I was young. Maybe 9. Maybe 11. My parents had recently split up. Divorced. They lived separate lives in separate homes merely blocks from one another. My life changed, but for the better. The chaos that occupied the halls and rooms of that house was permanently silenced. The boxes and belongings were shipped off to the new house a few minutes away. I was shipped off with them.
Someone used to always be home when I returned backpack in hand after school. That changed. My mom worked out of city hall on the opposite end of the city. She would return around six each evening, exhausted but happy for the first time in some time. My days ended a few hours sooner, the school bell ringing shortly after three that afternoon. So I would go home and eagerly anticipate dinner and wait. And wait.
It wasn’t long before my mom started grocery shopping for items I could have while waiting for her. Snacks and canned goods that I could quickly heat up on the stove. The first days I cooked. Or at least heated things up. The ritual slowly began, surely and confidently. I would enter the safety net of home right after classes finished and head straight to the kitchen. I would grab the can opener, can and pot and turn the stove on. I would stand there stirring and stirring and tasting. And tasting. And then I would pour everything into a bowl and eat. And wait.
Some nights my mom would be stuck at work later. I usually knew with some advance warning. On those days I would grab something to eat and then grab my skates and gloves and stick and walk a few blocks to the nearest outdoor hockey rink. The one place on Earth where I could lose myself and the track of time. I would skate back and forth along the choppy ice chasing the puck and my youth. Over and over again like a pendulum. And then, when it felt just right, I’d be done.
I’m not sure when it started but I know how it felt. I made it to the final block where our new house sat and I panicked. A wave of fear washed over me. Did I turn off the stove? I did, right!? At that moment I ran as fast as I could past the remaining houses and up the steps to the door. I stumbled with the keys in my coat pocket before rushing through the door and into the kitchen. All was okay. Yet the feeling remained.
This was the beginning.
Each of those late work nights found me living the same day over again. School. Home for food. Out for hockey. Home again. And each time I started my walk home the panic befriended me. Did I forget this time? What if something bad happens? I should have just stayed and waited. And I ran. And ran. All the way. Bursting through that now familiar front door to find the stove off. Pot put away.
During those years the fear that followed any cooking I did stayed with me until I walked back into the kitchen to see everything in its rightful place. It stayed with me for years. Even as I grew into my teens and my cooking upgraded from canned goods, the suspicion remained. It never stalled my love for making food. It did its best though.
It probably explained my fear of risotto. At least early on. My attention span was limited and I didn’t know much about it except for the fact that it had to be watched over the entire time. So I always passed. Time and time again. And in the process I settled. Instead I bought packaged risotto figuring it would have to be similar. It also didn’t require the watchful eye that homemade risotto did. It’s not the same.
I remember the first time I conquered risotto. I was through University and on my own. One night I decided to make it for myself for dinner. On my way back from work I stopped at the market and picked up some mushrooms and Parmesan and Arborio rice. Nearby I picked up a dry bottle of white wine. I walked into my tiny kitchen and grabbed a recipe. I was playing close attention to the details. So I prepped the ingredients, warmed up the stock and had the wine ready. I had a glass and got to work.
Sitting down with the empty plate in front of me, I smiled. Like most things in life, the things that seem the most difficult usually don’t pan out that way. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. I made it again the very next night. And many times since. It’s one of those versatile dishes that can be switched up and taste remarkably different each time. Since those days it’s become a staple in our household. And one of my favourite meals.
Of all the risotto recipes I’ve had over the years, this might be my favourite. Salty, crispy pancetta and smooth, hearty butternut squash. Fresh chopped herbs and grated Parmesan. It’s rich, decadent and delicious and everything I thought it could be all those years ago. You have to pay close attention during the process, but it’s made from start to finish in under thirty minutes. And worth every second.
From my kitchen to yours,
Squash & Pancetta Risotto
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 4 pancetta slices, roughly chopped
- 1 cup butternut squash, peeled and diced
- 3 thyme sprigs
- 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 1 leek, cut in half and washed, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 3/4 cups Arborio rice
- 100 ml white wine
- 3 cups chicken stock
- 1/8 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for plating
- 2 tbsp. thyme, leaves only
- 2 tbsp. watercress, chopped
- 1 tsp. kosher salt & cracked pepper
- Heat the oil in a pan and saute the pancetta for a couple of minutes until crispy. Remove and pat dry in towel and set aside.
- Keep the stock in a pan over medium-low heat on a back burner.
- Using a saucepan, add the squash and thyme over medium heat until the squash golden, about 10 minutes. Add a quarter cup of water and reduce heat to a simmer and cook until tender. Once tender, remove from heat and set aside.
- Melt butter in a medium saucepan and add in the garlic and leeks. Cook for about five minutes. Add the rice, cooking for two minutes, stirring often. Add in the wine and let reduce completely down.
- Once reduced, add a ladle of stock, stirring regularly. Wait until the stock is fully absorbed into the rice. Once done, add another ladle of stock. Repeat the process.
- Once the rice is almost fully cooked, add in the squash and pancetta. When the rice is fully cooked, stir in the grated cheese, thyme and watercress. Season and plate. Grate cheese.
- Serves two.