I love that we as a people, all experience “firsts.” While it’s great to finally flow comfortably into a yoga pose, like Warrior II, I also like to look back and remind myself of my first vinyasa class where I walked in thinking I was flexible, but oh no, I was not. It was incredibly humbling as I, gasping for air and sitting on my mat, watched others do arm balances with ease. I remember feeling how much I really wanted to be able to do those one day.
Other firsts may not have been quite as inspirational, but I do like to think about them once in a while, especially when I find myself in a “it really couldn’t be worse moment,” and need a good laugh. Because really, it could be worse.
Junior year of high school, I went to a hair salon to get my eyebrows waxed for the first time, for prom. I’ve never had hair ripped off of my face before, or even “shaped” my own eyebrows, so I was nervous, but looking forward to a “new and improved” me. The beautician was extremely friendly, but
creepily stared at my face for (what I thought) an unusually long time, as if studying every pore and freckle, before asking me to sit down.
As she was getting the wax warm, she wanted to double check what I was there for, “So you’re getting your upper lip and eyebrows done?”
“Uh, I thought I booked just the eyebrows.”
First time I found out that puberty gave me the gift of needing an upper lip wax? Junior year.
When I was 3 (oh yes, we’re going way back) my parents leased a house in a mostly white suburban town, about 20 minutes outside of Boston. My mother would bring me to the neighborhood play group as the other housewives had children around the same age. She admitted to me (when she told me the story) that she admired the housewives’ lifestyle (they were spouses of doctors and lawyers) and couldn’t help but compare herself to them. She even started copying their fashion sense in hopes of fitting in.
One day, she couldn’t help but compare me with the other babies. There was something different. Why did I look so different? Then, all of a sudden she realized it: I had some kind of developmental/chromosomal abnormality. Absolutely distraught, she excused herself to the bathroom. She washed herself up, and as she was at the sink, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. That’s when she realized, (and I quote) “Oh, I’m Asian.” That’s right, for the first time in her life, my mother forgot what her ethnicity was. She forgot that I was a half-Asian baby and that’s why I didn’t have blonde hair or blue eyes. Thanks mom.
For years I thought making risotto was something only reserved for “trained chefs.” I absolutely love ordering it when I go out to eat, as nothing can be more comforting than a creamy, lush plate of arborio rice cooked to perfection. Quite often eating it with my eyes closed, I was convinced I could never do it on my own. The creaminess, I thought, was something too hard for me to attempt. I’d probably botch it like over-mashing potatoes and make it a starchy mess.
But, dear reader, I can tell you, it’s not hard at all. And last night was the first time I added butternut squash, what I thought was an unusual ingredient, for a meal in which I’ve only been served plain.
While arborio rice is what’s normally used for risotto, I’m a fan of cooking with pearled barley, as it’s incredibly forgiving (it’s a very hardy grain), and adds a complexity to the dish; nutty, with a slight chew, I far prefer it over arborio rice. I love that it toasts up beautifully in the olive oil, enhancing its natural flavors, and that it’s practically impossible to overcook.
The butternut squash practically dissolves in the risotto, adding a welcomed creaminess. Roo honestly thought I threw dairy in and was trying to pull a fast one on him. However, the sweetness of the squash (that Roo claims to dislike in dishes that are supposed to be savory) is cut with a bit of bright zest and freshly squeezed lemon juice. I ended up plating it on a handful of peppery arugula (which I also think has very mild hints of lemon), but you can serve it with braised kale or as a side itself.
The toasted slivered almonds added a lovely crunch, something unexpected when eating a risotto. Creamy, nutty, with a bit of a chew, swirled together with peppery arugula and slightly sweet almonds, make this a dish a proud first attempt of butternut squash risotto that won’t be the last.
Adapted from Melissa Clark’s Cook This Now
Half pound peeled butternut squash, grated (I used the ‘fine grate’ blade on my food processor)
5 cups of low sodium stock (I used homemade vegetable)
2 – 3 tablespoons of olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pot)
1 large onion, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
2 cups pearled barley
2 dried rosemary branches
1 cup of unsweetened unflavored almond milk (or any other non-dairy milk)
2 tablespoons of nutritional yeast
Zest from 1 lemon
Half teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice, plus more to taste
Salt to taste
Quarter cup of almond slivers, toasted
A food processor
A small saucepan or a large measuring cup that can stand on its own (& microwave)
A large pot
A small saute pan
Take the peeled butternut squash and cut into pieces that will fit into your food processor. Use the “fine grate” blade on your food processor and grate the squash. If you don’t have a food processor, you can use a hand grater, though it will take longer. And if you don’t have a hand grater, you can cut the squash into small cubes, but note that they won’t dissolve into the sauce.
Pour the stock into a small saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring it to a simmer. If using a large measuring cup, pour the stock into it (ie fill a 2 cup measuring cup) and microwave for one to two minutes till hot. Keep repeating warming the stock as you go (ie when you run out, refill the cup and microwave a new batch). Either way, get your stock hot so that when you add it to the big pot, it won’t bring down the temperature of the ingredients cooking.
Add the olive oil to your large pot. Place the pot over a burner on medium high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the diced onions and cook, stirring occasionally. When the onions become translucent, add the garlic and cook till fragrant (about a minute). Add the barley and squash, and cook, stirring occasionally. When the barley starts to brown (it’ll look toasted), add the rosemary. Stir until the rosemary becomes fragrant (about a minute).
Pour half a cup of stock into your pan and cook, stirring constantly until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Make sure that while you’re stirring that you scrape down all the sides and bottom of the pan.
Continue adding stock, and continuously stirring (you can stop to get a drink of water, etc. but I wouldn’t leave the pot alone for five minutes), until the barley risotto has become creamy, thick, and has a slight chew. For me, it took about five cups to get to this point. Pour the cup of non-dairy milk in. Stir till the liquid is nearly evaporated.
Remove the rosemary branches and stir in the nutritional yeast, lemon zest and lemon juice. Season with salt to taste (we didn’t need any). Set aside.
In a small saute pan, add the slivered almonds and place the pan on a burner over medium heat. Toss the nuts until they are toasted (light to dark brown).
Serve the risotto over a handful of arugula, or with braised kale, or even as a side, but be sure to sprinkle the toasted almonds on top! Serve immediately.