October 11th was Columbus Day here in the U.S. of A.
Columbus Day, for those unfamiliar with it, celebrates the moment in 1492 when an overly confident Italian guy who hated asking for directions set sail from Spain in a big wooden ship for what he thought would be a quick trip to India to pick up frankincense and myrrh for his wife and instead landed at a totally wack Club Med in the Bahamas.
Now although you’d think Columbus Day would be a joyous celebration for Americans (named oddly after Amerigo Vespucchi whose b-day we don’t even acknowledge), the holiday is actually roiled in controversy. That’s because it was Columbus who started the annoying trend of rich Eurotrash kids coming to the U.S., taking over the native people’s dance floor, smoking their home-grown Gitanes, leaving the stubs on the ground, then totally forgetting to tip. All I can say is, Italian guys, SO hot but SO Genoa Shore!
Anyway as neither “Native American” nor Italian but rather avowed foodie, I have to admit that while I’m pissed at Columbus for setting in motion the manifest destiny thing, it’s hard to stay angry at a guy who unintentionally spearheaded the America-as-culinary-melting-pot-phenom that’s still taking place today. Heck, half the reason I live in New York City is for the great Italian restaurants.
On the other hand…
It’s ALSO TRUE that it was the Mohawk and Iroquois — among other First Nations people — who taught us that the best-tasting food isn’t imported from thousands of miles away but rather grown close to home and eaten by those strange creatures modern explorers call “locavores.”
So there’s a culinary conflict here: How to reconcile the exploratory spirit of Columbus — who gosh-darn-it just wanted to track down some Thai peppers for his off-the-chart hot sauce — and those who argue he should have stayed in Madrid eating free-range pollo and grass-fed vaca?
As the Couchsurfing Cook, you probably think you know which side of the debate I come down on, but I’m guessing you’re wrong. You see I support both locally grown and world cuisine. Which led this past October 11th to an epiphany. Why is there no special food connected with Columbus Day? Christmas has goose. Hanukkah has potatoes. Ramadan has dates. Why nothing to honor Columbus?
And then it came to me. Mushrooms. Columbus Day needs mushrooms.
Why mushrooms? Because it’s mushrooms — and only mushrooms — that can bridge the gap between Italians and First Nations people.
Think about it. Mushrooms are neutral. They accept everything. Olive oil. Garlic. Butter. And they come in all colors — red, white, brown, yellow, even blue. They’re completely unprejudiced! They’re also spongy and soft, like our hearts, which presumably will melt like butter upon tasting a cross-culturally unifying dish containing them.
And so it was that I spent Columbus Day hiking through the woods of Connecticut searching for mushrooms for what I’m convinced will become THE signature Columbus Day dish. A dish that includes locally sourced mushrooms eaten by indigenous Northeast tribes as well as exotic, far-flung Italian flavors any visitor to a high-end version of the Olive Garden restaurant chain would easily recognize (did someone say, “extra garlic”?).
With a special shout out to an amazing artist and mycologist, the inimitable Gerry Miller, who regularly travels to the Amazon to hunt mushrooms and herbs with Peruvian tribes who still live as if in pre-Columbian times. Thank you Gerry for teaching me how to hunt!
Heck if this whole Italian-Indian reconciliation catches on, I guarantee that one day Sherman Alexie will be the Grand Marshall for the New York City Columbus Day Parade.
Six Nations Risotto
In keeping with the international spirit of this blog, this recipe includes Imperial (U.S.) and Metric (U.K.) measurements. Let me know if you like this feature and want it in future posts or whether it should go the way of turtle soup.
Servings: 6 as main dish; 8 as side
1 1/4 cups – 280 grams butternut squash (can substitute delicata or acorn)
1 cup – 225 grams wild mushrooms wiped clean (I used Hen of the Woods and chanterelle, but you can substitute brown or portobello)
1 cup – 225 grams arborio rice
1/2 cup – 115 grams dry white wine
1 cup – 45 grams fresh spinach (can substitute watercress)
2 cups – 16.5 U.K. ounces hot water
1 large – 9 grams vegetable bouillon cube
2 tablespoons – 2 U.K. tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons – 3 U.K. tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon – 5 grams minced garlic
1 tablespoon – 15 grams minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon – 2 grams ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon – 1 gram ground sage (can substitute finely chopped fresh sage or savory)
1/2 cup – 90 grams grated parmesan cheese
Coarse salt and ground pepper to taste
Optional but highly recommended: 3/4 cup – 70 grams toasted ground walnuts
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit – 205 Celsius.
2. Peel squash and cut into 1/2 ” – 1.25 centimeter cubes. Toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil. Add nutmeg and sage. Add salt and pepper to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon each. Place coated squash in large pan in oven and cook uncovered until soft and slightly brown, about 20 minutes.
3. Dice mushrooms into 1/2″ – 1.25 centimeter pieces. Toss with 1 tablespoon melted butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook on stovetop over medium heat until softened.
4. Place vegetable bouillon in hot water and allow to dissolve fully. Stir to mix.
5. In medium-size saucepan over low to medium heat, saute shallots and garlic in 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Cook until soft but not brown.
6. Add arborio rice to saucepan and stir continuously with wooden spoon until rice turns from bright white to translucent at the edges, about 3 minutes. Add wine and continue stirring until nearly all liquid is absorbed.
7. Add vegetable broth to rice in 1/4 cup – 2 U.K. ounces increments, stirring continuously each time until liquid is almost entirely absorbed. As rice cooks it will expand and become creamier. Rice is done when it’s slightly chewy or al dente. Test doneness before last broth is added and increase or decrease as needed to reach desired consistency.
8. After final broth is absorbed, turn off heat and add spinach, squash, and mushrooms to rice mixture. Stir to combine. Cover pot and allow to sit for 2 to 3 minutes to allow spinach to wilt slightly.
9. To serve, spoon between 1/2 and 3/4 cup – 100 grams of risotto into a bowl and top with about 1 1/4 tablespoons of parmesan per serving.
10. If desired, sprinkle with small handful of pre-toasted ground walnuts. Walnuts can be roasted ahead by cooking in pan on stovetop at medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently.