“It’s an incredible act of bravery to invite people into your home.”

— Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl, long-time restaurant critic for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, spoke at Stanford last week. I expect this news will elicit one of two responses from you: “Shut up. She did not. I love her!” Or, “Ruth who?” For the latter camp, I confess I shared your gastronomical ignorance—until last Tuesday.

Ruth has a rapier wit and a wily reputation. When she reviewed Manhattan’s haute cuisine, she would disguise herself with enormous hats and false noses in order to sip and sup in anonymity. Her discriminating palate and opinion made Michelin-rated restaurateurs tremble in their chef whites. But then she quit.

Why? I loved her response. Ruth says she walked away from the life of a food critic because she tired of seeing Americans spend so much of their private time in public spaces. As she put it, cooking dinner for friends is a very different social transaction than inviting friends out for dinner. Restaurants allow you to hold each other at arm’s length. The same is hardly possible with a home-cooked meal.

Your dinner guests gain insight on your life they wouldn’t otherwise. They see whether you’re messy, if your cats are undisciplined, and who does the dishes. She feared her restaurant reviews encouraged readers to dine out. So she took the job at Gourmet to encourage Americans to cook at home.

I daresay her words had the intended affect.

This wild mushroom risotto could be an ode of sorts to Ruth’s advice. The recipe comes from the Zuni Café in San Francisco, but I threw it together in my kitchen. The stars had aligned and I somehow had all these ingredients—even the offbeat stuff like kabocha squash and porcini mushrooms. The only thing missing were the dinner guests.

Had you joined us for this mid-week meal, you would have seen that my stovetop resembles Pigpen from the Peanuts cartoons. That our folding chairs are three inches too short for our butcher-block table. And that our dog licks the dirty dishes after dinner. Pay her no mind.

Risotto with Wild Rice, Squash, and Wild Mushrooms

Adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook

4 to 6 servings

This recipe is good—but to make it really great, I’d recommend two adaptations: add a bit of pancetta (yes, again) and a splash of dry sherry wine. I haven’t tried these modifications yet, so I’ll leave you with the original recipe for now.

1/4 cup wild rice

3/4 cup water


4 tablespoons unsalted butter

6 ounces cleaned, sliced wild mushrooms, such as porcini, chanterelle, or hedgehogs

1 cup peeled butternut, Kabocha, or Red Kuri squash cut into 3/8-inch dice

1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion

2 cups Arborio rice

4 to 5 cups chicken stock

About ¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place the wild rice and water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over low heat and stir in salt to taste. Barely simmer and cover tightly. Cook until tender, about 45 minutes. Drain in a strainer and capture the excess cooking water.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the mushrooms, salt lightly, and cook, stirring or tossing a few times until they color slightly, 3 to 6 minutes. You should just begin to smell their nutty aroma. Add the squash cubes, salt lightly, and stir or sauté until tender. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside.

Warm the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a few pinches of salt. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are tender and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the risotto rice and stir until the grains are warm and coated with fat. Add the wild rice cooking water and about 2 cups of stock. Adjust the heat to bring it to and maintain a gentle simmer. Stir as needed until the liquid is mostly absorbed. Add another cup of stock and do likewise. Taste: the rice will be hard and a little raw tasting. Add more salt if needed.

Stir the mushrooms, squash, and wild rice into the risotto, then add another cup or so of stock and stir as needed until just absorbed. Taste again, checking the flavor and doneness. Add additional stock a few spoonfuls at a time until the rice is al dente.

Turn off the heat. Stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano.