Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

Risotto, as I’ve mentioned before, is one of our go-to dishes. Our daughters will reliably devour bowls of this stuff. It’s as much a comforting family meal as it is a crowd pleaser and it takes no more time to prepare a monster pot than it does four servings, give or take the slight amount of extra effort to chop a few more veggies. This past summer we had it with fresh corn and herbs and now, with autumn squarely upon us, we’ve reinvented it with more hearty seasonal ingredients like butternut squash, leeks, mushrooms and sage.

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

The mushrooms and sage put this risotto over the top

As I wrote in my earlier risotto post, I’m a pressure-cooker convert when it comes to cooking risotto. The whole “four minutes and it’s done” thing won me over at a time when every meal-prep minute was precious. And even though I’m spending more time now cooking family meals — sometimes even WITH the family — time is no less precious. I can almost guarantee that something will come up over the course of an evening to derail even the best timeline. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to stop cooking to dress a Barbie, or undress a Barbie, or mediate a good old-fashioned round of “torment your sister by putting the Barbie somewhere she can’t reach.” Which is only bested by “retaliate by whacking your sister with the remaining Barbies,” by which time I’m challenged to even get a bowl of cereal on the table in time for dinner. But four minutes…that’s hard to beat. And so risotto wins again. Take that, Barbie! (But you and that big T-Rex friend of yours are still invited for dinner….)

Hey big boy, come here often?

Hey big boy, come here often?

We picked up most of the ingredients for this version at the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market in our own back yard. I’m kind-of bummed that this coming Saturday is the last day the market is open for the season, but was really happy to hear that there will be a slow food winter market opening soon to get us through the colder months. The butternut squash and the leek were from Jeff’s Organic Produce in Monroe, NJ, and the mushrooms from Davidson Exotic Mushrooms in Kennett Square, PA — that mainstay of mushroom production.

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer's Market

Davidson Exotic Mushrooms at West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market

Butternut squash at Jeff's Organic Produce stand

Butternut squash at Jeff’s Organic Produce stand

I’ve got to admit that risotto was not on my mind as I shopped, but I’m also a believer in the “things that grow together, go together” philosophy…both geographically and seasonally. So with these goodies in the larder and some leftover baked chicken to use up, a plan came together quite nicely if I do say so myself.

By the way, I baked the butternut squash in advance as part of another dish, but if you either don’t have the time or don’t want to go through the effort of baking a whole squash for a measly half-a-cup of squash flesh, you can use about half-a-cup of frozen butternut squash cubes and this dish will turn out just as well. You can also increase the amount of butternut squash in this recipe (either from a baked squash, or the frozen cubes) quite easily if you’re a fan. Our girls are still working on their squash taste buds so I held back a bit. Maybe it would help if I told them Barbie LOVES squash (she does, doesn’t she?). I was also judicious in how we incorporated the mushrooms, but more on that in the recipe below.

Anyway, with apologies to Mattel, here’s the action-figure-approved version of our autumn risotto:

Butternut Squash and Chicken Risotto with Sautéed Leeks and Mushrooms

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 leek, sliced down the middle and cleaned very well to remove any grit between the layers, white and light-green parts sliced into thin half-moons
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil, canola oil, or another neutral vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup roasted butternut squash flesh or 1/2 cup frozen butternut squash cubes*
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
3 1/2 – 4 cups chicken stock (homemade if you have it)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast (from leftover baked chicken…or you can pre-cook one chicken breast for this recipe)
1 1/2 cups freshly-grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for garnish
1/2 cup grated cheddar (or cheddar/Monterey Jack blend)
1 pint fresh mushrooms (we used a mix of criminis and shiitakes), cleaned and sliced into 1/4 inch slices
4 – 5 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped, plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons good-quality dry (fino) sherry
Kosher salt and freshly-ground pepper

Begin by melting 2 tablespoons unsalted butter in a medium sauté pan over medium heat. When bubbling, add the leeks and a generous pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring often, until the leeks are quite soft. Do not allow the leeks to burn or scorch or they will be bitter. Reduce the heat to medium-low or low if that begins to happen and stir to redistribute the leeks in the pan.

When the leeks are soft and almost done cooking — this could take 10 minutes or so — heat the grapeseed oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in a pressure cooker. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, take a look at this Laid-Back Risotto recipe from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site and adjust this recipe accordingly for the stove top…it will take a little longer, but not too much.) Add the Arborio rice and sauté for about 1 minute, until the outer covering of the rice grain turns slightly translucent. Add the leeks, stir, and then deglaze with the white wine or vermouth — whichever you are using. Allow the wine to evaporate slightly and add the butternut squash, stir, and then add 3 1/2 cups chicken stock. Place the lid on the pressure cooker, secure, and bring the pressure cooker to high pressure for 4 minutes.

Meanwhile, wipe clean the sauté pan used to sauté the leeks and, over medium heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. When foaming, add the mushrooms and a generous pinch salt. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the mushrooms start to brown. Continue to cook until all the mushrooms are golden, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep them from burning (you can add a little more butter if necessary). Add the chopped sage, stir, and deglaze the pan with the sherry. Allow sherry to evaporate and take the mushrooms off heat.

Mushrooms - crimini and shitake

Mushrooms – crimini and shiitake

When 4 minutes are up on the pressure cooker — and this will probably happen at some point as you are sautéing the mushrooms — carefully release the pressure and remove the lid. Stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente. If you’re making this on the stove top instead of a pressure cooker, just keep adding warmed chicken stock to the rice until it is creamy and al dente.

Add the shredded chicken to the risotto and mix well. Off heat, add the Parmesan and cheddar cheeses and remaining 1 tablespoon butter and stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste.

There are several options for plating this dish. You can either fold the mushrooms into the risotto at this point, or you can serve the risotto topped with a scattering of mushrooms and a sprinkle of Parmesan and a sage leaf or two. Which is what we did, since our girls don’t care for mushrooms very much. The parent portions got mushrooms, the kid portions did not.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Big bowl of risotto - are you sure there is squash in here?

Big bowl of risotto – are you sure there is squash in here?

Parent rating: four and a half stars. If we didn’t love risotto so much we probably wouldn’t make it as often as we do. This version is especially warming and comforting without being too heavy. The mushrooms, with their buttery, sage-y, slightly sweet finish really enhances the overall dish for the adults in the house. I think this was on the table in 30 minutes, even with the Barbie distractions.
Kid rating: four stars. Daughter 1 asked me more than once whether there was actually any squash in this dish, and she said that in a good way. Which probably means there was not enough squash in the dish if you know what I mean. We got a thumbs up from her. Daughter 2 ate almost her entire portion and didn’t seem to care about the squash one way or the other. One clean and one almost-clean plate equals success. We can now get back to the Barbie wars.

* To bake a butternut squash, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Halve the squash lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut side of the squash and place it, cut side down, on a baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 45 minutes to one hour, until you can easily pierce the skin of the squash with the sharp tip of a knife and meet no resistance. Remove from oven and allow to cool before scooping flesh out of the squash shell.

Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

I am a pressure-cooker risotto convert. Actually, advocate or evangelist might be a better description. Risotto wasn’t even in our regular menu rotation before I started cooking with a pressure cooker and now we make it several times a month, easily. I even packed the pressure cooker for our trip to the shore.

After all, what is not to like about risotto? Creamy, cheesy, and able to leap high buildings in a single bound (and by that I mean you can add just about any veggie or protein flavor combination with equally-stellar results), it’s a dinner-time super hero.

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

Jersey shore dinner of steamed clams, risotto and string beans

If you don’t have a pressure cooker, don’t be discouraged. There are several great — and easy — risotto recipes out there with techniques that prove you don’t need to constantly stir the rice pot to get good results. I recommend starting with the version for Basic Risotto on the Cook’s Illustrated web site if you have a subscription. As I’ve previously hinted, this is our go-to web site for reliable and proven recipes — the subscription is definitely worth it for a serious cook. Another great recipe for Laid-Back Risotto comes from Mark Bittman on the New York Times web site, translating a Mario Batali recipe that features spring asparagus.

Personally, it was the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for Pressure-Cooker Parmesan Risotto that started us down the pressure-cooker risotto path. The advantage to using the pressure cooker is that dinner can be on the table in 15 minutes, start to finish, and that is a lifesaver on a busy weeknight…or in our recent case, an evening at the shore where we didn’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen. It’s reliable and easy and, in our house, frequently requested as well.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of our favorite versions uses fresh (preferred) or frozen corn, but we have also used the techniques below to make:
– Butternut squash risotto (add cubes of butternut squash early, with the onions)
– Fresh baby spinach risotto (add baby spinach at the last moment)
– Ham and pea risotto
– Seared shrimp and scallop risotto (sear shrimp and/or sea scallops separately and incorporate at last moment)

Super hero indeed!

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer's market

Fresh corn from the Ocean City farmer’s market

A quick note about the white wine used to deglaze the pan and start the steaming process for the rice: use something dry that you’d normally drink. If you’re having wine with dinner, this is a great excuse to open the bottle early. But often enough I don’t feel like opening a full bottle of wine for this recipe alone, in which case I use the vermouth that is nearly always open in our liquor cabinet and doesn’t turn as easily as a regular bottle of wine. I prefer Noilly Prat Original Dry vermouth for this recipe. Vermouth is a fortified wine that incorporates other botanical flavors. The herbs and spices in Noilly Prat are mild and work well with risotto. There are some other wonderful vermouth’s out there that make a mean martini, but which I wouldn’t use for risotto because they are too full-flavored. Experiment a little to see what you like if you go this route.

Here is how we made this week’s batch, using Jersey Fresh produce we picked up at the farmer’s market:

Pressure-Cooker Risotto with Fresh Summer Corn and Herbs

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, finely diced
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
4 cups chicken broth (homemade if you have it)
Approximately 3 cups fresh corn kernels, cut from 3 ears of the freshest corn you can get (or use frozen corn…I do in the winter)
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup grated mild cheddar cheese
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon zest (optional…works well with some but not all flavor combos)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, basil, or sorrel, finely minced (or combination of herbs…a little thyme might be nice depending on what you’re adding)

Begin by heating the olive oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat in the pressure cooker (or pot on the stove top if you’re making a traditional version of risotto). Add the onion and sauté until softened. Add the rice and stir, allowing rice to sauté slightly for about 1 minute. The outer layer of the rice grains will take on a slightly translucent look – this is what you want. When all the rice gains looks uniformly translucent and ever so slightly browned, add the white wine or vermouth.

When the wine is nearly evaporated, add 3 cups of chicken stock and put the lid on the pressure cooker. Bring your pressure cooker to high pressure and cook risotto for 4 minutes before releasing the pressure. For a non-pressure cooker version, keep adding warmed chicken stock to your pot as needed until rice is cooked through.

Carefully remove the lid and stir the risotto, adding more chicken stock over medium heat as necessary until the rice is tender but al dente.

Add the corn, allow to cook for 1 minute, and remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, cheddar cheese (a non-traditional addition, but something my kids really like that rounds out the creaminess), the lemon zest if using, and the remaining 1 tablespoon unsalted butter.

Stir in the herbs — or sprinkle over the top — and serve.

Serves: 4 as a main course, 6 as appetizer or side-dish portions

Fresh corn risotto

Fresh corn risotto

Kid rating: five stars – sometimes four-and-a-half depending on the various things I add. This is a reliable staple on our dinner table that both girls enjoy and request.
Parent rating: four-and-a-half stars. We tend to like stronger flavors than the girls, and I’ve been known to dish their portions and then “spice up” our portions with some spicy sausage or some veggies that might not be on the good list on any given week (for instance, peas). But this version, with fresh corn and sometimes some added cooked chicken, is a favorite for everyone.