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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 12:01 am

January conundrum

PHOTO BY PETER GLATZ

 

It happens every January. After the indulgence of the holidays, I crave lighter meals. But when January’s frigid temperatures, bone-chilling winds, freezing rain, sleet and snow hit I equally crave foods that are hearty and warmly satisfying.

Here are two of my favorite comfort food recipes that bridge that gap.

This recipe comes from my husband, Peter. A big part of what makes it so special is the combination of baked, mashed squash and roasted, caramelized squash cubes, which adds character and depth to an otherwise simple preparation. Don’t let the idea of preparing the butternut squash two different ways intimidate you; they cook together on the same baking sheet with minimal fuss.

Butternut squash risotto

  • 1 1/2-2 lb. butternut squash
  • Olive oil
  • 1 1/2 c. Arborio rice
  • 4 c. unsalted or low-sodium chicken stock, plus a little additional if needed or substitute vegetable stock
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. finely diced onion, not super sweet
  • 1 T. chopped, fresh sage or rosemary
  • 4 T. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1/2 c. dry white wine or dry vermouth
  • 3/4–1 c. freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or aged Asiago cheese
  • Freshly ground pepper (preferably white) to taste
  • Chopped flat-leaf parsley or fried sage leaves for garnish, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise with a large knife and scoop out the seeds. Brush the cut edge of one squash half lightly with olive oil and place cut side down on a non-stick baking sheet or a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Peel the other squash half and cut into ½-inch cubes. Toss with just enough olive oil to barely coat and scatter in a single layer on the baking sheet alongside the squash half.

Put the baking sheet in the oven and roast, stirring the squash cubes occasionally for 30–40 minutes or until the squash half can be easily pierced with a knife and the cubes are done and lightly caramelized on the outside. The cooking times are roughly equal for the half and the cubes. Remove the pan from the oven and set the cubes aside.

When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh from the squash half and mash it, then put it into the stock along with the salt. Heat the stock/squash mixture on the stove or in the microwave and keep warm while cooking the risotto.

In a large, heavy pan, heat the butter over medium-high heat and then add the onion and sage or rosemary. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and translucent but not browned, 3–5 minutes. Add the rice to the pan and cook a few minutes more until the rice has absorbed most of the butter and has become somewhat translucent. Add the wine or vermouth and continue to stir until the wine is almost completely absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add enough of the stock mixture to cover the rice by about 1 inch.

Cook at a very low simmer, stirring very frequently. As the liquid is absorbed, add additional stock to keep the rice covered. When the stock mixture has been absorbed, check the rice. It should be cooked through but still firm to the tooth. Total cooking time should be about 30 minutes.

When the rice is cooked, add the reserved squash cubes and heat through. Stir in the cheese and pepper and check the seasoning. Serve immediately, garnished with chopped parsley or fried sage leaves.

Serves 4 – 6.

To fry sage leaves: Wash and dry fresh sage leaves. Dip into beaten egg whites and fry in oil heated to 375 F until the sage is crisp. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle a few leaves on top of each bowl.

In the pantheon of great chicken soups, none is better than Mexico’s tortilla soup. That said, a tasty vegetarian version can also be made. Pasilla chiles, one of the most critical elements of both versions, are surprisingly easy to find in most local groceries. Another critical ingredient is the tortilla chips. Most authentic Mexican recipes call for strips of corn tortillas to be fried and added just before serving. While that’s wonderful, I’ve found that tortilla chips work as well, especially if you can find small-batch chips made by an independent company instead of mega-snack corporations.

My favorites come from El Milagro, a store-front tortellaria in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood that is the essential heart of Mexican Chicago. Folks line up out the door to buy their stone-ground corn tortillas, chips and tostadas, as well as two different kinds of freshly made masa dough: one for tortillas, the other for tamales to make at home.

Here in Springfield, I routinely find El Milagro chips at Montvale Schnucks as well as occasionally at other groceries.  
 
Tortilla soup

  • Approximately 1 generous handful of best-quality tortilla chips per serving
  • 2 T. unhydrogenated lard or vegetable oil, divided, plus additional for frying the pasilla chiles
  • 1 c. coarsely chopped white onion,not super sweet
  • 2-4 cloves chopped garlic
  • 2/3 c. drained canned tomatoes
  • 6 c. unsalted or low sodium chicken stock or substitute vegetable stock
  • Salt
  • 4–6 dried pasilla chiles
  • 1 1/2 c. cubed queso fresco or farmer’s cheese
  • 1 1/2 cubed ripe hass avocado (1–2 avocados)
  • 1–2 c. cooked chicken cut into bite-sized pieces, optional
  • Lime wedges for garnish

With a brush or paper towel, dust off as much salt from the tortilla chips as possible. Set aside.

In a medium skillet large enough to hold at least one whole pasilla chile, heat 1 tablespoon of the lard or oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and stir to coat the vegetables. Cover the skillet and let the vegetables sweat until they have softened, about 5 minutes.

Uncover the skillet, lower the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions and garlic have caramelized to a dark golden color, about 20 minutes. Cool slightly and put in the container of an electric blender or food processor. Add the tomato and process until smooth.

Return the skillet to the stove. Add the remaining tablespoon of lard or oil and heat over medium high heat. Add the onion/tomato mixture and stir-fry until the mixture has thickened and is much darker, about 5 minutes. Scrape the mixture into a large pot.

Add the stock to the pot and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat so that it is barely simmering, cover, and cook for at least 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Wipe the skillet clean with paper towels and add oil to reach a depth of ½ inch to 1 inch. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the pasilla chiles one at a time and fry just until they are puffed and crisp, turning as necessary. This should only take a few seconds. Drain on paper towels.

If you are using the chicken, add it to the simmering broth and let the chicken heat through. Divide the cheese and avocado cubes among 4–6 warmed soup plates. Ladle the soup into bowls. Serve with a toasted pasilla chile alongside each dish so that each diner can crumble in as much of the chile as he or she desires. Pass the lime wedges and tortilla chips at the table.

Serves 4 – 6.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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