Thursday, December 8, 2016

Risotto as a Weeknight Meal

I don't know what it is about risotto, but people treat it with the kind of reverence that one might a fancy French dessert.  It's just something that seems too difficult to tackle at home.  Perhaps its the way restaurants make a big fuss about it when it's on the menu.

"Made to order.  Please allow 30 minutes for us to prepare your risotto!"
"Risotto with shaved white truffle, goat cheese, and duck confit.  $28.95"

Or perhaps it's because recipe after recipe written by some Italian person stresses how you need to stand near the stove, stirring every 3 minutes...with only a wooden only a clockwise direction, lest the risotto gods make mush of your meal.

Want to know the truth?  Risotto is only rice and a liquid and it's incredibly easy to make.  Really.  It's a simple peasant dish.  It takes about 30 minutes to prepare, even using the most in-depth recipe from an old Italian Nonna, and it's the perfect dish to serve on a weeknight when you don't have a lot of time.  It's also a great way to use-up leftovers because you can literally throw anything into it just as you can with soup.

And you want to know another secret?  The cooking method isn't nearly as temperamental and fussy as cookbooks have made it out to be.  Shhhh....don't tell Nonna!  Seriously.  Several great folks who have a good deal of experience in food science have done experiment after experiment and there are all kinds of cheats to the stand-and-stir method from dumping all the liquid in at once to dumping it in half at a time, pre-soaking the rice to extract more starch,  or even cooking it in a pressure cooker or a slow cooker. The bottom line is that it'll come out great no matter which way you do it.

Here are my tips for turning-out a great risotto:
  1. Choose the right rice.  While you can technically make risotto out of any rice, even orzo pasta, it really works best with a white short-grain starchy rice.  The most commonly available varieties are Arborio and Carnaroli.  These rices stay intact through the extended cooking time, retain a slight chew, and are coated in a lot of starch.  It's this starch that slowly seeps into the cooking liquid and thickens it into a creamy sauce, just like making gravy.
  2. Butter & Cheese.  Most recipes will tell you to take the cooked risotto off the heat towards the end of cooking and add a whole bunch of butter and grated Parmesan cheese.  No matter how tempting it is to omit these ingredients, don't!  Butter has long been used by the French as a mild thickener for sauces for good reason.  It not only adds a sweet creamy flavor, but it adds texture and mouth feel and gives the sauce that glossy smooth texture.  The cheese also completes the sauce, adding a tremendous amount of flavor.
  3. More Liquid Fixes Most Problems. Is it too thick and the rice isn't cooked through?  Add more hot liquid.  Did it sit around and get gloppy while you were waiting for the family to show-up?  Add some hot liquid.  Reheating it the next day?  Add a little water before popping it in the microwave and it'll loosen right up.  Generally, I like to prepare the hot liquid I'll be using to cook the risotto and then keep a kettle of hot water on the side specifically for adding more if needed.  Usually, you don't need more flavor at that point, anyway.
  4. A Little Cream Doesn't Hurt.  While not traditional and Nonna would certainly scoff at the idea, a generous pour of cream after you've added the butter makes this already delicious dish even more luxurious.  I learned this one from Kenji.  If for some reason you aren't able to get your hands on real risotto rice, it will take the sauce from okay to wow.
  5. Be Creative.  The most basic of risottos can be made with rice, water, and some flavorful vegetables.  Risotto is a great canvas for whatever seasonal ingredients you have on hand or even for using-up leftovers.  More often than not, I'll make a risotto and toss in a few handfuls of frozen peas and some leftover roast chicken and that's it.  I've also been known to use some sauteed mushrooms, boneless chicken, and marsala wine to make a "marsala risotto" that's just as delicious as classic chicken marsala.  Sometimes, I'll use red wine, which makes a pretty pink risotto.
And now, because I know you're waiting for it, the recipe from the photo...

Butternut Squash Risotto with Baby Spinach

Serves Approximately 4, can be doubled for heartier portions or leftovers

Note:  My recipe uses a hybrid method that still toasts the rice but dumps the liquid in half at a time.  Feel free to follow whatever recipe technique you like from the links above.  They should all work with this set of ingredients.

1 cup Risotto Rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
4 cups chicken broth, heated to a simmer
1 pound of butternut squash, cubed into 1-inch pieces
2 to 3 generous handfuls of fresh baby spinach
1/2 small onion, minced
1/2 cup of white wine (optional)
2 tablespoons of oil
3 to 4 tablespoons butter (to taste)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan Cheese plus extra for serving
salt and pepper (to taste)
Simmering Hot Water (extra for thinning the sauce)

  1. In a large heavy-bottom pot (wider is better than narrow), heat the oil and gently sweat the onions and a pinch of salt until they begin to soften.
  2. Add the rice to the pan and stir to coat evenly with oil.  Add extra oil if it seems to need it.  Cook, stirring constantly until the rice turns a little translucent without browning.
  3. If using wine, add the wine to the pan and simmer for a minute or two to cook out some of the alcohol.  Add about half the cooking liquid and reduce to a bubbling simmer.  Add the butternut squash.  Stir periodically to prevent sticking and loosen some of the starch.
  4. Allow risotto to simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed and it is the consistency of porridge or oatmeal.  Add the remaining liquid and continue simmering.
  5. When it begins to look like a loose porridge again, taste a few grains of rice.  They should be a little chewy but not crunchy.  If they aren't done, add a little hot water and continue cooking until they're just right.  Add pepper and adjust salt if necessary.
  6. Remove the pot from the heat.  Add the butter a tablespoon at a time, stirring vigorously to melt it in without creating an oil slick.  The risotto will get creamier and begin to look shiny.  It may continue to thicken and the butternut will break-up or dissolve a bit.  Stir-in the cheese, then stir-in the spinach and let it wilt.
  7. If the finished risotto is thick like mashed potatoes, stir-in a little more hot water before serving.  It should flow off of a spoon without being soupy.  Serve in shallow bowls with extra grated cheese on top.
How to Modify the Recipe:
  • Hard vegetables should be cooked with the rice but frozen vegetables like peas and cooked meats can be stirred-in at the end just like the spinach and warmed through.
  • Larger vegetables like broccoli florets are best cooked separately and served on top of the risotto or gently stirred in at the last minute so they don't break-up.  The same goes for chunks of fish.
  • You can make risotto with plain water, but varying the liquids will make interesting flavors.  Swap out chicken stock for vegetable or beef broth.  Switch in red wine for white for a pink risotto.  Saute some mushrooms with the onions or use the liquid from soaking dried mushrooms for a deep meaty flavor without added meat.

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