It never fails: every holiday season my daughter makes the same request for my Curried Butternut Squash Soup. And while this is quite the compliment, I try to remind her that I have a whole folder full of recipes for butternuts. She never wavers, and I always give in. This year will be no exception. But that concession doesn’t stop me from encouraging her to explore my other butternut favorites, like the layered casserole I made a couple Christmases ago, or the Blonde on Blonde Pasta that has become my personal favorite. In fact, I try something new with butternuts every year, including this year.
I started working on this skillet recipe because I was bored with the rice I’d been making—you know, my go-to method for rice that I toast in oil, simmer covered/untouched, and then chill down spread out in a shallow layer? I make it several ways: with coconut and cinnamon sorta Indian, with olive oil and oregano sorta Italian, with turmeric and curry sorta middle eastern. All good but all—at this point—boring!
Then I was watching Chef Joanne Weir in an episode from her newest PBS show Cooking with Confidence (weeknights at 7pm on CREATE in my area) where she made this simple rice side dish that used the peel of one whole lemon and a few herbs. That was really it, and her co-host/student raved about it. Why had this not occurred to me before? On it, I thought, but what to serve with it and what citrus to use—stick with lemon or go off on my own??????
Well, yeah, I chose orange. But this whole concept is perfect right now, when the citrus will be in season soon and at its best, when the holidays are all about that clean citrus taste and smell to quell the sugar, fat and fatigue. Not to mention that orange is a perfect complement to butternut squash, which is how I landed where I’m taking you now, to what I think will be your holiday standout dish of the year—the one everyone will be talking about long past New Years.
And, yes, there are a couple of steps, but you can make the rice ahead, and there are a couple of ways to pull it off, so it can fit with flexibility into your kitchen plan for the busy holiday meal. Let’s get started!
- Two to three tablespoons olive oil
- One-half teaspoon each whole coriander and whole cumin seed
- One cup long-grain brown rice (I suggest Cahokia Rice, which is grown in Illinois, sustainably raised and higher in protein than other commercial brands.)
- One teaspoon sea salt
- The peel of one large orange, just the peel, no pith, in large strands or a spiral
- Two cups vegetable stock, chicken stock or water, whatever your preference (I chose my homemade vegetable stock for this.)
- Quarter-cup olive oil
- One large yellow onion, diced
- One medium shallot, diced
- One large fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and diced
- Two large cloves garlic, diced
- Two large carrots, scrubbed and trimmed and cut into thin coins
- One-half teaspoon raw sugar
- One large butternut squash, peeled, trimmed, seeded and cubed
- One teaspoon freshly ground pepper (My favorite for this dish is Penzeys Four Peppercorn Blend.)
- About a quarter cup dry white wine or good dry white sherry
- Two tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
- One tablespoon fresh sage leaves, minced
- Salt to taste
- Heat the olive oil with the whole spices in a sturdy saucepan with a well-sealing lid (A glass lid will make watching your rice without lifting the lid much easier.) Once you can smell the spices bloom, add the rice and stir so that the oil coats the rice grains and they don’t stick. Continue cooking and stirring the dry rice for about two minutes, until you can see it start to toast. Sprinkle in the salt, add the orange peel and increase the heat. Immediately add the liquid all at once so that it comes to a rapid boil. Be careful here, as it can splatter. Give everything a good stir, place the lid securely on top and reduce the heat to a low simmer.
- Leave the rice untouched until all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice, about 45 minutes. If you need to peek to make sure the rice is not sticking, crack the lid and move the rice a bit to see the bottom of the pan. If there’s no liquid, it’s done; if you find liquid, quickly replace the lid and either continue cooking on low or turn off the heat and let the rice steam—the choice depends entirely on your estimate of how close the rice is to being tender—it takes practice, but it’s not hard.
- I always spread my rice in a thin layer on a rimmed parchment-lined baking sheet and chill it down in the refrigerator until I need it. Then, I reheat before serving. To me, this method yields the perfect texture. If you’d like to skip this step so you can cook and serve your rice hot at mealtime, you can. I suggest timing it to steam covered off the heat about 20 minutes prior to dinnertime. Remove the orange peel prior to serving.
- Heat the oil in a large chef skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, fennel and shallots with a good sprinkle of salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and slightly caramelized. Add the garlic and continue to cook for about two minutes. The garlic should not brown.
- Now add the carrots, another sprinkle of salt and the sugar. Cook about 15 minutes more; then, add the butternut squash cubes, a sprinkle of salt and the pepper. Stir well. You can add a tablespoon or two of oil if you think your skillet is becoming too dry and give everything another good stir. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally on medium-low heat for 20 minutes. A really nice fond should develop on the bottom of the skillet during this time, which is exactly what you want.
- When all the vegetables are softened, turn up heat and deglaze the pan with the white wine, stirring well to loosen all the toasty veggie bits on the bottom. Cover and cook about 10 minutes more—you want the squash completely soft but not totally falling apart.
- Remove from heat and gently stir in the fresh herbs.
The prep time here is an estimate of cutting and chopping all the vegetables. The cooking time assumes you are making the rice ahead--adding the 45 minutes in front of cooking the skillet dish. It can be done simultaneously.
If you are a vegetarian like me, this dish could be your main course; just add salad and bread and a slice of pie…or maybe a Roasted Apple Scone. Don thought this dish would be perfect with turkey or chicken. So quite the crowd pleaser!
Options for serving the rice and squash
Since I am wedded to chilling down the rice, I made it one day ahead and then added it to the skillet with the squash to reheat just before serving. I have to say that I think the combined flavors of the Orange-scented Rice with the squash and carrots and fennel were near perfection. I wouldn’t serve this dish any other way. But you don’t need to serve it my way! Be brave.
If my friend Deb were coming to dinner, for instance, I’d serve the rice on the side because Deb does not eat grains. But if I wanted to have the convenience of making the rice ahead, I’d reserve a little vegetable stock to reheat it on the stove as the rest of my meal was coming together. This way, everybody wins, right? So you decide how to serve this dish and what will please the diners at your table. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to feeding family and friends. The only required ingredient…is love. Well, okay, and maybe salt.