Monday, July 23, 2007

Thoughts on Risotto

From the first time I attempted to make risotto, I fell in love with it's simplicity. Though the recipes appear somewhat challenging at first, there's a certain rhythm to mixing up a delicious, creamy batch of a risotto, which once you master it, you can do anything you want. It's a hearty dish that can be a main course on a cool fall night or a flavorful side dish to compliment any meat or vegetable entry. It can be sweet or savory, rich or spicy, delicate or robust. But most importantly, for me, it's one of the easiest dishes to improvise with. With a little patience, and some basic ingredients, you can go anywhere.

So what exactly is risotto? Essentially, it's a creamy rice dish of Italian origin. What makes it unique is the kind of rice that is traditionally used. Risotto rice comes in several varieties, Arborio being most commonly available (and the only kind I've used), with others such as Baldo, Cariso, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. Each variety has it's own cooking characteristics (so read the packaging!) but the general gist is that it's a round/semi-round short grain rice with a high starch content. That's what gives it that dreamy creamy texture when cooked.

Now there's much debate about how to cook risotto, but the first steps are almost always the same. You should have a saucepan of simmering liquid on hand (water will do in a pinch, but stocks are more traditional and flavorful) and another pot ready for your risotto. Into this pot goes a drizzle of olive oil, to which, once heated to a nice shimmer, you should add diced onions, and cook until softened. You then add the risotto, stir until coated with oil and lightly toasted (this delays the absorption process and allows the starch to release more slowly, as well as giving the rice a slightly nutty taste). Then wine is usually added, the rice stirred until the liquid has absorbed and the alcohol cooked off.

Then comes the adding of the liquid. Some argue that you can simply dump all your liquid in at once, cover the pot, and wait for the rice to cook. In my experience, the rice would not cook or absorb evenly. Instead, we add the hot broth in increments, usually of about 1/2 -1 cup at a time, stir until the risotto has absorbed the liquid and begins to stick just a bit, then add more. As you go, you will find the rice is absorbing the liquid much slower, the grains are softening, the mixture is coming together. I find that for a cup of arborio rice it usually takes 2 1/2 -3 cups of liquid to reach the right consistency. The rice should be a little chewy, and the liquid should be thick, almost creamy. Don't worry if it's not as creamy as you thought it would be. Remove it from the heat and add butter and parmesan, maybe a little cream. Then your next bite will be warm, almost gooey, but with enough firmness to the rice to give it some consistency. This is a stick-to-your-ribs kind of dish. A bonafide comfort food.

This is risotto at it's simplest, but once you master the timing (about thirty minutes) and the proportions, the world is your oyster. A simple way to start is to add peas and ham right around the 20-25 minute mark, when the rice is still a little too al dente, but probably only needs one more dousing of liquid to bring it to the right consitency. Another good combination that we like is sausage (pre-cooked of course) and bell peppers. I've made risottos with sundried tomatoes, pesto, asparagus, three different kinds of cheese, roasted red peppers, vegetable stock, canadian bacon, even apples, all of which (though not all together!) have been successful and mighty tasty.

One risotto that I am particularly proud of, I actually dreamed up entirely on my own, without the guidance of cookbooks or recipes. One night, before falling asleep, I thought about two of our favorite dishes, grilled pork chops with apples and onions and cheese fondue. Somehow, in my sleepy state, this got me thinking about mixing the cheddar and hard cider used in fondue with the apples and onions of our pork recipe. What better union than in a risotto? The caramelized apples and onions would add sweetness and the cheddar would add a strong, sharp flavor. We tried it the next night, and it was good, though the cheddar we had bought was not strong enough (I was afraid of overpowering the risotto, but apparently it was underpowered).

Coincidentally, it was this recipe that jumped to mind when, on our honeymoon, the cruise sponored a recipe contest. It was the only recipe I knew by heart as I had come up with it myself and only just recently. I submittted it and lo and behold, along with a recipe for Estonian Kringel, it won the contest. I received a free cookbook and apron, and a chance to whip up my risotto in the galley, then share it with other cruisers. When I made it in the kitchen, using slightly different ingredients (chicken boullion, processed cheddar, a different kind of rice) it came out good but not great. When they prepared a batch for other passengers to try, it was not the risotto I had intended. Where was the sweetness? There was hardly any apple flavor at all and far too much parmesan. Still, people seemed to enjoy it, though I tried to press on them that the recipe we were handing out would render a different (and in my opinion tastier) result.

When we returned from the cruise, my new in-laws were just dying to try my “prize winning” risotto. So I made a batch to serve along side roasted pork tenderloin rubbed in mustard and rosemary. This time, it came out perfectly. Below is said recipe. It should be slightly sweet, with the creamy robust flavor of the cheddar to counter it.

Caramelized Apple and Onion Cheddar Risotto
Serves 2

1 cup Arborio rice
2-3 cups chicken stock or broth
1 TBS olive oil
1 medium apple, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
1/2 cup of onions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup hard cider, apple juice, or white wine
3/4 cup sharp cheddar, grated
1/4 cup parmesan, grated
1 TBS butter
a pinch of nutmeg
2 TBS cream (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

• Heat stock in a small sauce pan until hot, but not boiling. Keep warm.
• Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan until shimmering. Add onions and apples and sauté over med-high heat until the onions begin to carmelize and the apples are falling apart. Lower the heat to med-low. Add the arborio rice and stir until it is coated with oil.
• Add the hard cider to deglaze the pan. Stir until the liquid has been mostly absorbed and the rice begins to stick to the pot.
• Add warm stock to the rice 1/2 – 1 cup at a time and continue to stir the risotto until the liquid is mostly absorbed and the rice begins to stick before adding the next cup. The rice will being to absorb the liquid much slower. After about 20 minutes, the rice will have puffed up and taken on a creamy texture and will almost hardly be absorbing any liquid at all. The rice should be tender but slightly chewy. Remove from heat.
• Add the butter, nutmeg, cheddar, and parmesan, blending until creamy. Add cream and stir until incorporated. Season to taste and serve.

Pork Tenderloin in Mustard/Rosemary Rub
Serves 4

1 lb pork tenderloin
1/2 cup coarse ground mustard
6 springs of rosemary
2 TBS olive oil

• Pre-heat oven to 400ºF. Rub the mustard into the pork tenderloin.
• Heat olive oil in a dutch oven. Once hot, add pork and brown on all sides.
• Add rosemary to the dutch oven and cover. Roast in the oven for approximately 20 min. or until the internal temperature reaches 155ºF.
• Remove from the oven and allot the pork to rest for 5 minutes. Slice and serve.

1 comment:

Veronica said...


I'm your Taste & Create partner for this month and I'm just posting to say this as delicious! You can find my entry here.