sauce and/or chopped nuts. Brownies are similar to the less popular blondies (another favorite); the major difference is that the former is made with chocolate batter.

Brownies were first created in Chicago by a chef at the Palmer House Hotel during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. He created these confections for Bertha Palmer, whose husband Potter owned the hotel. The original recipe, which is still served at the hotel, contains nuts and an apricot glaze. The first published brownie recipe produced a cake-like square and appeared in a Boston cookbook in 1906. A new recipe published the following year more closely resembled today’s confection.

This is one of the most delicious brownies I have tasted. It is based on a recipe by Ina Garten but uses less chocolate, nuts, flour and sugar than her version. Still these are exceedingly decadent.

Makes 48 squares

1 lb unsalted butter (4 sticks)
24 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
6 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons instant coffee
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups walnut pieces

1. Butter and flour a 3/4 to 1-inch deep 12 x 18 inch baking sheet. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a medium pan over lowest heat, melt butter and 12 ounces chocolate chips. Set aside to cool slightly.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs (with a fork, do not use an electric beater), then add sugar, coffee and vanilla. Add chocolate mixture and mix well using a spatula. Allow to cool to room temperature.
4. In a small bowl mix all but 2 tablespoons of flour, baking powder and salt. Using the spatula, fold into the chocolate mixture.
5. Toss walnuts and remaining 12 ounces of chocolate chips in reserved 2 tablespoons of flour. Fold these into the brownie batter.
6. Pour batter into the baking sheet and bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Halfway through the baking, remove baking sheet and drop on countertop or floor several times to remove air bubbles. Be careful not to overbake these brownies – they should be moist and chewy not cakey.
7. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate overnight. Using a pizza cutter or knife, cut into squares.