Last week sometime I started working on menus for dead people. That is, what I would cook for people that I like who happen to be dead – if they were alive. Because sometimes I’ll take inspiration where ever I can get it. I was halfway through a cabbage gruel menu for Emma Goldman when I realized that there are people among the living who inspire me. People who might actually appreciate the recipes. People who might not live at the turn of the 20th century and live on cabbage and potatoes. And so this is the first of what I’m calling Virtual Dinner Dates.
Today’s dinner was inspired by Pattrice Jones. Chili Pumpkin Cranberry Risotto with Spicy Toasted Pumpkin Seeds. Pattrice mentioned liking chilies and cranberry and so that’s where the idea came from, but I also had a lot of chilies left over from last week’s Chile Fest and some dried cranberries that were like “Use me already!”
And chilies are very fitting for Pattrice, since she takes care of a bird sanctuary. Chili peppers were able to evolve as they have because birds’ taste receptors are immune to the heat of capsaicin, which is the compound that makes chili peppers hot. To them it’s just a big succulent berry. So if you’ve ever seen chili peppers in a bag of bird feed, that’s why. It’s not because of some sort of bird machismo. (Click here to hear how capsaicin is pronounced, it’s fun.)
Now, I’ll admit that the cranberries sound a little out of place – but they aren’t adding a strong cranberry taste, just a little bit of tanginess, along with the lime, to contrast with the nutty sweetness of the pumpkin. But this isn’t a sweet dish per se, it’s savory with the garlic, onion and pumpkin and pulled together with creamy coconut milk. Top it off with spicy, crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds to fancy it up. I always like to use the seeds from a pumpkin because it feels like you’re a survivalist using the whole animal.
Chili Pumpkin Cranberry Risotto with Spicy Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
3 lb sugar pumpkin, or any winter squash (butternut, kabocha, acorn, what have you)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced small
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 hot red chilies, seeded and thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/3 cup dry white wine
5 cups vegetable broth, kept warm on the stove top
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (grate it fresh if you can)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
juice of one lime
1 teaspoon agave or pure maple syrup
For the pumpkin seeds, if using:
2 teaspoons paprika
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon salt
First the pumpkin needs to be roasted. I would suggest doing this well in advance of preparing the risotto for two reasons. One, you’ll need it to cool down so you can peel and chop it. And two, that way it doesn’t seem like you’re cooking for so long and the actual risotto takes only about 35 minutes. If you’re using pumpkin you can also roast the seeds to use as a garnish. Yeah, you can roast the seeds of other squashes, I just don’t think they taste very good.
So. To prepare the pumpkin and seeds: Preheat oven to 350 F. Hack pumpkin in half and remove the seeds and stringy bits with a tablespoon. Reserve the seeds and place them in a colander to clean. Lightly oil a baking sheet and place the pumpkin face down on sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes, or until easily pierced with a fork, but not completely mushy. Once cooled, peel off the skin and chop pumpkin into bite sized pieces.
In the meantime, wash the pumpkin seeds and dry completely with a kitchen towel. Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle lightly with a little olive oil, toss to coat. You can toast them in the oven while the pumpkin bakes, it usually takes about 15 minutes. Toss once or twice. Remove from oven and place in a bowl to cool. Once cooled, sprinkle with the spices to coat.
And now and only now, are you ready to actually start the risotto. Have your broth ready and warming on the stove before you begin.
Preheat a heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Saute the onion, garlic, ginger and chilies in the oil for about 7 minutes, stirring often so you don’t burn it. Add the risotto and stir to coat with oil. Add wine to deglaze the pot, then add first cup of vegetable broth. Use a wooden spoon to stir until most of the water is absorbed. You don’t have to stir the entire time, just as frequently as you can stand.
Continue adding veggie broth then stirring a few more times, until only a cup of broth is left. When you’re at the last cup, add the pumpkin and cranberries and repeat stirring. When most of the liquid has absorbed, add salt, nutmeg, cinnamon and lime juice. Stir in coconut milk. Cook for about 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and adjust salt. At this point you can also add a teaspoon or so of agave. This doesn’t make it sweet per se, it just enhances the natural sweetness of the squash and cranberries.
Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving, to let the flavors “marry.” Scoop into bowls and garnish with pumpkin seeds.