I've done it. I've drained myself of words. Or rather, the will to write words for a paycheck; to even string together a thought. As I sit here writing this now, I stop every two words to gather my thoughts for the rest of the sentence. It isn't that I'm completely vacant. Rather the opposite. About a thousand ideas are percolating in this noggin' of mine. Mostly they swim. Sometimes they churn. Other times they collide like tectonic plates, the likes of which have not been seen since Pangea was sick of being one huge chunk of rock.
The source of these ideas: work. I make it a point not to dwell in too much detail about the day job. I like it that way—that's the whole point of this blog. I get to write about what I want to write about. Gives me another focus than what I didn't get done in the workday...
Without going into it too much (this would require a bottle of wine and a lot of time, which I don't have), the upswing of the deadline curve leaves me with little time and a lot of stress. Not just the chronological sort. There's plenty of the emotional baggage like self-doubt, suspicion, and good old job insecurity to make a girl lose sleep. Even her appetite. This, ladies and gentleman, has never happened before. It partly has to do with the supremely bad meals I've had in town lately and that thanks to roommates with an apparent dishwasher-phobia I can't even cook in my own goddamn kitchen.
So everything swims, bounces off of each other, and they are just noisy. Not the thing you need when you're dying to finish draft three of a piece you have completely no faith in. Or do you? Oh the indecision! The cacophony got to be a bit too much when my friend Amber called.
"Do you have dinner plans?" I asked.
She answered. "No, I'm just staying home."
"Good," I replied. "I'm coming over for dinner. I want to make you something. Well, us." So with that, Friday evening turned into The Therapy Kitchen Sessions. It turns out that we were both having supremely shitty weeks. We each took our turns at bitching, just letting a lot of verbal steam that's buit up pressure within our little diaphragms. Such release is so much more effective when you punctuate points with the chop of a chef's knife and throwing bits of aromatics into a pot. Before you know it, you've disemboweled and prepped an entire Kabocha squash and started a batch of some badly needed risotto.
When we were discussing what to make earlier Amber, who's a wonderful pastry chef at a restaurant in town, read my mind. "We need comfort food." The creamy rice was a no brainer. But to coddle such stress and fragile egos, there needed to be something else. Slightly sweet. The presence of which would immediately uplift our spirits. Kabocha squash, baked and mashed, stirred in moments before you spike the pot with a chunk of butter and a blizzard of parmesan. The color alone hinted at sunshine and warmth.
But we were grown women. Adventurous, sophisticated, beautiful, cool, intelligent, talented, passionate—it's all part of the pep-talk, you see—women. So, there's gotta be something extra to sex it up lest we risk creating a big heap of baby food. Albeit, delicious baby food.
A chunk of guanciale caught my eye at the market. Blessed pig. It gives me bacon. Pork chops. Ham. Sausages. Pork cheek sandwiches at Salumi. Hell, even chittlins on an adventurous day. But thank you, thank you, you porcine God-send for your jowls. Cured with salt and spices, it's the most revered part of the pig in Lazio, around Rome. Mostly fat, it's used like pancetta in just about everything. I cubed my stash and tossed it with whole fresh sage leaves, the seeds from the disemboweled Kabocha (time FLIES when you're recounting painful details of the week!), and a little olive oil to get it going.
Then you roast the whole thing in a hot oven and hear it sizzle so that it practically talks to you. It sounds angry. It sounds bitchy, what with that constant sizzling and occasional pop from a seed. But the mixture crisps up, cubes of bacon fat, sage leaves, roasting seeds and all. The result is a crunchy aromatic confetti to top the risotto, tableside, with lots more parmesan. Because it's been that kind of week.
By the time we were ready to eat, Amber's son, Nick was starving and lamenting that it was 9 p.m. Yeah, I totally believe the emotional osmosis stuff. I worried that all of our stress may have melted into our food and the dish would taste, well, worried. But that intense turmeric yellow pool of silky rice on the tongue was like a hug. The crunchy bits you got every so often on a forkful snapped you back into a here and now only conjured by smoky bacon fat and the oddly medicinal sage leaves. "If you can craft a dish like this," I thought to myself. "Then you can do anything."
Yes, ladies and gents, it was a risotto meditation.
Kabocha Squash Risotto with Crispy Sage, Guanciale, and Kabocha Seeds
I don't remember where I came across this recipe. I didn't find it in any of my cookbooks at home. I suspect it came about during a previous job, also extremely stressful, but luckily supplied with an arsenal of cookbooks that I could bury myself in. There's some charm in using just about every bit of the squash. If you compost the peel, then hey, big karma points to you. You can sub a small pumpkin if kabocha isn't available. And those of you overachievers who have pureed squash or pumpkin lying around, this is SO the dish to put it in.
1 Kabocha squash or small pumpkin * 1/4 pound guanciale or pancetta, diced * a generous handful of fresh sage leaves * olive oil * 1 small yellow onion, chopped * 1 clove garlic, minced * 2 cups carnaroli or arborio rice * a glass of white wine * 6 cups of simmering chicken or vegetable stock * dab or slab of butter * pinch of grated nutmeg * LOTS of parmesan
You can prepare the squash ahead, use squash you've got, or prepare it all in go. To do the latter:
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Start with the squash. Cut it in half, scrape out the seeds (save these) and then cut into eights. Using a knife peel the skin from the flesh. Cut the flesh into cubes and place in a roasting dish or aluminum packet, sealed. Place in the hot oven and make sure the stock is still simmering.
Now with the lovely crunchy stuff. Combine the guanciale, sage, and seeds in a roasting dish and sprinkle with just a touch of olive oil. Place this in the oven next to the squash and let it do its thing. When you start to smell the guanciale mingling with the sage, check on it and give it a stir. Leave the squash alone. Keep an eye on the crunchy confetti as you tend to the rice. When the bacon's done (about 15 to 20 minutes later) retrieve the chunks out with a slotted spoon and place it all on a paper towel to drain and cool. Let it hang out there until you're done with the rest of the dish.
Saute the onion in a bit of olive oil over medium heat. When it's translucent (you're not browning anything here) add the rice and stir to coat each grain with a slick of olive oil. Add a little more if you need to here. When the rice is shiny and warmed from two minutes in the pan add the glass of wine. Stir and keep stirring until the wine dissolves. Now it's time to use that stock.
Add a ladleful and stir. At this point, everyone has their theories on when to add the next bit of stock and what to do in between. My way—just don't let anything scorch or the starch stick to the pan. I give it a few stirs, but the risotto is very forgiving when you need to talk with a friend about mean bosses, weird office dynamics, and her crazy work load.
Repeat this cycle (conversation optional) until you're out of stock. If you get to this point and the rice isn't quite done just add hot water. It won't kill it. Promise. Have a friend (or you can do this during one of those rounds where you don't stir the rice) mash the now baked squash until it's smooth. Don't bother with the food processor. A fork works wonders. Add this mashed goodness to the rice after the last of the liquids. Grate in some nutmeg just until you smell it and start to feel better. Add the butter and as much parmesan as you'd like. Give it a stir. Cover and just leave it alone for a second. Now's a good time to set the table and open another bottle of wine.
To serve, spoon as much of the risotto as you'd like onto your plate. Sprinkle a handful of the crisped sage, guanciale, and seeds. Add more parmesan.
NOTE: If you don't want to bother with the seeds you can leave them out. But we're talking bacon fat roasted seeds. Why the hell not?