Recipe: Risotto with Butternut Squash, Leeks, Parmigiano, and Aged Balsamic Vinegar
In my many years as a devotee of Italian cooking, I’ve several times bought bottles of long-aged, very expensive balsamic vinegar, usually on trips to Italy. I wanted them so badly, with their medieval-looking red wax consortium seal of approval. They’re beautiful, packaged like perfume—so beautiful, in fact, that at times I’ve been scared to use them. Is this the right dish? Is it worthy? Will I be wasting this precious syrup? I’m talking about the real artisanally made balsamico, not the supermarket balsamic that’s mostly red wine vinegar with a little caramel added (although there’s really nothing wrong with that product—it’s fine for dressing salads or adding to marinades—it’s just not real aceto balsamico).
At some point I finally got over my fear of wasting aged balsamico and got on with using it the way they do in Italy, drizzled on cantaloupe or on a chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, or on grilled scallops or lamb chops, or over braised cannellini beans, or on fresh figs or vanilla ice cream. I’ve tried sipping some as a fine after dinner drink, the way they do in Modena, but I wasn’t crazy about it. Maybe my bottle wasn’t good enough. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, like drinking Amaro, the bitter herb liqueur, which I now love but at first sipping thought tasted like poison.
Balsamic vinegar originated in Emilia Romagna, in the provinces of Modena and Reggio. It’s been made there for almost a thousand years. Artisanal aceto balsamico must be aged for at least 12 years, and the really special stuff is usually aged longer, getting richer and mellower with time. Real balsamic vinegar should contain no wine vinegar or caramel. It’s made primarily from the juice of Trebbiano grapes, a white wine grape, which is cooked so that it caramelizes ( unlike wine vinegar, which is made by turning alcohol into acid, balsamic vinegar is made by turning sugar into acid). It’s then aged in a progression of casks made from different types of wood until it reaches a mahogany-colored, sweet-tart, wood-kissed, syrupy consistency. A great one tastes to me like a tangy port.
I recently heard very good things about a balsamic vinegar made in New Mexico, of all places. Aceto Balsamico of Monticello is a company started in 1998 by a group of organic farmers who took it upon themselves to start producing balsamic vinegar in true Northern Italian style. This is a huge undertaking. Not only does producing artisanal balsamico take years, but there’s the mystique, history, and peculiarly Italian austere glamor surrounding its production that almost makes it sacrilegious to try. But I guess they figured what the hell and gave it a whirl.
Aceto Balsamico of Monticello makes its vinegar the way it’s made by artisans in Emilia Romagna, using organically grown Trebbiano grapes and wood casks from a master cask maker, Francesco Renzi of Modena. The vinegar is aged 12 years, as required by Italian code, so the company is just coming out with its first batches now. They even feel that Monticello, New Mexico, has an advantage over Modena, because its low humidity allows for a quicker evaporation, concentrating the flavors of the grapes. I suppose this speeds up the aging process slightly, making the vinegar more viscous faster. You can check out their website, www.organicbalsamic.com, for more details on how and why they do what they do.
I ordered a bottle of Aceto Balsamico of Monticello, and I’m glad I did. To me this New Mexico balsamic tastes as lovely as much of the good stuff I’ve brought back from Italy. It’s got that woody port flavor and deep, blackish red color, very much like the best bottles I’ve carried back with me. And I can only imagine that if they can keep it up their vinegar will get even richer and deeper as the years go on.
To show off my new balsamico, I created a simple risotto with leeks, Parmigiano, and butternut squash, three ingredients that to my palate really show off an aged balsamic vinegar’s lush beauty.
Oh, and by the way, that strange spoon with the hole in the center in the photo at top is an actual risotto cooking spoon. It was given to me by my cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli when I was working on my first book. The idea is that as you keep stirring the rice, the hole allows the liquid in the pan to stay at a steady flow, with no drag, so the rice cooks evenly . It really works. She bought it in Vicenza, I believe. I’ve never seen it in a cookware shop here.
Risotto with Butternut Squash, Leeks, Parmigiano, and Aged Balsamic Vinegar
(Serves 4 as a first course)
5 cups light chicken broth (or half broth, half water)
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 fat leeks, cut into small dice, using the white and only the tender light green part
1 small butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into small dice (you’ll want about 3 cups of dice)
A few large scrapings of nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
2 cups carnaroli rice
¼ cup sweet red vermouth
¾ cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
2 teaspoons aged balsamic vinegar
Pour the chicken broth into a saucepan, and bring it to a boil. Turn the heat to very low, to keep it at a low simmer.
Choose a wide, low-sided pan to cook the rice in. This will allow fast evaporation of the liquid, which is exactly what you want for a creamy risotto with a good bite.
Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1 of butter over medium high heat. Add the leeks, and sauté until they’re softened, about 2 minutes. Add the squash, seasoning it with nutmeg, salt, and black pepper, and sauté a minute or so to coat it well with oil. Add the rice, and sauté for another minute. This puts a light seal on the rice, so it will cook up firm and glossy. Add the red vermouth, and let it bubble for a few seconds.
Add a ladle of broth, and start stirring the rice. The rice should cook at a lively bubble. Turn the heat up a touch if you need to. When the broth is almost dry (not completely, though), add another ladle, and keep stirring. Keep adding broth when it gets low until the rice and the squash are both tender but still retain a slight bite. In my experience this takes 16 to 17 minutes. If you run out of broth, just add a little hot water. As soon as the rice is perfectly cooked, add the remaining butter and the Parmigiano, and give it a stir. Take the pan from the heat, and add a little more broth to ensure a slightly loose consistency. Check for seasoning, adding more salt and black pepper if you think you need it.
Ladle the risotto out into shallow serving bowls, and drizzle about a half teaspoon of the aged balsamic vinegar over each serving. Serve right away.