So I was reading my last post again, and feeling all sorts of proud of myself again, and I started thinking about people who say they “can’t” cook. People who might look at a recipe for risotto and think that it looked good, but they would never try it, because they “can’t” cook, so why bother. And that makes me sad, so to them I say bullocks. I am pretty confident that there is nothing innate about the ability to cook, unless you are, perhaps, Grant Achatz or some other cooking wunderkind with an abnormally good palate. I think what is necessary to be a good cook, is the desire to cook. I was born into a family that liked food, with a dad and a grandmother and an aunt who loved cooking, and so I picked up the jones at a young age, but I wasn’t totally obsessed with cooking when I was a kid or anything. I made a lot of Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and that was about the extent of it. In college, I made a lot of couscous that I added sauteed frozen vegetables and soy sauce to. As I have gotten older, I have gotten more interested in making, instead of just eating, food. And more recently I have gotten more interested in food almost to the point of preoccupation. As a result, I read cookbooks and food magazines, I eat at good restaurants, I watch food shows on tv, and my favorite place to be is usually a food market of some kind. And I cook for myself a lot. Practice, more than anything else, is the reason I find a modicum of success in the kitchen. That, and my complete and utter lack of fear to try things. Perhaps overconfidence in this particular area has bred success for me. But really, if you think about it, what is the worst that could happen? A dish doesn’t turn out and you have to eat something else, or get takeout, or eat a crappy dinner. That’s it. That is the worst thing that could happen if you attempt something and it doesn’t come out the way you want it.
Now, there are people who don’t cook, and that is fine. No interest, no time, cooking feels more like a chore than a treat. That’s legit, everybody has their thing. The ones that make me sad and curious are the people who say they would like to be able to cook, but can’t. It’s honkey. If you can read, you can cook, and the more you read and cook, the less frequently you will have to be able to read to pull something together. The only reason I was able to think about putting apples and fried onions with the risotto is because I have had risotto a kajillion times, and I know that risotto is creamy and smooth, and can be rich sometimes to a fault. Crunchy things mix it up texture wise, and crisp, cool things temper richness. I had an apple, so I decided to use that. It wasn’t instinct or some innate ability, it was familiarity. And if I had tried the apple and it was gross, or didn’t have the effect I was hoping for, I would have picked it out or eaten around it. Easy peasy, no harm done, nothing to be afraid of.
There are definitely techniques you should know when you cook, and there are some tools that you need, or really should have, but if you are cooking and you come across a word or technique that you don’t know, get on the interwebs. That’s why Al Gore invented it. No one comes out of the womb knowing how to brunoise, so cooking is about learning. So just practice. I don’t remember the first risotto that I made, but that is probably because it was crap. And part of the reason that I am so excited about the one I made the other night, is because I have never made one that I liked as well before, texture, flavor or otherwise. I certainly hope I can repeat it, but who knows, there is a really good chance that I will try to make risotto again and it won’t be as good, so okay, I’ll keep trying. No fear I say!
So anyway, the point of this post, besides posting the recipe from the other night, is to suggest that if you want to cook, just try it. You have nothing to lose!
Butternut Squash Risotto with Apples and Tempura Onions (serves 2)
1 small butternut squash
1 apple, peeled, cored and diced into 1/8 inch cubes
1 medium onion, sliced into rounds
3 tbls olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 tsp ras el-hanout
1 cup carnaroli or arborio rice
3/4 cup dry white wine, room temperature or slighty warmed
6 cups chicken stock (you will likely have a bit leftover)
1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino romano or parmesan
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup club soda
oil for deep-frying
(Wow, that’s a lot of ingredients)
This recipe is not overwhelming if you organize yourself well. The first step is to roast the butternut squash. This can be done ahead of time (I did it the night before.) Peel the squash, cut in half and seed it, and then cut into half-inch cubes. Roast the squash with a little bit of olive oil, salt and pepper on 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes until the squash is soft and starting to brown. Put the roasted squash in a blender or food processor to await warm chicken stock. Next, slice the medium onion into rounds, and soak in cold water to remove the sharpness until you are ready to use. Measure the flour into a medium bowl and set aside. Dice the apple into tiny cubes and set aside until the end.
Now you are ready for the risotto portion of the evening. Set 6 cups of chicken stock over medium heat. When the stock is simmering, turn the heat down to low and keep warm. Put the olive oil and diced onion in a saute pan with high sides or a wide stock pot or dutch oven over medium heat. Cook until the onion gets soft, 4 or 5 minutes. Add the ras el-hanout, and cook until the mixture is fragrant. Add the rice and stir until the rice begins to toast and the pan gets dry.
When the rice is toasted and the pan is getting dry
add the wine and stir frequently until all the wine is absorbed and the pan is dry again (you should be able to drag a spatula through the rice, and it should not fill in the gap) add the first 1/2 cup of stock and stir frequently until the stock is absorbed and the pan is dry. Repeat this, testing each time as you get closer to the end, until the rice is cooked through and soft, but still with a bite or firmness in the middle. I repeated the stock process 7 times, using 4 cups of stock. At the same time, heat canola or vegetable oil in a deep pot for deep-frying.
As you add the last 1/2 cup of stock to the rice, add another 1/2 cup to the blender with the roasted squash and puree until smooth. When the rice is getting dry again, add the squash, the grated cheese, and one last 1/2 cup of stock. Stir to combine, turn the heat off, and let the rice sit while you fry the onions.
Whisk the club soda into the flour, and when combined, add the onion rings from the water bath. Stir the onion rings to coat them with batter, and then drop into the hot oil to fry. When the onions are crispy, after 4-5 minutes, take the onions out and drain them on paper towels.
Plate the risotto, top with some of the diced apple and the onion rings, and serve.