Pleasure. What a scary, slippery and sometimes even foreign concept, right? That which we do, just for the enjoyment of doing it. A juicy little burst of content energy. That which brings us joy. I´ve been musing about this concept and its importance in everyday life for the last couple of months. I´ve been reading Mama Gena (ladies especially, you need to look into what this crazy genius of a woman is about), I took an online class with Liyana Silver (yet another fierce lady making the way for others to follow and be awesome), I ditched foods that taste good on my mouth but don´t feel great in my body and I must say I really started soaking up the goodness. I embraced the notion that yumminess is to be found and in small and seemingly unimportant things in our everyday life. I felt that, if we choose to welcome them, bigger things will start popping up for the taking, too and that feeling of magic and possibility swells up inside, glowing with happiness and warmth, like when you stand with your backside near the oven while baking and revel in the comforting feeling and the promise of baked goodies to come. Wait, was that an overshare?
So I embarked on the pursuit of pleasure in my daily life. Every day, I started asking myself what in my day I really, truly enjoyed. It turns out there´s a lot. The answers started popping up in my mind, quietly at first… the swings at the park while walking the dogs, a little Just Dance here and there to sweat and have fun, coloring a mandala full of beautiful colors and vibrant intention for people I love. Watching Connie and Carla for the gazillionth time. Kissing, oh, kissing. A subject on pleasure, all on its own.
Soon, I´d fix myself a little lunch, and undeniably a voice in my head would go “well, that was some seriously delicious goat cheese on crackers, so light and tangy with the sweet tomato slices and fragrant basil”. And my afternoon would seem brighter, smoother, more fun.
Wonderful things would happen, I was fortunate enough to cater a cocktail party for Cirque du Soleil in Costa Rica. It was exciting, I felt honored and proud. I felt like celebrating with a special dinner. A few days back I´d remembered an extremely delicious homemade pizza my brother made for us a few years ago. He makes a remarkably thin, light and crispy pizza dough, and that time he topped it with goat cheese, caramelized butternut squash, fried sage and walnuts. It was insanely good! I decided I´d be taking those flavors ad putting them into a gluten free bomb of deliciousness. Risotto sounded like a perfect vehicle. It would be the recipe on my next blog post. So, I pleasurably shopped for the perfect ingredients, I happily cooked it up, took step by step pictures, we all enjoyed it, everyone loved it. I would be posting the recipe soon.
Everything was peachy. And then it wasn´t.
Sometimes things happen and really throw us off balance. A few weeks ago, I was in a car crash that could´ve been much, much worse, and I am very grateful it wasn´t. Still, it left me with a whiplash neck injury and not so fond memories of the last time someone crashed into us and how very un-fun the aftermath was. Again, I had headaches, a very tight neck which has me popping pills that make me groggy and sort of interfere with the groove of being me after a few days. I am dealing with unpleasant insurance company representatives again. Paperwork, X Rays, CAT scans, not going to work. On the sidelines, health concerns about people I care about. Not long ago, my mom lost a very dear friend in an untimely manner, and didn´t find out until about a week after her passing. Where is the joy in that?
Well, there isn´t. And yet, we can find it. If there is no finding it, then we can grow into it and shape our circumstances. We can create it. Just like coming up with a new recipe, exploring a new technique or experimenting with a new ingredient, I can and I will. Because once we have tasted the loveliness of pleasure in the everyday, once we have kissed, and danced, and laughed, and baked and loved and enjoyed, why would we ever settle for bitterness and crap? Life is wonderful, even when things around us make us forget. We get to choose how we look at it. So as long as I can, I will pursue pleasure. And kissing. And, of course, goat cheese.
Incidentally, my very fabulous chef friend Chandler Tomayko at TheChefWithTheRedShoes is hosting OurGrowingEdge, an event meant to give us all that edge to keep expanding this adventure of life in and out of the kitchen. Even in the middle of this crazy time, I am hurrying to be a part of it. This is my edge.
Goat cheese and butternut squash celebration risotto
This yields 4 to 6 helpings
What you´ll need:
4 cups peeled and diced butternut squash, plus a heaping cup butternut squash puree
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 ½ cup white wine
About 6 ½ cups chicken stock, ideally homemade and low on salt (you can substitute veggie stock)
500 grams Arborio rice
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage
Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper
150 grams grated goat cheese (the ripe kind that is similar to parmesan in texture and strength)
1 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped for serving
How we´ll do it:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Toss the cubed squash with a tablespoon of olive oil, salt and freshly cracked pepper. I used two medium to big butternut squash for this, it was enough for both the cubed part and the puree. Spread the cubed squash over two medium or one large baking sheets, and roast away until they turn golden brown and delicious on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30 minutes or so.
While that happens, we´ll do risotto and squash puree. For the puree, place 1 and a half cups of stock, the bay leaf and the squash left over for pureeing over medium high heat in a small pan. Let it come to a boil and cook until tender. I used the round portion of one of my squash and the amount was spot on.
For the risotto, heat the remaining olive oil and the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. I was a bit hungry when preparing this, so I decided to go for a high frying pan so it would dry a bit sooner. Once it shimmers, add the finely diced onion and sweat it, I let it caramelize a tiny bit because I felt it would add to the flavor. Add the rice, to coat it evenly and stir until it looks translucent. Pour in the wine and keep simmering, stirring every few minutes, until it evaporates. Add the herbs and the stock, about a half a cup at a time, stir and let it absorb before adding the next ladleful.
The squash in the pot should be ready by now, check it with a fork, and if it´s tender, set it aside. Remove it from the liquid in the pot, let it cool for a few minutes, and mash it nicely. Don´t throw away the stock it was cooked in, though, we might need it for the risotto. Continue to cook the risotto until it is a bit soupy but it has thickened. It should have a teensy little bit of a bite to it but not feel or taste underdone. Add the squash puree and ¾ of the goat cheese, mixing and allowing it to melt. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper if needed. Add about a third of the roasted cubed squash and combine.
Serve the risotto with a little sprinkle of the remaining goat cheese, cover with cubes of roasted squash and top with a handful of toasted almonds. I went with almonds instead of walnuts because this risotto is soooo creamy and luscious that it really needs some serious crunch for contrast. Let me tell you, if you have trouble finding yumminess in your life, this risotto will definitely point you in the right direction. Enjoy!