Rice rice baby: Winter squash stuffed with brown rice, asparagus, zucchini, sunflower seed, pine nut risotto

I am days away from beginning a cleanse to control my asthma and allergies as well as boost my digestion. And it has been cold and rainy. Perhaps that is why I have been craving creamy and grain based food.  My counter top was full of winter squash – kabocha, acorn, butternut – and it made me think about a creamy squash risotto. However, I often find that the squash is lost and not as flavorful in a risotto. And squashes are great to stuff. So I decided to stuff kabocha and acorn squash with a flavorful sprouted brown rice risotto made with zucchini, asparagus, sunflower seeds and pine nuts. Creamy but full of texture. Flavorful. Nutritious. Satisfying.

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I don’t normally post grain based recipes to focus on vegetarian Whole30 compliant recipes, but this was such a success, I needed to share. Grains are not bad for you per se…in fact they are one of the biggest sources of energy which is why athletes like swimmer and runners are known for eating a lot of grains. The reason they can be labeled bad is they can just be over processed, not have much nutrients, an overwhelming source of carbohydrtaes for the average person in a daily meal and for some they may not be easy to digest and may cause bloating and discomfort. They don’t bother me, but I limit them in my diet only to encourage myself to fill my plate with fresh plant based food rather than processed or dried ingredients.

But there are some dishes that require a grain – like risotto. I made a cauliflower risotto once but it does not substitute as well as cauliflower rice does for other dishes because risotto requires a firm starch. If you remember the Wikileaks October Surprise showcasing all the politically important info in Senator Clinton’s emails (I hope you read the sarcasm in my words) John Podesta told her about the importance of slowly cooking the rice – to release the starch which forms the creaminess. You can’t get that with cauliflower. Besides, if you eat the risotto with a lot of veg, and serve it in a veg, you eat less of the grain.

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So as I mentioned, it is the starch that is important. Which essentially means you can use almost anything with starch – like pasta if you really wanted. Instead of  typical arborio rice, I used sprouted short grain brown rice from Lundberg to increase the nutrition and fiber in the diet. Sprouting releases nutrients from seeds and grains that may be difficult to access through digestion and heat alone.

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Proper risotto is so creamy it is almost soup like, so texture is typically out of the question. Any traditional chef would proclaim my risotto a failure – but this is not a traditional risotto by any means…nor any of my recipes traditional on this blog. I like my risotto a bit less wet so I can eat it with a fork rather than a spoon, but the creaminess is up to you. I add nuts and seeds for extra protein and texture. And veg, cause well, everything is better with veg and your diet should mostly consist of veg.

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So John Podesta was correct but left out some key points to risotto in my opinion. I would say there are four keys to making tasty risotto. 1. Using a large wide skillet so the rice cooks evenly and the liquid evaporates 2. Toasting the rice to give it a nuttier richer flavor (but note this will reduce the creaminess of the risotto.) 3. Warming the stock so the rice continually cooks without cooling down 4.Slowly ladling in stock a little at a time letting it evaporate so the starch is released and creaminess builds while the rice is evenly cooked. Now there are a lot of fine techniques that can be done to make the perfect risotto but this recipe is one that everyone can make. Proof is in the picture.

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First prepare the squash in the oven. I used kabocha and acorn squash as they are my favorite winter squashes, especially for stuffing, but you can butternut and other varieties of winter squash. Cut it in half, take out the seeds, coat them in olive oil and place them cut side down in a baking dish that has a small layer of water. Bake it for 30-50 min at 400 degrees F until it is soft enough to be pierced with a butter knife or fork. Rub extra coconut oil on the inside with a touch of salt while it is still warm and set aside.

For the risotto, begin by prepping the veg that will go in. First trim asparagus to remove the fibrous bottoms. You can cut them off or break them by hand. If you bend an asparagus stalk you will see it will break naturally – this is the best method as you will be sure to get rid of the tough fibrous end of the asparagus. Chop the part with the asparagus tip to 1/2-1 inch pieces and blanch them – this means boiling them in salted water for 2 min, draining, and placing into an ice water bath (this preserves the color of the asparagus and stops the cooking). Set it aside.

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Bring veggie stock up to a warm temp in a pot. The stock is the flavorbase of this risotto recipe so use a good stock. I like to use homemade stock that I make in bulk and store in the freezer.

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In a large wide bottom skillet (this allows for the rice to cook evenly and the stock to evaporate without overcooking the rice) melt some coconut oil over medium heat and add rice – stir around in the pan for about 5 min until it starts to smell nutty. Add chopped shallot and garlic, cooking for about 2 -3 min until the shallot has softened and is translucent.

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On medium to medium to low heat, ladle one cup of the hot broth mixture into the rice and cook, stirring constantly, letting the liquid be almost completely absorbed. It should cook slowly so the starch from the rice is released. Keep repeating with 1/2 cup of liquid at a time until rice is starting to become tender – about 45 minutes. Remember brown rice with its fiber takes longer than white rice.

Once rice is tender, add in sliced raw zucchini and apple cider vinegar – mix in. Typically white wine is used for flavor and acidity. To keep this alcohol free, I use apple cider vinegar for acid. Keep adding stock, cooking it until it is almost absorbed and continue to cook until rice is to desired tenderness.  Make sure rice is at desired creaminess or continue to add a small amount of broth. But do not overdo it once the zucchini is added in or else the veg will overcook.

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Add in drained asparagus and cook until thoroughly heated – about 2-3 minutes. The final dish should be quite moist but not soupy. Remove from heat. In a separate pan, toast raw unsalted pine nuts over medium heat – about 1 min. You can also buy toasted pine nuts, but freshly toasting them brings out a nice nutty flavor.

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Add pine nuts to risotto along with sunflower seeds. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add lemon juice and lemon zest for a bit of brightness and acidity.

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Serve over the baked squash. I served some in a half of the squash. For a smaller portion, I scooped out the squash and added the risotto.

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This meal was extremely satisfying.

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The coconut oil adds a layer of complexity to the flavor that is different from other risottos I have had flavored with Parmesan and butter. The pine nuts and seeds give more texture to the rice, along with a bit of protein. And the squash is a nice compliment to the dish that makes risotto feel more complete as meal. It also reduces the amount of grain I put in my body and increases the amount of veg. This is the perfect dish for a cold or rainy day.

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Happy eating!

Brown rice risotto with asparagus, zucchini, and pine nuts served over squash

  • 1-2 medium winter squash – kabocha or acorn, halved and seeds removed
  • 1 bunch aspargus, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 cup short grain brown rice
  • 1+ 3 Tbs coconut oil
  • large shallot, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • About 5-6 cups veggie stock (you may not use it all)
  • 1 Tbs apple cider vinegar
  • 1 zucchini, chopped
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • Lemon zest
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Rub the bottom of a baking dish with coconut oil and place squash cut side down in the dish. Add a small amount of water – so that there is a thin layer of water, about 1/4 inch. Roast the squash until very soft and tender when poked with a fork or paring knife, 30 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and add coconut oil and salt to the flesh and set aside.

Bring water bath to a boil in a small pot with some salt. Add asparagus and lower heat to a simmer and simmer for 2 minutes. Transfer asparagus to an ice water bath and let chill for 5 minutes. Drain asparagus and set aside.

In a small pot, bring vegetable broth up to a warm temperature and keep warm over very low heat.

In a wide skillet, over medium to medium to low heat, melt 3 Tbs coconut oil. Add sprouted brown rice and stir to toast for about 5 min, until the rice is fragrant. Be careful to not overcook. Add in shallot and garlic and saute until translucent – a few minutes. Ladle in 1/2 to 1 cup of warm stock stirring to evenly coat rice. Add 1/2 cup more stock once it is almost completely absorbed and stir. It should cook slowly to release the starch so it is creamy. Repeat using 1/2 cup liquid at a time, until rice is just beginning to become tender, about 45 minutes.

Add in zucchini and apple cider vinegar. Continue to cook with broth to desired tenderness – about 5- 10 minutes more. Mix in drained asparagus and heat through. Remove from heat and add in pine nuts, sunflower seeds, and salt and pepper to taste. Add in lemon juice and lemon zest. Serve over the squash.

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