Jeremy once told me that I was the most resourceful cook he knows. This is because I never start a meal plan for the week by deciding what I want to make, then writing down ingredients. Instead, I go to the pantry, freezer or fridge, see what random left overs or items we have, then plan our meals around that. Because most of what I cook is done without recipes, this works for me. And that’s the beauty of learning techniques versus recipes. If you know how to make a basic cream sauce, or the components of a risotto or the technique of braising meats, then you don’t need recipes. What I find to be most important is the concept of ratio. So if you know that a basic risotto calls for 1 part rice to 4 parts liquid, then you’re fine, and you can experiment to your hearts’ content without worrying about if the rice is going to dry up or if it’s going to be too soupy.
So this past week we had some kind of random things sitting around. First off, my sage plant has exploded this fall, so I wanted to use some fresh sage. I also had a huge bag of pistachios left over from camping and a half of a container of Parmesan….some of you know where this is going already: pesto! Pistachio-Sage pesto. Because, once again, if you know the basic components of pesto (basil, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil) you can swap each of those ingredients out for something similar (sage, Parmesan, pistachios, olive oil). I also had a huge FIVE POUND bag of quinoa that I got at Costco the other day, as well as a side of salmon that I had cut down into fillets and frozen. Finally there was a random butternut squash that I had picked up at a farm and sort of neglected.
I wanted to experiment with the idea of quinoa risotto. Normally risotto is made with Arborio rice, a super short-grain rice that cooks almost like a pasta. It’s cooked slowly, adding small amounts of liquid, which are then absorbed before adding more, and of course – stirring the entire time. Quinoa is also a grain and is …. not “short” but small, let’s say. I wasn’t sure if it would cream up like Arborio, which slowly releases its starch as it cooks, creating its own creamy sauce when combined with water, broth, wine, etc. But I figured it was worth a try.
The whole meal came together like this:
Pre-head the oven to 375 F. Peel and cut the butternut squash into 1/2″ thick slices, brush with olive oil, salt, pepper and thyme, then lay out on a baking sheet and roast while putting together the rest of the meal. I only used about 1/4 of the squash (I made the rest of it into soup – resourceful!)
Make the pesto by combining 1/4 cup of pistachios (shelled) with a palm full of Parmesan, a hearty bunch of sage (chopped), the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper in a food processor. Pulse the ingredients while drizzing olive oil through the top until a nice thick paste forms.
Make the risotto. Start with a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet. Add a few cloves of minced garlic and half of an onion, diced small; cook until soft. Add one cup of diced mushrooms and a
little lemon zest and saute until soft. Add in one cup of quinoa (or Arborio rice) and toast the quinoa until it starts to brown. Pour in half a cup of chicken broth and use this to deglaze the pan, and stir until it is absorbed. Continue to add half a cup of broth at a time, stirring until absorbed until you’ve reached the consistency you want. You’ll likely use less liquid than you would with a true risotto. I used about two cups of broth to one cup of quinoa. It will take about 15-20 minutes to get the quinoa cooked through. You know when quinoa is cooked because the grain sort of pops open. It’s impossible to describe, but immediately obvious when it happens. When the risotto is close to being done, within the last few minutes, add the juice of half a lemon and a large spoonful of the pesto and stir in.
About 10 minutes before the risotto is done, coat some salmon fillets with your pesto and put on a baking sheet in the oven with your squash. Bake the salmon for 10 minutes of until it flakes easily with a fork.
Serve it up! Top the risotto with a little more Parmesan and top your salmon with a bit more pesto. Your squash should be a little crispy on the outside and cooked through on the inside from roasting. Serve with a lemon wedge to brighten up the salmon and risotto.
Enjoy. And use these steps to make something completely different – based on whatever you have on hand.