Working in Harvard Square like I do means I get my pick of some pretty great restaurants for my daily lunch. But since I’m on a tight budget, I only make it to the fancy-schmanzy places when I’m eating on someone else’s dime. Luckily, I have generous bosses with great taste, so I get to sample the hoity-toity fare pretty often – as I did last week at Harvest. The Harvard muckity-mucks flock to Harvest, so it’s a great powerful-people watching joint, and the restaurant is so civilized it’s hard not to feel a little muckity yourself when seated on their fine cushions in front of their roaring fireplace perusing their extensive wine list. Yet – and meaning no disrespect to head chef Mary Dumont — although the service is impeccable, the location charming, and the food good, I’ve never really been blown away by it. In fact, I’m usually underwhelmed by the number of menu choices, ambivalent about the way the flavors come together, and disappointed in their serving-size to price ratio (which leans heavily towards price). I mean, everything is fresh, artfully presented, and prepared with care, but I usually tell myself I could have made the same thing if not better, certainly cheaper. Granted, Lolita doesn’t have a staff to pay or high rent to shell out, nor do I have the training and skill of the chefs who certainly grace their kitchen. Still – I decided to test my theory, and recreate my mini-lunch of the other day as a maxi-dinner several nights later. The menu: wild mushroom (they used the term “foraged”, which I did – through Whole Foods’s mushroom bins) risotto with roasted butternut squash (they used delacata squash, which I could not find), smoked gouda, orange gremolata, and toasted hazelnuts. Theirs cost my dear benefactor $16 for my dining pleasure, and although I certainly enjoyed it – more than any other dish I’ve had from Harvest – I was left hungry afterwards by the teeny-tiny portion size. For about $25, I made the same dish for both the husbandman and myself: it looked virtually the same, tasted exactly the same, and this time truly satiated by hunger – and his as well. So, dear readers, here’s my riff off a high-falutin’ menu item from a chi-chi restaurant prepared by haute-cuisine hands. If you prefer to pay top dollar for your fancy-schmanzy, hoity-toity, muckity-muckity, high-falutin’ haute cuisine, read no further. But if you have a hankering for all the above on a common-woman shoe-string budget, just make it yourself. And be both happy AND full afterwards…
Wild Mushroom Risotto, Butternut Squash, Smoked Gouda, Orange Gremolata, Hazelnuts
1 medium butternut squash
8oz fresh assorted wild mushrooms
4 tbs butter, divided
4 cloves garlic
1 cup arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart mushroom broth
1 cup smoked gouda cheese
zest from 1 orange
zest from 1 lemon
2 tbs minced fresh parsley
1/2 cup shelled hazelnuts
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper
Whole Foods has some decent pre-packaged blends of wild mushrooms, but I decided to hand-pick some choices through their assortment of loose mushrooms to find some really fun ones to add to this plate. I’ve got one large portobello (the most mushroomy flavored variety), some shiitake, trumpet, chanterelle, and some weird, rubbery wood ears – which I can only imagine are called that because they truly seem and feel like the fleshy bits of the ear, and not like a fungus at all. This assortment represented the majority of my expense for this meal, but it was worth it.
After slicing and chopping my fungi, I add about a third of them to a hot skillet with some browned butter. Too many mushrooms at once, and they’ll all steam – so cooking them off in shifts to give them the chance to breathe is the best way to do so. Also, I resist the urge to stir them around a lot; the more they’re moved around, the more water they release, which will also steam them – and what I want here are nicely browned seared mushrooms.
I was surprised to see how the wood ear mushrooms acted in the heat. They literally blew up into little balloons which popped from time to time. I caught a decent shot of a ‘shroom-balloon above, right before it exploded, making me jump and splattering my lens with umame goodness. The rest of the fungi acted more demurely. I set each batch into a bowl to hold between more additions of butter and ‘shrooms, until they’re all ready. They reduce in volume by quite a bit – more than half – since they shrink when cooked. At this point, the house smells heavenly…
If you look back on previous posts of mine, you’ll see that I make risotto A LOT. It’s really the only way I know I’ll enjoy rice, seeing as I have a Puerto-Rican prejudice against it, having eaten way too much of it way too often in my formative years. I start by mincing my garlic, slicing my shallots, and measuring out my arborio. On the back burner of my stovetop, I use a stockpot to heat up my mushroom broth to just simmering.
The risotto is ready for the addition of more liquid when the well-and-oft-stirred rice has absorbed all the last liquid added to the pot.Adding about 4 oz (a ladle-full) of mushroom broth at a time, I cook well and stir often…
… until my dragging spoon exposes the bottom of the pan, indicating that that batch of broth has been sucked into the grains, softening them and coaxing from them the thick, creamy sauce risotto is known for. I keep adding stock in increments, stirring all the while, until it’s all gone.
After about 30 minutes, my risotto is rich and silky. I test for doneness by tasting a grain; it should be just al dente, a little firm (but not chalky) in the center of the kernel, but otherwise it should be a tender bite.
My squash has been roasting whole for the last hour or so, and it’s now soft and ready to carve into. Harvest’s plating was lovely; the squash formed a sort of angled demi-bowl, out from which the risotto seemed to spill. I approximated that as much as I could, but not wanting to waste perfectly good squash just to create a pretty form, all the flesh I scooped out of the bowl I layered on the plate below the rice so I could enjoy more of its sweetness and texture than the vessel alone provided.
The last two garnishes were very simple. First, I took my handful of hazelnuts and threw them into a bare pan, which I set over medium high heat. A few minutes and a few stirs (to toast them evenly throughout), and they were ready. I cracked them with a mallet to provide more texture.
A gremolata is a wonderful condiment for all sorts of preparations, and it’s usually made from parsley, garlic, and lemon zest. In this case, I substituted orange zest for the garlic, and mixed everything well. This imparts a bright flavor to my otherwise rich dish.
A sweet cutaway silo of butternut squash partially encases an earthy, creamy cascade of wild mushroom risotto, sitting on a simple puddle of extra virgin olive oil. The crunch of the hazelnuts and fresh zip of the gremolata provide textural and tasty complexity to the plate, which oozes warmth and goodness in each rich bite. Perfect for a cold night, or an elegant dinner party, this dish takes a little effort – both at the grocery store and in the kitchen – but its worth is evident in every grain of rice, from the first to the last. Enjoy!