Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto with Brown Butter & Sage
This rich, comforting, and utterly delicious Butternut Squash Risotto showcases a favorite Italian flavor trio—brown butter, squash, and sage—in a creative, memorable way.
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This risotto was born from my aspiration of incorporating pistachios in savory dishes more often, a habit I picked up after traveling through Sicily back in the summer of 2015. As one of the pistachio-producing capitals of the world, Sicily isn’t shy about using the delicious, bright green nut in all sorts of contexts, but to my surprise, all my favorite discoveries were savory. I enjoyed them sprinkled over a wide variety of dishes during the trip, as I quickly trained my eyes to spot them in menus. I just couldn’t get enough of the soft, almost creamy taste they contributed to delicately flavored creations, such as fish and seafood pasta dishes.
I like to say that risotto is my favorite weeknight dish, because, in its basic form, it comes together quickly and easily. This Roasted Butternut Squash Risotto is perfect for those nights when you want to impress: the combination of flavors is nothing short of spectacular. You might be familiar with the classic Italian flavor trio of butternut squash, brown butter, and sage, but have you ever had it in a risotto? The soft cubes of squash cozily blend into the creamy rice, the brown butter adds a nutty dimension, and the aromatic fried sage leaves add a subtle crunch, which is nicely complemented by the pistachios.
Though this butternut squash risotto definitely makes for an elegant holiday-worthy dish, don’t wait and make it on a weeknight, too! You can roast the butternut squash in advance, meal-prep style, and freeze it in portions so you’re ready to use it in this risotto whenever you get a craving for it. Just make sure to shave off 5 minutes from the roasting time to account for the fact that the freezing and thawing process tends to make vegetables more tender. Thaw the roasted butternut squash in the fridge overnight or by leaving it at room temperature for 30 minutes. Once the risotto is done, stir in the butternut squash as indicated, serve in simple bowls and enjoy it curled up on the sofa under a warm blanket, with a nice glass of wine and a movie. This is my definition of the perfect night in.
How to Make Brown Butter
Making brown butter may sound complicated and intimidating, but it’s actually very easy and takes just a few minutes. Once you’ve learned how to make brown butter, you will want to use the deliciously nutty concoction in a variety of dishes, from this butternut squash risotto to French financiers and blondies and so many more irresistible desserts!
To make brown butter, place the diced butter in a small stainless steel saucepan. A stainless steel saucepan makes the color of the butter more conspicuous, which will help you know when it’s ready to pull off the heat. Set over medium heat and stir until the butter is completely melted. Keep simmering over medium-low heat, swirling the pot from time to time. As the water evaporates, the butter will bubble up. This may prevent you from properly seeing what color the butter is, so, from time to time, simply lift the saucepan off the heat and gently swirl it for a few seconds until the bubbles recede, check whether the butter has started browning, then put it back on the heat if the butter is not ready.
Brown butter is ready when the milk solids at the bottom of the pot turn golden brown and the concoction gives off a deliciously nutty aroma. When it does, remove the butter from the heat, pour it into a small bowl, and let cool completely. (The whole process should take about 5 minutes.)
Helpful Tips for Making this Butternut Squash Risotto
Use the very best ingredients to make the very best risotto: As is often the case with simple, Italian-inspired dishes, using the very best ingredients you can get your hands on or afford makes the biggest difference in terms of the flavor of your final dish. In this butternut squash risotto, I encourage you to use low-sodium broth, or even use homemade broth if you have some on hand, as it most likely will impart a softer, milder flavor to the risotto. Also, use quality risotto rice for the creamiest texture—Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano are all good picks—and please, please, please, only use Parmigiano-Reggiano as your cheese of choice. Learn why Parmigiano-Reggiano is my cheese of choice for any risotto, but especially this smooth-flavored butternut squash risotto, below!
Give Pecorino Romano a try: Parmigiano-Reggiano is often used in risotto recipes, but in this one, I like to use Pecorino Romano instead. Pecorino Romano is a hard Italian cheese made with sheep’s milk. It has a sharp, slightly peppery flavor and it’s super aromatic, which means it’s just the thing to balance out the milder, sweeter flavors of roasted butternut squash and brown butter. Be aware that Pecorino Romano is quite salty, in fact, it’s saltier than Parmigiano-Reggiano, so you’ll need to use less to provide flavor and creaminess to the dish. Make sure to wait until you’ve stirred in the Pecorino Romano cheese into the risotto before adding any salt to the recipe; depending on the cheese, you might not need to season the risotto at all.
Easily scale up the recipe to serve the number of guests you’re treating: Most risotto recipes serve 4 to 6, with ingredient quantities that are hard to split into halves or thirds. This has always annoyed me because I usually make risotto for 2 people. So I’m writing all my risotto recipes to serve 2, which means the math is easier to scale up the ingredients to serve 4 or 6 guests. Note that this butternut squash risotto recipe produces a generous 2-serving yield—you could stretch it to 3 servings if this dish is part of a more elaborate menu that includes appetizers and sides.
Add garnishes to give your risotto a chef’s touch: This butternut squash risotto is gorgeous and ready-to-eat as soon as it’s finished cooking. But if you can take a few extra minute to top each serving with fresh, textured ingredients such as fried sage leaves, lemon zest, pistachio nuts, and a final drizzle of that aromatic brown butter to push it to chef’s levels, both in terms of looks and textures.
For the roasted butternut squash: Preheat the oven to 425°F (210°C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the cubes of butternut squash over the sheet, then drizzle with the olive oil and season with a pinch of salt and some freshly ground black pepper. Toss to coat evenly, then spread the cubes back over the sheet so they all sit in a single layer. Roast for 15 minutes, or until the squash cubes feel soft when you poke them with the tip of a knife. (Start checking around the 12-minute mark because you don't want the cubes to turn to mush!) Broil for 1-2 minutes to give color, if desired. Remove from the oven and set aside. (You can prepare the roasted butternut squash in advance, let it cool, then refrigerate it in an airtight container for up to 2 days.)
For the brown butter: Heat the butter in a small stainless steel saucepanset over medium heat. Stir until completely melted and simmering. Keep on cooking over low heat, swirling the pot from time to time. The butter will bubble up as the water evaporates, which will prevent you from watching closely over the color changing. When that happens, lift the pot off the heat for a few seconds, swirling it gently until the bubbles recede, then put back on the heat. The butter is ready when the milk solids at the bottom of the pot turn a light brown color and the concoction gives off a delicious hazelnut aroma.When the butter is browned, remove the pan from the heat, pour in a small bowl, and let cool completely for 10 minutes.
For the fried sage leaves: In a small nonstick skillet set over medium-high heat, heat the olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add the sage leaves, making sure they lay flat in the oil. Fry about a few seconds, keeping a close eye on the skillet, until the sage leaves shrink a bit. Carefully turn the leaves over and fry for a few seconds more, until they’re dark and crisp. The leaves should not be burnt or black: lift the skillet off from the heat if the leaves seem to fry too quickly. Once done, transfer the leaves to paper towels to drain. Set aside.
For the butternut squash risotto: Pour the vegetable broth in a saucepan, then add the minced sage. Set over medium heat and warm up just until simmering. Lower the heat to the minimum just to keep warm.
In a large saute pan or a cast-iron braiser set over medium-low heat, add half of the brown butter (make sure to stir the brown butter before you spoon some to catch some of the browned bits), then stir in the olive oil. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the risotto rice and stir for 2 minutes, until the grains are translucent around the edges. Add the wine and stir vigorously while the wine is bubbling up, scraping down the bottom of the pan to loosen the caramelized bits. Simmer until the wine is fully absorbed. Add 1 ladleful of the broth and simmer, stirring from time to time, until the broth is almost completely absorbed. Continue adding broth, one ladleful at a time, allowing each ladle to be absorbed before adding more.
When there's about 1 cup (250 ml) of broth left, stir in the roasted butternut squash into the risotto. Add ½ cup (125 ml) broth, stir and keep cooking until the broth is almost fully absorbed. Stir in the grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Stir until the cheese is fully melted and incorporated. Stir in the lemon zest and juice. Season with black pepper, taste the risotto, and season with salt if needed. Stir in the remaining broth. The risotto should now be loose and super creamy. Cover and turn off the heat. The risotto can stand for about 5 minutes but should be served as soon as possible for the best texture.
SERVING: Serve the butternut squash risotto in warm bowls. Garnish each serving with some of the remaining brown butter, then garnish with chopped pistachio nuts and additional lemon zest, if desired. Finish with some freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.
NOTE: You'll need about ¼ of a medium squash for this recipe. To prepare the squash, first peel it using a vegetable peeler. Then, slice the squash in half, and seed both halves using a spoon. Finally, dice the flesh until you have enough for this recipe. You can also dice the remaining flesh and freeze it in portions to use in future risotto or in other recipes.
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