One night I had dinner at an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End. I had a wonderful piece of striped bass that was served with risotto containing butternut squash and chestnuts. Now, the sheer idea of risotto makes a lot of home cooks shudder. I admittedly avoided it myself for quite some time, but I was officially inspired.
I ran out to grocery store. I bought rice, butternut squash, and chestnuts. While perusing the aisles, I decided to add proscuitto and sage to my concoction. Now I had compiled a myriad of classic Italian flavors, so I was feeling confident. I rush home to start and slowly begin to realize just how inaccurate this was going to be.
Number 1: Totally bought the wrong rice. Word to the wise, you need to use a short grained rice, like arborio. When it’s small and almost round, it will clump together more effectively. Long grained rice will stay separate.
Number 2: You should use a halfway decent white wine. Well, I had a bottle of Blue Moon in my refrigerator? Yeah, not so great, but I used some of it anyway and drank what was leftover.
Number 3: I used some half & half. GASP. If I had a nonna, she would be appalled. True, authentic risotto does not use cream or cream like ingredients. The only dairy should be a touch of butter and quality cheese. Well, I had already butchered several steps in this process. The only way to salvage this situation was to cheat and add half & half to maintain some kind of decent consistency.
In the end I added the roasted squash & chestnuts, bits of proscuitto, lots of pecorino and chopped sage. I must say the flavors were great, but I knew it was not what it was supposed to be. I decided to re-purpose this crime into a pan fried cake delight. I even went on to make a butternut squash puree to serve under the cakes and I crisped sage to top it all off.
I won’t be giving instructions on how to make real risotto, because that is clearly not my place. For this recipe, you can use plain risotto or any kind of creamy rice as the base. I’m just going to tell you how to flavor and construct the cakes. It’s difficult to revive leftover risotto, even when it’s been made correctly, so this is a solid recipe for making use of residual rice.
Here’s what you need:
For the Cakes (Yields 10-12 Cakes)
– (1) Cup Worth of Rice Made Into Risotto (or glorified creamy rice)
– (1/4) Lb. Proscuitto di Parma
– (1/2) Lb. Italian Chestnuts (trying to make up for the sacrilegious risotto)
– (1/2) of (1) Small Butternut Squash
– Fresh Sage
– (4) oz Fresh Mozzarella (half of a standard ball)
– (1) Egg
– Bowl of Panko Bread Crumbs
– Vegetable Oil (for pan frying)
– Pecorino Romano (freshly grated to garnish)
– Black Pepper (garnish plate)
For the Puree
– Splash of Olive Oil
– (1) Tbsps. Garlic
– (1/2) Sweet White Onion (diced)
– Fresh Sage (finely chopped, to taste)
– Salt & Pepper (to taste)
– (1/4) tsp. Dry Mustard
– (1/2) of (1) Small Butternut Squash
– (1/2) Cup Chicken Stock
– Half & Half or Cream (added until desired consistency is reached)
– Sage Leaves
– Leftover Vegetable Oil
This whole process is relatively easy. First, cut the squash down the middle and roast all of it face down. You can roast the chestnuts at the same time. Chop up half the squash, shell & chop the chestnuts and add all to the risotto. Take around three slices of proscuitto, dice them up and fold in. Now, finely chop a healthy amount of sage. I can’t get enough of it! I actually cooked the rice in sage during the whole “risotto” process. Cooked sage adds subtle underlying flavor, but fresh sage adds a brilliant pop. Just do it to personal taste, I don’t know what you like!
At this point you should start slicing the fresh mozzarella into small squares. Slice the leftover proscuitto into pieces around the same size as the mozzarella. Start taking heaping tablespoons of the rice mixture and forming them into balls. Take pieces of mozzarella and proscuitto and place them on top of a ball. Now, take more of the rice mixture and build it around the meat and cheese. Once everything is enclosed, flatten the ball slightly so it is a cake around 3″ in diameter. Repeat this process until all the rice has been utilized.
Next, crack and whisk the egg with a touch of water or milk. Dip the cakes in the wash and proceed to roll them in panko bread crumbs. I used seasoned panko, but it really doesn’t matter. I also grated some extra pecorino into the crumbs, because I want everyone I feed to develop lactose intolerance.
They’re ready to go! They can be pan fried in a bit of vegetable oil until they’re a light golden brown on each side. You might want to turn the heat down and cover the pan to ensure the cheese in the middle melts. Once you’re confident you’ve nailed this, place the cakes on paper towels.
Before frying the cakes, you should make the puree. Start with a little olive oil in a sauce pan. Add garlic, onion, sage, salt, pepper and dry mustard. Once the onions are clear, chop the other half of the butternut squash and toss it in. Pour in the chicken stock and cook on medium heat for at least ten minutes. Once the stock has reduced and everything is soft, grab an immersion blender and puree until smooth. Add cream to your liking. Place a bit of this sauce on the plate and top it with a cake. Grate fresh pecorino and splash black pepper for garnish.
Don’t forget the crispy sage! Throw several leaves in the leftover vegetable oil used to pan fry. They’ll crisp up in minutes.
This is a rich and indulgent appetizer, but don’t be scared. One cake is exceptionally satiating and worth every calorie. I even got a couple of temporary cleansing “vegans” to break and try this out. They were glad they did!