Last week, I spent five days in Madison, Wisconsin shadowing an ice cream scientist.
As part of my Health/Science reporting class, I had to complete a practicum where I shadowed a scientist or medical professional. I’ve always wanted to learn more about ice cream and confectionery science, so Professor Rich Hartel’s lab at UW-Madison was the perfect fit.
I worked with Maya Warren, a PhD student who studies the structural components of ice cream. I’ve been eating ice cream since before I can remember, but I never stopped to consider what makes it behave the way it does; melting just seemed par for the course.
As it turns out, ice cream is one of the most structurally complex foods there is. There are big globules of fat found in the milk, and the size and number of the globules can affect how quickly ice cream melts or drips.
Needless to say, one of the highlights of the experience was tasting the ice cream Maya made, and then taking three pints of it home on dry ice. The ice cream made it all the way from Madison to Chicago without so much as melting.
I was especially surprised it didn’t melt after I got caught in rush hour traffic outside downtown Chicago. Perhaps it’s a testimony to Maya’s ice cream, or maybe just my frenzied attempts to get off the freeway. But both the ice cream and I made it back to my apartment. After regrouping, I was in desperate need of dinner.
In a book I read recently, “Lunch in Paris,” the author, Elizabeth Bard, describes her first winter in as an American expatriate in Paris. As she struggles to adjust to cultural differences and life without central heating, she decides to make risotto:
“I stirred and stirred, going around in circles in my head…The spoon made a milky path through the rice; with each stir the path disappeared, the mix felt a bit more solid.”
I can attest to the therapeutic properties of risotto. There’s something about stirring a pot of rice over, and over…and over again, that seems to make your problems disappear. It’s part arm workout, part meditation.
So after missing my exit, sitting in rush hour traffic for an hour, and unpacking my car, I decided to make a recipe I’ve been meaning to try for awhile: Butternut Squash Risotto.
The recipe originally called for pearl barley, but I substituted a box of Israeli pearl couscous instead.
This risotto didn’t require as much stirring because the last part of the recipe called for baking. Perhaps this was for the best, as my energy level wasn’t as high as usual.
After watching the white wine slowly simmer away, I mixed in slices of butternut squash. I put the risotto in the oven, and waited for forty minutes while it all came together. I love the smell of wine, onions and broth as it simmers in the oven; it reminds me a little of the chicken soup my mom used to make during the winter.
When it finally came out of the oven, I mixed in Parmesan cheese and fresh leaves of spinach. The first bite was nothing short of delicious; I probably could have eaten the whole pot in one, extended sitting, but with willpower I managed to save leftovers.
This is the perfect recipe for a day when you need a home cooked meal, but don’t want to put in the extra effort. The baking component takes away the stress, and the stirring will put you into a more zen state. I can’t say all my problems went away after making the risotto, but eating a bowl made life seem much less complicated.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small butternut squash cut into one-inch pieces; about 3 cups
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- kosher salt and black pepper
- 1 cup pearl couscous (the original calls for barley)
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- 5 ounces baby spinach (about 3/4 cup)
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan (plus more for serving)
- Heat oven to 400° F. Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or large oven-safe saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, onion, ¾ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook, stirring often, until the onion begins to soften, 4 to 6 minutes.
- Add the couscous to the vegetables and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated, about 1 minute. Add the broth and bring to a boil; cover the pot and transfer it to oven. Bake until the couscous until it is tender, 35 to 40 minutes.
- Stir in the spinach and Parmesan. Serve with additional Parmesan.