I love eating in traditional Italian style starting with a small appetizer, moving to a first course, then second course, and finally dessert! I don’t always pace myself very well, and the second course sometimes goes by the wayside in lieu of dessert. Not long ago we made a flying trip to Calgary, AB for a long weekend – and whenever we’re in a city, dining is our first consideration and our whole day is arranged around where we’ll be eating! Since Italian food is probably our all time favorite, some fine dining was in order!
We were at our favorite Vietnamese place for lunch, (Basil Vietnamese) and we asked the owners (who are consummate foodies) where they go for fine dining in Calgary. I just want to pause with the story right here to tell you that all of our best dining experiences have been by the recommendation of a local in any city we’ve ever been!
Anyways… they recommended Mercato, and we had a blast eating there 2 nights in a row! It’s an open kitchen so we had a great view of the chef cooking and plating dinners – it’s kind of like dinner and show in one! I’m afraid I wasn’t a very good date because I spent both evenings watching how the chef garnished his plates because they were spectacular! I was so inspired, I came home to create an ‘at home’ menu that can easily be completed by one person, (no need to be a skilled chef)!
This was our dinner menu at Mercato:
Caprese Salad with freshly made mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, and local basil
Housemade gnocchi with mascarpone, speck, arugula, and semi dried tomatoes
Tuscan Steak with a side of mushrooms and prosciutto wrapped grilled asparagus (didn’t quite make it to this course)
Housemade Italian Cheesecake with seasonal berries
My At Home Interpretation for the Fall Season:
Creamy Butternut Rosemary Risotto
Tuscan Steak with Garlic Butter Mushrooms (coming soon)
The great thing about this menu is how many things can be made ahead! The salad can be prepped with the dressing kept separately until the serving time, and the Chocolate Tart is a chilled dessert, so there’s no last minute prep. The butternut squash can be roasted ahead and added to the risotto right at the end. And if you want to make your life even easier, skip the steak and mushroom course and have it another night!
For this recipe, start by roasting the butternut squash – while the squash roasts you cook the risotto and the caramelized cubes of roasted butternut are added in towards the end of the rice’s cooking time.
Cut the butternut into 1/2″ cubes and spread it evenly on a parchment lined baking sheet. Drizzle the olive oil and sprinkle the sea salt as evenly as possible over the squash. Stir the squash 2-3 times during the cooking process to mix in the olive oil and sea salt, and to make sure multiple edges brown and caramelize.
Start the risotto by sautéing the onion in the butter and olive oil, when the onion has softened add the rice and sauté until the rice is completely coated in the onion mixture, (top left hand photo). Add about 1 cup of the water and stir every 30 seconds to 1 minute, (top right hand photo). Only add more liquid when the rice has absorbed the previous liquid, (bottom left hand photo). Continue adding liquid and stirring regularly – when the rice begins to plump up a bit, (bottom right hand photo) add the sea salt and rosemary to the risotto and continue to cook until the risotto is al denté, (meaning when you bite into a grain of rice there will be a small white core in the middle). When the risotto is done, take it off the burner to add the mascarpone, freshly squeezed lemon juice, and roasted butternut. Then as a final step before serving the risotto, taste it to adjust the salt levels.
We often make risotto for at home date nights because it’s so easy, and it feels really indulgent! Below is an example of a typical date night menu that’s super simple to make!
Antipasto of Salami and Cheese
Creamy Butternut Risotto
A few pieces of a Salted Dark Chocolate Bar
- 3 pounds of butternut squash, peeled and cubed into ½" pieces
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 Teaspoon of sea salt
- 6 ounces minced onions
- 4 Tablespoons butter
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cups aborio rice
- 6-7 cups water
- 1 Tablespoon coarse sea salt (adjust to your taste)
- 1 Tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ cup mascarpone cheese
- Freshly grated parmesan and fresh ground black pepper for topping at the table
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Spread the cubed squash evenly on the baking sheet and drizzle with the olive oil and sea salt. Roast the squash in the oven for 30 minutes, stirring 2-3 times until the squash is tender with caramelized edges.
- While the squash roasts, mince the onion and prepare the rest of the ingredients listed - set them aside individually so they'll be ready when you need them. After the squash has been roasting for 10 minutes, begin to cook the risotto.
- Heat a 12" pot over medium heat, add the butter and olive oil. When the butter begins to sizzle (but before it turns brown) add the onion and saute until tender and translucent. Add the rice, and stir to coat it in the onion mixture.
- Start adding the water about 1 cup at a time. Stir vigorously every 30 seconds to 1 minute, only adding more water when the previous water has been absorbed.
- When the rice begins to plump up a bit (about 10 minutes) add the sea salt and rosemary. Continue to add more water, stirring frequently until the risotto is al dente. This means when you bite into a grain of rice, there will be a small white core in the center.
- When the risotto is done, take it off the heat to add the lemon juice, mascarpone, and the roasted squash. Stir to combine and serve right away with the freshly grated parmesan cheese.
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