Saffron & Butternut Squash Risotto

On my old blog, I had a pretty basic recipe for butternut squash risotto, which is still my go-to for a cold winter's night. However, this recipe takes this simple dish over the top with the addition of pancetta (or bacon) and saffron. The smoky bacon and rich and subtle saffron add not only beautiful color, but also a depth of flavor that brings this relatively ordinary meal a very special quality. Saffron & Butternut Squash Risotto (adapted from The Barefoot Contessa, Family Style)

1 butternut squash (2 pounds)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper

5 cups chicken stock

2 tablespoons butter

2 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced

1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 teaspoon saffron threads

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. Place the squash on a sheet pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside.

Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and sauté the pancetta and shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes, until the rice has absorbed it. Add 1/2 cup of stock to the rice plus the saffron, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir, and simmer until the stock is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Continue to add the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry, then add more stock. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 30 minutes total. Off the heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan cheese. Mix well and serve.

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

Though I studied abroad in Bologna almost three years ago, sometimes it still feels like it's only been a few months. My favorite part of the whole experience was the cooking lessons we were lucky enough to take with Rita, an amazing woman who runs two restaurants in Sardinia and her own cooking school in Bologna. Every meal we made with her consisted of several courses, lots of wine, and wonderful conversation. I still remember learning how to debone a fish (she made it look effortless; it was in fact very difficult), create handmade pasta, and deep-fry artichokes. However, the recipe that sticks in my mind (particularly on cold January nights) is her tagliatelle all bolognese. In Italy, every grandmother has her own bolognese recipe, and each of them will insist that it's the best. This one is my favorite because it was the first I ever had. Rita told us that you know that a bolognese is done when no one flavor overpowers the others, and I think that this one creates a perfect harmony of creamy tomato, salty pancetta, and hearty beef. Also, if you ever see a recipe that instructs you to use spaghetti or fettucine, don't listen to them . True Bolognese know that the only way to serve their namesake sauce is with tagliatelle.

Rita's Tagliatelle alla Bolognese

1 lb tagliatelle (good quality dried noodles or handmade fresh pasta is best)

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 lb ground beef

2 oz pancetta or prosciutto, roughly chopped

1/4 white onion, finely chopped

1 carrot, finely chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 clove garlic

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup red wine

10 oz tomato sauce

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1/3 cup beef or vegetable broth

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Cook the vegetables until soft, five to seven minutes. Crush the garlic with the side of your knife, leaving the skin on. Add the garlic and bay leaf to the pan and cook for one minute. Add the pancetta or prosciutto and cook until soft, two to three minutes. Increase the heat to medium and add the ground beef and brown, about five minutes. Pour in the wine and cook until it reduces slightly, then remove the garlic clove and the bay leaf and discard. Add the tomato sauce and paste, broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, covered, for an hour and a half or until all of the flavors have melded together.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the directions. Toss with ragù and serve with freshly grated parmigianno reggiano.