Fall is my favorite time of year, and Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (it’s like Christmas without all the hustle, bustle, and hassle). Many cooks prefer the seasonal bounties of spring and summer, and while English peas rate as my all-time favorite vegetable, I appreciated the often overlooked and incredibly versatile squash and root vegetables that represent the autumn months.
When you think of side dishes for Thanksgiving, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, and green bean casserole may come to mind, but I like to introduce a little orange at the table with a simple but satisfying carrot-rutabaga mash and a surprisingly simple butternut squash risotto.
Don’t be afraid of risotto — it’s not as hard as those TV chefs make it look. Like all Italian recipes, it’s about starting with the right ingredients and timing. My mother actually didn’t call this dish risotto, she called it zucca e riso, or squash and rice. She sometimes used pumpkin in her recipe, but you can use any fresh squash you have available. Like my mom, I always add fresh sages leaves from our garden — I love the flavor of sage and squash together, but it’s completely optional.
Thankfully, this version doesn’t involve standing over the pot and constantly stirring, yet it’s rich and creamy just like its more labor-intensive counterparts. For tools, I highly recommend an enameled cast iron Dutch oven (like Le Creuset or Staub), a sturdy, sharp chef’s knife, and a wooden spoon — essentials every serious home cook should have. If you don’t have a good chef’s knife (or you don’t feel comfortable working with hard squash), you can find cubed butternut squash at most markets.
Zucca e Riso (Squash and Rice)
1 cup yellow onion, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 cup celery, cut into 1-inch chunks
3 tablespoons good-quality olive oil
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 to 4 fresh sage leaves (optional)
1 tablespoon kosher salt, divided
5 to 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 butternut squash (about 4 cups or 1 pound), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice (it’s important to use Italian short-grain rice for the high starch content, which gives risotto its trademark creaminess)
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, plus more for the table
Freshly cracked pepper
Using a food processor or a blender, mince onion and celery to a fine, paste-like consistency. Set aside.
Add olive oil and 3 tablespoons unsalted butter to a Dutch oven (or a heavy, low-walled stock pot) over medium heat. When butter melts completely, add sage leaves and stir constantly for about 1 minute to release oils. Add onion and celery paste with a pinch of salt and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, or until dry. Add stock, stir, and bring to a boil. Add squash, salt, rice, and stir to combine.
Return to a boil, cover, and reduce heat so the mixture bubbles gently. Simmer until rice and squash are cooked through and creamy, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Turn off heat, uncover, and add 2 tablespoons butter, stirring constantly until thoroughly incorporated. Add cheese and stir until combined. Ladle risotto into bowls, and serve immediately with extra cheese and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
8 medium carrots, peeled and roughly chopped into uniform pieces
2 medium rutabagas, peeled and roughly chopped into pieces same size as carrots
1 teaspoon kosher salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Freshly cracked pepper
Place carrots and rutabagas in a medium stockpot and fill with cold water, about 1 inch above the vegetables. Add salt and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, 45 to 50 minutes (a knife should go through them easily). Remove from heat, drain thoroughly in a colander, return to the pot, and add butter. Smash with a potato masher or in a food processor until smooth but not totally puréed. Season liberally with pepper and a few pinches of sea salt to taste.
Serve as you would mashed potatoes, covered with gravy or topped with butter.