It is hard to ignore winter squash in the market this time of year. There they sit, yellow butternut, green acorn, orange pumpkin, showing off their cutely plump shapes and screaming: "Just buy me already! I promise not to spoil. And I'm delicious."
But their looks, resilience and addictive flavor are not the only thing that's wonderful about them. Winter squashes and their orange flesh pack in huge quantities of vitamins A, B and C, fiber, iron, and -- surprise-- omega 3 fatty acids, making them one of the healthiest veggies you can eat.
Even intrepid cooks sometimes get put off by winter squashes because of their hard skins. How do I peel a winter squash, is a question I often hear from readers. But there is really no need to be afraid of that skin. It's what keeps your squash fresh and well-preserved on the countertop even as your less armored veggies are spoiling by the minute inside the refrigerator. And while peeling winter squash is more labor-intensive than, say, peeling a banana, that doesn't mean it's difficult. Especially not with a sharp knife.
Here's what I do. I stab the squash a couple of times with the knife and nuke it for a couple of minutes. Stabbing the squash ensures that it won't blow up in the microwave, although a couple of minute is probably too short for it to do so anyway. Still, no harm in being cautious. And the nuking softens the skin just that little bit so your knife goes through it more readily.
Then I lop off the top and the bottom so the squash sits firmly on the chopping board. I run a knife down the middle to cut it into halves. I scoop out the seeds and then I halve each half again. Once I have manageable-sized pieces, I take my knife and run it as close to the skin as possible along the length of the squash to peel it. I've heard that serrated peelers do a good job of this too, but I don't have one so I don't know that for a fact.
Once I have peeled the squash, I cut it up into a dice or whatever shape I need in order to get cooking.
Besides, it's really worth the trouble for a reward as gorgeous as this Butternut Squash Risotto.
Vegan Mushroom Barley Risotto is one of my favorite dishes from Italian cuisine and it goes down swimmingly in our rice-loving home. Butternut squash makes the risotto extra special, adding a deep, rich sweetness highlighted by the warm smokiness of the sage. Sage and squash are a perfect flavor pairing, in fact, and there's just no way to go wrong with this one.
Risotto is usually finished off with parmesan cheese for that signature creaminess and while this risotto, already richly flavored, doesn't need that extra touch, I did add some vegan cashew "cheese" to mine-- a delicious paste of some cashews, nutritional yeast and salt. It was quite amazing.
Here's the recipe. Hope everyone's staying nice and warm and cozy in this freezing weather.
Vegan Butternut Squash Risotto
- 1 cup arborio or other medium-grained rice (you need a starchy rice for risotto, unlike the long-grained basmati)
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1 butternut squash , peeled and cut into a ½-inch dice (mine yielded 4 cups of diced squash)
- 4-5 cups hot vegetable stock (you could use water, but a stock is far more preferable for better flavor)
- ½ cup white wine
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh sage or 1 tsp dried sage
- Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Cashew "cheese" made by blending together ¼ cup cashews , 1 tsp nutritional yeast, ¼ cup of water, and salt to taste (optional)
- Heat the oil in a saucepan and add the butternut squash, a pinch of salt, and some ground black pepper.
- Saute over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, about 8 minutes or until the squash starts to soften and caramelize.
- Turn down the heat to medium. Add the rice and stir it with the squash until it begins to turn opaque, about 1 minute. Season again with salt and pepper.
- Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until the wine's almost evaporated.
- Add ½ cup of vegetable stock and stir it in. Once the stock has almost evaporated, add another ½ cup. Repeat until the rice is cooked. It took me about 35 minutes. Don't forget to season again with salt and pepper at the end. You might need more or less stock, and you basically want the rice to be tender yet slightly toothy, or al dente. In other words, you don't want mushy rice. You also don't want the rice to be dry and lumpy. It should be smooth and creamy.
- Now add the cashew "cheese", if you're using it, and stir it in. Immediately add the sage and mix. Turn off the heat.
- Eat it hot.
As winter falls upon us, please look through your closets for old towels and blankets to donate to your local animal shelter so they can help keep warm all those beautiful dogs and cats and other critters waiting behind bars for their forever homes.
Shelters are usually not well funded, and especially so in these bad economic times as cities shrink their budgets. A couple of used blankets and towels are great gifts and if you can give more the animals are always in need of food and treats and small toys. Over the holidays, shelter staff also bring food and treats to pets who are left tied and neglected in cold backyards by bad parents, and to animals who live with parents who love them but cannot afford to feed them because they have fallen on bad days.
Workplace donation drives are also a great way to help. People always have a blanket or towel at home that they are willing to give away, and you can volunteer to bring the items in to the shelter. In my office a couple of volunteers organize a collection each holiday season and everyone pitches in with toys, food and other goodies for the city shelter.
It's easy enough to do, and it goes a long way to brighten up the life of those wonderful animals.