It is so easy to become overwhelmed by the hardships that face us, to be bogged down by what we perceive as failures, by the countless efforts that don't seem to pay off. The other day, a close friend and I were talking about how backwards the values that America instills in us (its residents) are, encouraging us to equate self-worth and validation with productivity, money and the consumption of goods. We work ourselves to the ground and when we take time for ourselves, we feel guilty about it. We aren't taught to appreciate the things that make us human--our compassion, our playfulness, our empathy, our vulnerability, our humor. We aren't taught to appreciate the process of things, the efforts we make even when we don't achieve our goals in the ways we hoped. This is a heavy weight to carry--in all of us.
So, 2012 has been a hard year. Through it, I've really started to learn how important it is to be kind to myself and to appreciate the efforts I have made--I am making--regardless of what does and doesn't seem to pay off. And to actually do something in recognition of these efforts, this perseverance.
Enter: Butternut squash brown rice risotto with fig and goat cheese salad. Good company. And a bottle of Prosecco.
Until about six months ago, I always thought of risotto as one of those specialty restaurant dishes. It had never even occurred to me that people could--and do--make it at home. The first person I witnessed undertaking this feat was an Italian friend from my MA program. Watching her slowly add white wine, ladle in more broth, stir, stir, repeat, I was completely baffled by how labor intensive the process was. I was in awe but pretty well scared off of ever tackling the dish myself.
A few months later, a different friend made an incredibly delicious vegan squash risotto, whipped up with no recipe in sight. I was utterly envious of her skill and wanted nothing more that night than to be able to produce it myself. As I've been becoming increasingly interested in food and nutrition over the past year, I have become rather committed to eating as many whole foods (least amount of processing + highest nutritional value) as possible. The vegan version of the risotto eliminated all butter and cream, which took care of the high levels of saturated fat typically in the dish. But what about the rice? I was curious if genuinely creamy and delicious risotto could be made with brown rice instead of the traditional white, arborio rice. Turns out, it can. This is fantastic news. For everyone, basically.
With the presence and moral support of a friend, I was ready to take on the dish. After a rough week of grueling job applications, near-empty bank accounts, unrelenting heartbreak, and a quickly expiring visa between the two of us, my friend proposed that our casual dinner be turned into a celebration. To celebrate our efforts, our perseverance in the face of the cascade of difficulties we have each faced in the past weeks, months, year. She brought Prosecco. I splurged on fresh figs for the salad. We made an absolutely awesome vegan, whole grain, seasonal, hearty and nutritious butternut squash risotto. This is not a quick dish, but it is well worth it. So go on--treat yourself.
Butternut Squash Brown Rice Risotto
1 medium butternut squash, peeled & cubed (1/2" - 3/4" squares)
1 cup short grain brown rice
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion or large shallot (i used a shallot), chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine (optional) (i didn't use this but hear it enhances the 'depth of flavor')
3 cups vegetable stock (or whatever stock you prefer)
2-3 sage leaves, minced
2 thyme sprigs, leaves removed
1/2 a lemon, juice + zest
1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
bit of honey or chili flakes (optional, if you like things sweet or with a bit of a kick)
salt + pepper
1. Prepare squash: Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly coat cubed squash with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast in oven until tender, around 20-35 mins, checking and tossing around pan every 10 minutes or so.
2. Parboil rice: Bring a pot of water to a boil (no specific amount, just enough to submerge the rice). Add rice and cook at a low but steady boil until half-tender, 10-15 minutes. Drain.
[If you want to cut down your leading-up-to-meal cooking time, both of these steps can be done in advance. Let both rice + squash cool before storing in the fridge.]
3. In a large and deep saucepan, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil over medium-low heat. Sautée chopped shallot until softened, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and stir for another minute.
4. Add the rice and stir to coat. Continue sautéeing the rice for a few minutes.
5. Turn heat up to medium-high. If using wine, add to saucepan and stir consistently until it is evaporated.
6. Begin to add the stock, 1/4 - 1/2 cup at a time, stirring consistently. Make sure the liquid is bubbling, at a low but consistent boil. Once the first round of stock has evaporated, add the next 1/4 - 1/2 cup. Continue this process, stirring consistently.
7. Don't forget about your squash! (If it is still in the oven.)
8. As you're stirring the rice, add salt and pepper to taste. If you're using a spoonful of honey or bit of chili flakes, toss them in too.
9. When the rice is about 2/3 done (after 15 minutes or so), add half of the squash cubes. Mash mash, stir stir! The squash should break down and add to the delicious creaminess of the rice.
10. Taste the rice after about 20 minutes to check on its doneness, as you may not end up using all the stock (I didn't).
11. When the rice is just about ready, tender but still a bit al dente, add the thyme, sage, and zest and juice from the half lemon.
12. About a minute before you turn off the heat, add the remaining squash and balsamic vinegar. The rice should be cooked but not mushy, the texture creamy but not soupy.
13. Serve hot and revel in the warming, fragrant, whole grain and mega-nutritious winter veg meal you just made!
Fig & Goat Cheese Salad
Mixed greens (spinach, arugula, watercress...)
3 fresh figs
goat cheese (the crumbly kind)
Honey Balsamic Dressing:
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. honey
salt + pepper to taste