Risotto alla zucca, or pumpkin risotto, is one of the most popular autumn and winter risottos. Zucca is Italian for pumpkin, but Italian pumpkins are quite different from their American cousins: their taste is more intense and much sweeter, their texture finer, less fibrous. Most recipes aimed at the non-Italian cook recommend substituting butternut squash, but, truth be told, most butternut squash I have been able to find in the US is rather bland in flavor and slightly gritty in texture. It pales in comparison with zucca.
I have tried various stratagems to coax some extra flavor from butternut squash—by roasting it, by simmering it in broth, by braising it in butter. All of these improve things and, if you use a rich broth, plenty of onion for the soffritto and ample parmesan cheese for the mantecura to make up for the flavor deficit, you can wind up with an agreeable finished product. But the fact remains, butternut squash risotto doesn’t really taste like a true risotto alla zucca.
So what to do? Having tried various kinds of winter squashes without finding an adequate substitute for zucca, I finally tried something completely different that I had stumbled upon in the market: baby sweet potatoes, usually marketed as ‘baby yams’. Eureka! While the taste isn’t quite the same, baby yams share the intense sweetness and velvety texture of the zucca I had known in the ‘Old Country’, producing a risotto that was remarkably like a true risotto alla zucca. The only downside is that baby yams don’t appear in the markets until well into November, so you’ll have to wait a bit longer before you can enjoy this seasonal dish.
- 500g (1 lb) risotto rice
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 250g (1/2 lb) baby yams, peeled and cubed
- A splash of white wine
- Broth, q.b.
- 75g (4 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
So there you have it: just make the risotto as you normally would, starting with a soffritto of onion sautéed in butter. Here you want only butter, and a lot of it, to underscore the sweetness that is characteristic of the dish.
Then add your baby yams, peeled and cut into small dice, and allow them to sauté gently to soak up the aromas of the seasoned butter (insaporire).
Proceed in the usual manner: Toast your rice, then add successively a splash of white wine, then ladlefuls of broth, letting each evaporate before adding the next.
At the end of cooking, add the grated Parmesan and a dab of sweet butter and stir vigorously for about a minute, off heat. The yams will have dissolved completely into the risotto, lending their sweet flavor, lovely golden color and a subtle, velvety texture to the rice.
Serve your risotto alla zucca immediately.
Although I have used the term ‘yam’ in this post, true yams are a tropical vegetable grown mostly in Africa and the Caribbean. Sweet potatoes, which are widely cultivated in North America, are not related botanically to yams. But growers of sweet potatoes decided to call them yams as a marketing device, to distinguish them from regular potatoes and from a firmer fleshed varietal of sweet potato that had previously predominated the US market.
There are several varietals of the Italian zucca but all fall under the botanical species of cucurbita maxima. Pumpkins grown in the US are of the same genus cucurbita and various species, including cucurbita maxima, are cultivated here. So it is a mystery to me why there is such a difference in taste and texture between those grown in Italy and those in the US. If anyone can enlighten me, I would be much obliged!