Nostalgia is one of the most powerful tools in the chef’s arsenal. It’s a direct line to the hearts and minds of your guests. It’s that smell from mama’s kitchen. It’s that flavor, which will always remind you of home. Or that memory of togetherness around a family table, the food you ate and the happy memories you shared. Would it surprise you to know that nostalgia is a topic taught in culinary school? Well it is, and for very good reason because with nostalgia you can create a dish that will not only taste divine, but also speaks to the diner’s soul. That’s how pumpkin risotto ended up on my menu.
Pumpkin risotto is an extremely versatile dish that combines sweet earthy flavors with rich, creamy textures and a salty, spicy snap at the end of each bite. The pumpkin adds a weight to the palate that takes this from being just another rice dish to becoming a centerpiece of the meal. It’s warming and speaks to that part of us that loves home cooking, yet it easily translates well into fine dining.
When it comes to a wine pairing, you could go with an earthy Italian white with brisk acidity or a Barbera, but I wanted something a little different and I’m glad I chose the route of exploration. Ever since I first developed this recipe, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to pair it with a spicy, new-world wine. Let’s just say, I was not disappointed. The Ridge Geyserville, accentuated the sweet spice in this dish, while taming the heat from the pumpkin seeds. Add to that, a slightly firm structure and pop of acidity that cut through the pumpkin stock and rich butter–and you have a match made in heaven.
Geyserville is essentially a field blend, made primarily from Zinfandel, along with Carignane, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre. Not only is it irresistible in its youth, but it’s also a great candidate for short-term cellaring.
Pumpkin Risotto (with peas and spicy pumpkin seeds)
5 oz. unsalted butter
1⁄4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1 quart of chicken stock
1 cup of water
1⁄4 cup white wine
1 shallot (chopped fine)
15 oz. pumpkin puree
1 1/3 cups risotto rice
3/4 cup English peas (can use frozen green peas)
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese grated fine
3 Tbls. Pumpkin seeds
Salt and pepper
Fresh sage (garnish)
To cook the peas, prepare an ice bath and pour the chicken stock and one cup of water into a pot and bring to a simmer. Pour the peas into the simmering chicken stock and allow them to heat through for four minutes. Then remove them from the pot and place into the ice bath for two minutes before removing them to reserve for later use. Lastly, whisk (10 oz.) of the pumpkin puree into the warm stock and set aside for when you are ready to cook the risotto.
In a sauté pan over a medium-‐low flame, melt two ounces of butter. Once the butter has melted and come up to temperature, add the pumpkin seeds, cayenne pepper and a hefty pinch of salt. Raise the flame to medium and toss the pumpkin seeds in the butter and pepper mixture. Once the seeds have toasted, pour them into a bowl and keep them in a warm location until ready to use.
When you are ready to make the risotto, place a medium size pan over a medium-‐ low flame. Add two ounces of butter. Once the butter has melted, add the shallots, a pinch of salt and allow the shallots to sweat. When the shallots have sweated and begun to turn translucent, add the rice and stir to coat the rice in butter (if the mixture looks too dry, you can add a little more butter before adding the rice).
Raise the flame to medium and continue to stir vigorously for about one to two minutes. However, do not allow the rice or shallots to take on any color. Add the wine and stir it into the rice until it cooks off. Return the flame to medium-‐low and add the last half (5 oz.) of pumpkin puree, the cinnamon and nutmeg. Stir to combine completely and add your first ladle full of stock.
At this time, the risotto should take anywhere between 17 and 19 minutes to finish, and throughout that time you should be stirring regularly. After adding the ladle of the stock and pumpkin mixture, stir the rice slowly but regularly. Be careful with heat management with this recipe, because the pumpkin puree can burn if not stirred regularly up from the bottom of the pan. As soon as the first ladle of stock has absorbed or evaporated by half, add another ladle full.
Continue like this for 10 – 12 minutes and add a good pinch of salt to the rice. Add more stock and continue to stir. As you approach 16 minutes of cooking time, taste the rice to test the degree of doneness, all the while continuing with the process of adding stock and stirring. At 17 minutes, add the peas, stir in completely and taste again for doneness.
When the rice is done (al dente), add the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and the last of the butter. Stir to combine completely and taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper as needed. (Seasoning is what really brings out the pumpkin flavor in this recipe. Without it, it will seem bland.) If the rice seems too thick, add a little more stock to loosen it up.
Plate the risotto into warmed bowls and top with the toasted pumpkin seeds and a rough chop of sage leaves. Serve.
2013 Ridge Geyserville – Rich, decadent yet wonderfully vibrant on the nose, showing blueberry, raspberry, sweet herbs, spice, a hint of vanilla and cola. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by vibrant acidity with concentrated red and blue fruits, spice and a hint of licorice. The finish was long with dark, spicy fruits and cola. This is drop dead gorgeous today, yet still tightly wrapped up in its youth. (92 points)
Article and tasting notes: Eric Guido