Monday, April 18, 2011

Don't Fear the Risotto!

Article first published as Don't Be Afraid of Risotto! on Blogcritics.

Is there anything better than good risotto?  It’s a gorgeous version of comfort food, all creamy and slightly salty and cheesy, with lots of possible flavor combinations.  So delicious!  Many home cooks avoid it because they just don’t know the basics.  If you have just a little bit of patience, some chicken stock, good Arborio rice and some cheese on hand, you’re 25 minutes away from perfect risotto…I promise!

I admit I was scared of risotto.  I consider myself an accomplished and adventurous home cook, but my confidence faded just sort of this classic Italian rice dish. Then came the blizzard of 2009.  I was buried under 38 inches of snow with my family and decided that I’d be productive.  I took on both risotto and gelato that weekend and never looked back!  So, here’s what I leaned through some research and trial and error.  I’m going to share a basic risotto recipe that you can play around with in infinite ways.  Tonight, I’m making a version of it that includes spinach, shrimp, bacon, fresh spring peas, basil and parmigiano reggiano cheese.  But honestly, once you have the basics down, you can use almost any combination of herbs, grated or crumbled cheeses, vegetables, and protein, if desired.  So go ahead, get out your most comfortable wooden spoon, open up a nice bottle of wine and get down to it! 

I’m going to go ahead and share the recipe I’m using this evening, but as I’ve suggested, you can leave out the vegetables and protein and sub out whatever you like.  As long as you follow the technique and use the same ratio of fat, wine, stock, rice, cheese and herbs, you can be as creative as you want.


1 Tbsp Olive oil (or butter or bacon drippings as you prefer)
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups chicken stock or broth (you could use beef, seafood, vegetable stock, etc..)
½ cup dry white wine (or other wine choice)
1 cup Arborio rice
3 oz baby spinach leaves, rough chopped
¾ cup sweet peas
4 slices of bacon, cooked
1 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
¾ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup chopped fresh parsley and basil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp lemon zest
salt & pepper to taste

You’ll use 2 pots for this dish. First, hear the stock in a medium saucepan over medium.  Heat it through but do not boil, and keep it at that temperature while making the risotto.  On a large burner, use a 12-inch sauté pan, and heat the olive oil on medium. (I’m actually using a bit of the bacon drippings combined with olive oil this time, but it’s totally your call.)  Add the chopped onion and sauté for at least 4 minutes until soft.  Add the garlic and cook/stir until soft.  Add the Arborio rice and stir well, ensuring that all the rice gets toasted and a little translucent.  Season with a dash of salt and pepper at this time.  Then, add the wine to the pan and scrape any brown bits off the bottom.  (If you’re adding long-cooking vegetables such as butternut squash or mushrooms, add these now.  I am not using anything like that for this particular recipe.).  Next, add one full ladle of the heated stock and stir constantly until nearly all the liquid is absorbed.  Keep doing this, one ladle at a time, only adding more stock when all the liquid in the pan is gone.  This will take 20-22 minutes.  Test a grain of the risotto to see if it is too al dente and if so, continue cooking, stirring constantly.  Now, add the shrimp to the pan, stirring it into the rice, and sautéing until pink and slightly curled.  Add the grated cheese and continue stirring.  Add the peas and the chopped fresh spinach.  Stir.  Add the lemon juice and zest and additional salt and pepper to taste.  Crumble up the bacon you pre-cooked, and add that now too.  Finally, add the fresh herbs, reserving a few for garnish.   Serve the risotto immediately as it is best warm.  I garnish it with just a bit more grated or shaved cheese and a sprinkle of fresh herbs.

I serve this with a simple salad of arugula, shaved fennel, and endive, tossed with some feta cheese and walnuts, and dressed lightly with good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper.  It will pair beautifully with a lighter Oregon Pinot Noir, French-style steel-aged Chardonnay, or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, depending on your preference.

Go ahead – take the plunge and remember – don’t fear the risotto!  If you keep some Arborio and stock in your pantry, you are almost always no more than ½ hour away from an elegant and comforting supper good enough for last-minute company.  Try it with exotic mushrooms and seared scallops, or asparagus, goat cheese and shrimp, or butternut squash and sage, or anything else that is fresh, in season, and a favorite of your family.

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