One of the things that is most off-putting to someone just learning to cook is a recipe that includes ingredients that have to go through multiple steps (ie onions that need to be caramelized, squash that needs to be roasted, mushrooms that need to be soaked, dough that needs to be chilled, and so on). It is a true and discouraging fact that much of the real work – or not even the work so much as the time – of great cooking is most often not in the final assembling of ingredients but rather the having to do the initial steps.
But it is also true that if you cook all the time a lot of this work happens incidentally, on the side and around the edges. If you cook on an ongoing basis, there are always leftovers or byproducts or pieces of one dish that can be well used in another.
And so it was that the other night, which was a Monday, and a cold day on which I had schlepped seven bottles of wine up and down the length of Manhattan after a night of too-little sleep, I was happily able to assemble a delicious roasted acorn squash risotto with porcini broth.
When I arrived home, what was going to make everything good was the fact that despite feeling much like I’d been hit by a truck, I had the better half of a bottle of Dolcetto amongst the pile of bottles that I had been lugging around and trying to sell all day. Not only that, but a bottle of the Dolcetto that is my current favorite wine for being delightfully fresh, with the balance of tartness and broadness on the palate, brightness and bitterness, that is to me the elusive quintessence of Dolcetto. (And, at 12.5% alcohol, a deliciously quaffable wine that will make you happy without knocking you out, even on a rough Monday.)
So I had it in mind to make a good dinner, though no particular plan for what that dinner would be. I did some reconnaissance and the contents of my fridge and freezer yielded the following:
- A packet of tin foil containing about half an acorn squash which had been sliced and roasted to go with a roast chicken on Saturday night.
- The bag of amazing limited-production organic Carnaroli risotto I brought back from Alba (lo, the land of Dolcetto) after being served an amazing risotto made from it at the Perrone estate. . . and which I had yet to use! Was storing in fridge based on reading something in a Ruth Reichl piece saying the stuff spoils quickly. . . which means it doesn’t come to eye when I’m thinking rice. But now I was searching through the fridge with Alba on my mind and couldn’t miss it. . . .
- A container of liquid that had been used to soak porcini mushrooms for another dish, lurking in the freezer for just such an evening.
- The last of my freezer stash of chicken stock (itself a byproduct made from sundry fridge-lurking vegetables and leftover bones from roasted birds. Needing to make more of which is as good an excuse as I ever need to roast a chicken.)
- A container of my new favorite Prep-Time-Saving Product: Citterio Cubetti (pre-cubed pancetta in a nifty package for $1.99!) I don’t know why I am so delighted by this. . . something about not having to stand in the deli line at Fairway? Or not having to hack up frozen pancetta into bits? But every time they have the pancetta cubetti in stock at Fairway, and it’s a rare occasion, I buy several and lob them into the freezer with delight.
- A near-finished rind of good parmigiano from Buon Italia.
- No white wine (rats, I dropped off all my white wine samples with customers.) But a bit of Amontillado sherry. That’d do.
Given these ingredients, Roasted Acorn Squash Risotto with Porcini Broth became inevitable. With a burst of new energy, I threw Cheikh Lo on the stereo to dispel the mood of exhaustion and poured a glass of Dolcetto. Chopped an onion while the frozen porcini liquid and chicken stock thawed and heated in a saucepan. Gently browned the onion with the cubetti (and with total glee at having cubetti; I am so easy to please!). Threw in a cup of Carnaroli and stirred it up real good. The porcini/chicken stock smelled heavenly! Threw a small hit of sherry into the pan with the rice (a little goes a long way), let it evaporate, and started stirring broth into the rice. Turned it down to super-low, checked/sent some emails, stirred some more, hummed to Cheikh Lo, repeated. Cut the skins off the roast acorn squash and cut/mushed it up (it was nicely roasted, caramelized on the bottom but not falling apart on top – not too mushy overall!). When the risotto was almost done, stirred the squash in with a little dried sage (actually from LAST year’s garden; I never got around to drying any this year) and the last of the broth (I’d added a little water because I needed more liquid and it was quite intense). Grated a little black pepper and microplaned as much cheese as I could over. . .
And dinner was delicious! There was the bass note of the porcini in the broth, the slight earthiness of the squash (and its slight sweetness, too, balanced with the nutty/sweet of the sherry), the bitter echo of dried sage, a hint of meatiness from the pancetta. And the wonderful Carnaroli rice, whose flavor is subtle enough to be drowned out by all that, but whose texture is more perfectly wonderful than any other rice I’ve worked with for this type of dish (it turns out soft and toothsome at the same time no matter how many emails you might read and type in an attempt to overcook!).
And alongside the risotto the Dolcetto was of course delicious (how could it not be; it’s a delicious little wine!). All light on its feet, earthy and sweet and bitter in measure to the dish and so happy to wash it down.
And now, at risk of belaboring the worn-out simile “how cooking is like life,” I have to admit that as I cooked and ate this risotto the phrase “something old and something new” kept running through my mind. . . thinking how that old saw for weddings applies not only to marriage but to cooking or really to any proper beginning. And for the first time in a while, my mind was able to go in that direction while specifically not dwelling on failure. It seems that I’ve finally reached a point, in my life and in this waning year itself, where I am tired of dwelling on endings and am much more interested in beginnings and maybe most especially re-beginnings. It’s a new phase, an optimistic one where regret and by extension waste have no place. My mind has at the back of things been mulling over what good and useful things might have been stored or are lurking in the past and how those old things can be carried through to combine nicely with what is new or in the future. And despite the inherent danger that lies in pressing inanimate objects into the service of an idea, in this case I’ll go on ahead. Because it was by far the best dinner I’ve made in a long time.