THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
In October, the summer heat finally lets up here in Arizona and believe it or not, I actually look forward to the crisp Autumn days that come sometime between mid-September and late-October. Each year, I marvel that I am actually sated of fresh tomatoes and grilled scampi. I get excited about Porcini mushrooms and grilled stakes and return to drinking structured red wine without fearing that it will taste like vin brule.
As I was growing up in Tuscany I remember being easily impressed by the changing leaves, which turn vineyards planted on mountain slopes into tricolor landscapes of green, red and then finally, yellow. The light becomes transparent and infuses me with new vigor after the lazy hazy summer.
For me the fall, however, is also the season of delicious seasonal foods and the last harvest before winter. Hunters shoot their guns at sparrows and wild boars. It’s the time of the harvest and the first types of olive oil, the prime ingredient of every traditional Tuscan dish.
In most Mediterranean areas, olives are harvested in the months of November, December and January. But in Tuscany, where cooler valleys are sometimes touched with early frosts, the harvest can begin as early as the end of September. Early harvest means that the fruit is less ripe, and therefore produces less oil, making Tuscan olive oils a bit more rare than others. The less ripe olives also account for the prized peppery taste of Tuscan oil. Tuscans love this unique oil, and its arrival is always cause for celebration.
From the woods, chestnuts are the main ingredient of many poor, rural recipes, and in the Pistoia Apennines and the Garfagnana it is easy to taste chestnut cake, a local delicacy is made of chestnut flour.
Farmers slow traffic as they cart their grapes to wineries. In the Terre di Siena, the DOC Brunello di Montalcino is made. Not far away the Val d’Orcia is home of the Chianina cows from which the famous ‘Bistecca alla Fiorentina’ comes from.
During these months, Italians travel far and wide every weekend to attend different ‘sagre’ or food festivals to be able to enjoy the fruits of the forest in this very special time of year. We love our traditions and I, as many others ‘compaesani’, have been celebrating the arrival of fungi and chestnuts for hundreds of years, and this year is no exception.
No wonder that, when it came down to decide what type of CULINARY MISCHiEF to host in November, my answer was simple: A Six-Courses Autumn Celebration.
So you see now why each Fall, as the light changes and the evenings cool, I begin anticipating my favorite culinary season in Italy, a season whose distractions of truffles, porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and wine trick me into Winter every time.
Below i am sharing with you one of my favorire Italian recipes that is perfect for this season. Pair it with a wonderful glass of Brunello. It will feed your soul.
Butternut Squash Risotto with Mostarda di Cremona, Amaretti Cookies and Fried Sage Leaves
For the squash and risotto:
For the fried sage:
To roast the squash: Heat oven to 350°. Cut 1 squash in half lengthwise; remove and discard seeds. Place 1 tablespoon butter, 1 sprig rosemary and 1 sprig sage into the cavity of each half. Season flesh with salt and pepper, then wrap halves individually in aluminum foil. Put squash on a baking sheet, cavity-side up, and roast until very soft, about 2 hours.
Remove squash from oven and carefully unwrap; discard herbs. Scoop flesh from skins; discard skins. Purée flesh in a food processor until smooth (squash purée can be made up to 2 days ahead).
Peel and seed remaining squash; cut flesh into 1/8-inch dice.
To make the risotto: Combine 3 tablespoons of the remaining butter with oil in a large heavy pot and heat over medium heat until butter is melted. Add onion, season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add rice and increase heat to medium-high. Using a wooden spoon, stir until rice is opaque and begins to pop, 2 to 3 minutes. Add wine; cook, stirring, until wine is mostly evaporated, about 1 minute. Add enough broth to just cover the rice, about 2 cups. Actively simmer the broth, stirring and scraping rice away from sides of pot. Cook until broth is mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Add the diced (uncooked) squash and enough broth to just cover the rice mixture. Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until broth is mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes more. Add 1/2 cup broth; cook, stirring frequently, until broth is mostly evaporated. Continue cooking in this manner, adding broth in 1/2 cupfuls until the rice is just barely tender and all’onda (a bit liquid); you may have broth leftover.
To fry the sage: Heat oil in a small heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, then fry sage leaves in 3 batches, stirring, until crisp, 30 seconds to 1 minute per batch. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain.
To serve: Stir puréed squash and mostarda into risotto, then add cheese and remaining 3 tablespoons butter; stir to combine. Thin with a little more broth, if desired. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, garnished with amaretti, cheese and fried sage.