Christmas is my absolute favourite time of the year. When the 1st of December finally finally rolls around I have reached an unholy level of impatient anticipation. The Christmas playlist has been set up weeks ago on spotify and has been playing on loop ever since. Christmas chutneys and mincemeats are happily maturing in a cupboard. Christmas wish lists have been distributed early to family and presents are beginning to stack up behind the sofa (shush, don’t tell). I’ve been repeating, rain-man-like, the number of days until Christmas daily (and even hourly) until my colleagues’ nerves are in tatters. I am well and truly ready for a month of food and festivities. When we finally reach December my taste buds are at fever pitch level. So, this is when I break out my favourite festive flavours and earnestly attempt to incorporate them into every meal I cook.
First up, butternut squash, chestnut, pancetta and sage risotto. Spiced sweet butternut squash, tempered by the salty pancetta and made Christmassy with the addition of chestnuts and sage, this is a killer risotto. And with the leftover ingredients, you can make chestnut, pancetta and sage pasta (to follow shortly in “A taste of Christmas #2”).
Butternut squash, chestnut, sage and pancetta risotto
(serves 2-3 people)
- 1 butternut squash
- 1 tsp coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 dried chilli
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 70g chopped pancetta (1 of those packs from your supermarket)
- approx 200g risotto rice
- 1 glass of white wine
- 1 litre good chicken stock
- A good knob of butter
- 100g roasted and peeled chestnuts (I used merchant gourmet’s), roughly chopped or crumbled
- A good handful of grated parmesan
- A small bunch of sage leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
- Maldon sea salt and pepper.
(For my top tips on making a risotto see here)
Preheat your oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6.
First prepare the butternut squash (which I did earlier in the day, by the way). In a dry frying pan, toast the coriander and fennel seeds until they start to give up a beautiful aroma (just a couple of minutes).
Tip them into a pestle and mortar and grind to a powder along with the crumbled dried chilli, the dried oregano and a teaspoon of Maldon sea salt. Add one clove of garlic and pound to as paste, then drizzle in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Put aside for a moment.
Quarter the butternut squash vertically (I like to cut off a slice at the bottom to make the cutting safer). Remove the seeds and lay out the slices into a snug-fitting roasting pan (skin side down). Using your hands, spread the spice mixture over the squash, and drizzle with a little extra evoo for good measure.
Roast in your oven for 40 minutes or so until soft and tender.
Leave to cool for a few minutes and then scrape the flesh from the skins into a bowl. Mush up a little and leave aside until needed.
In a heavy bottomed pan, heat a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil and gently fry the onions until softened (but not browned).
Add the pancetta and fry for a further few minutes until the pancetta is brown and beginning to crisp. Finely slice the second clove of garlic and add to the pan.
Add the risotto rice and fry for a couple of minutes to coat with the lovely pancetta and garlic oils. The rice grains will start to go a little bit translucent, but don’t let them brown.
Still over quite a high heat, pour in the white wine (which will be accompanied by a beautiful smell) and immediately turn the heat down to a low flame.
Once the wine is more or less absorbed add a ladle full of stock and around half the mashed up butternut squash. Once that first ladle of stock has been absorbed into the rice, continue to gradually add a ladleful of stock at a time, stirring and allowing each ladleful to absorb into the rice before adding the next. It’s important that you don’t cook the rice too quickly (i.e. on a fast boil), otherwise the outside of the rice will be cooked and fluffy and the inside will be raw! So keep the flame as low as possible. After around 15 minutes or so the rice should be about ready. However, I suggest that after about 13 minutes you should keep tasting your rice every couple of minutes to check if it’s cooked as this is not an exact science and it’s really important that you don’t under- or overcook the rice. You want the rice to be soft but with a slight bite.
Whilst the rice is cooking, in another pan melt the butter over a medium heat.
Add your chopped chestnuts and warm through in the melted butter.
Add the buttery chestnuts to the butternut squash risotto and stir in to mix.
Add some more of the butternut squash (you can decide how much, depending on your taste).
When the rice is completely ready, add a couple of handfuls of parmesan and pop a lid on.
Meanwhile, in the other pan heat a couple of glugs of oil (I used normal olive oil) and shallow fry the sage leaves until nice and crispy.
Using a slotted spoon remove the leaves and put on a couple of sheets of kitchen towel to absorb the oil.
Remove the lid from the risotto pan and give it a final stir. Check the seasoning and then spoon generously onto your plates. Place a few crispy sage leaves on top and dive in.
A warming taste of Christmas.