Friday, June 18, 2010

Last vestiges

I've long believed that I was not keen on rice, a fact that I have previously mentioned here, but I am reminded daily that many of my go-to comfort foods are rice-based: rice pudding; rice omelet (oh! I'll have to write about that one...); and risotto.

As I grow older, my cravings increasingly stem from childhood memories -my mother's cooking was either make-do Japanese food made with whatever was available in Montreal during the '80s or Japane-fied Western food, often served on a bed of Calrose rice. Risotto, however, was not a childhood fare. Not really.  Although risotto kind of resembles Chinese congee or Japanese okayu (basically, rice porridge), risotto was brought into the familial kitchen by myself. Somewhat by accident.

I was 14, I had recently given up meat from my diet, and I was trying to stick to strictly 'natural' foods. So I attempted to make brown rice, which neither of my parents wanted to touch. I followed the instructions in Molly Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, and failed miserably. I'm not sure what I did wrong, but I figured the only way to save the grain would be to turn into something else. Jeff Smith had mentioned risotto in an episode of The Frugal Gourmet, so I tweaked the brown rice and made my first 'risotto'. I don't remember if the dish was a success with my family, but I was hooked: it was a long time before I ate brown rice the regular way.

(By the way, I only just found out that Jeff Smith also died in 2004. Whereas the death of Julia Child made the news the world over, Smith's passing was a quiet one. For those of you who knew the Frugal Gourmet, you also probably remember the scandalous rumours that caused Smith's fall from grace and subsequent disappearance from Public Television. I loved the Frugal Gourmet. 
Both Smith and Child were my heroes. They, for me, represent everything that food television should be. Although they still have a subtle influence on some of today's cooking shows, most have become circus acts where food no longer is at their core. Both Smith and Child put a great deal of importance on ingredients, but what they valued most was technique: they catered to the average home cook, not to the foodie, nor to the food pornographers. They made beautiful , delicious food with what was readily available. 
They are both sorely missed.)

I have since learned to make a proper risotto with proper Italian rice. I can tell you the merits of each of the Italian rices, explain why Vialone nano is the best type of rice for risotto, why Carnaroli is a close second, and why Arborio is not so great. But arborio is what is readily available, and it is also the type of rice that most restaurants use, because it is the least expensive. So despite my Italian friends' protests, the following recipe calls for arborio.

There are risotti for every season, but I must admit that my favourite ones are those with spring vegetables: asparagus, morels, peas, and baby roots. There are still some asparagus to be had, and I would  never have forgived myself, if I did not have asparagus risotto at least once before they disappeared for another ten months. So I bought a bunch of asparagus and emptied out the crisper drawer, and proceeded to have risotto primavera for three days (I even made it for staff meal at work...)


Risotto's appeal lies in its simplicity. Some rice, a bit of butter, a few choice ingredients, and you've got a whole meal. Yet like many simple dishes, a perfect risotto can be elusive at first. First things first: risotto is a Northern Italian dish. Rice in Italy is grown in the same regions that produce beautiful cheeses such as Parmigiano and Peccorino, the very same regions that use butter as the main fat in cooking. Not olive oil.

Secondly, I personally find that my risotto turns out best when I have the time to let the rice rest before it is served. This might be heresy to Italian nonni (grandmothers), but it is how I was taught to make risotto for the restaurant. It also allows one to serve risotto at a dinner party without having to miss all the fun. This rest is not an imperative, in fact, it is quite unnecessary if you are using vialone or carnaroli rice. However, I find that arborio can easily get stodgy really fast, and a resting period gives it time to recuperate and gather its wits(!)

Before I get to the recipe, I'd like to specify that I rarely bother making a stock for my risotto -sacrilege! I know. Despite having learned all the bases of classical French cooking, I have to admit that I do not see the point of stock (most of the time). Unless you are making a dish which depends entirely on a flavourful stock -like a Risotto ala Milanese, a beautiful saffron risotto usually served with osso buco- the ingredients you add to the rice should bring enough flavour to your dish. I only make a 'stock' for my mushroom risotto, if I am using dried mushroom, in which case I will throw in the fungi's soaking water. The following risotto gets all of its flavour from the delicate spring veg, so there is no need for a stock to overpower their subtle aromas.


Spring Vegetable Risotto
For 1, multiply to suit your party

½ cup Arborio rice
1 Tbsp butter + 1 teaspoon
a splash of olive oil, just enough to get the butter nice and hot without burning
½ a small onion, or a shallot, finely chopped, optional
wine, cider or whatever flavourful liquid you happen to have at hand (or none at all)
1 cup, more or less, vegetables of your choice, cut to half a bite-size
2 cups, at least,  room-temperature water
salt and pepper


In a pan - if you are making risotto for one, the pan/pot should be about the same size as the plate you will be serving the risotto in. If you are feeding more, it should be slightly bigger, and definitely taller- heat the olive oil and butter, over medium heat, until they start to bubble.
Throw in the onion or shallot, if using. If your vegetable mix contains green onions, the chopped onions are unnecessary, unless you love onions. 
 Add mushrooms at this point, if you are using.

When the onions begin to turn translucent, add the rice.
Stir the rice so that each grain gets coated in fat and does not adhere to the pot.
When the rice becomes clear and starts crackling, add a splash of wine or water, and stir vigorously with a spatula or a wooden spoon, until the liquid has evaporated. 
Try to avoid colouring the rice, or you will have toasted brown spots in the risotto.

Start adding water to the rice, about ½ a cup at a time, stirring the rice to extract the starch from each grain.
Add a generous pinch of salt to the pot (two three-fingered pinch per person is usually enough).
Add more water as the rice absorbs it. 

Add your vegetables at this point, except for anything green: the white part of spring onions, radishes and baby turnips can take a bit of cooking, but green vegetables will turn muddy if heated for too long.

As you stir the rice, the liquid should become opaque and thick (a little like oatmeal).
After about 10 minutes of stirring (it need not be constant -you can walk away and do other things, just make sure the rice does not stick),  taste a few grains of rice: if it cracks, continue adding water and stirring; if it is both starchy and crumbly (like pasta just before it reaches the al dente stage), remove the pot from the heat.
Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Add a spoonful of water or so, stir it into the rice, and let it rest, uncovered until you are ready to serve.

(Set the table, finish preparing the rest of your meal... Whether you are eating alone or in great company, it is important to set a nice table: you made risotto! It should be eaten at a table, not in front of the telly.)
You can refrigerate the rice at this point, if you intend to serve the risotto much later -it will keep in the fridge, covered, for about four days.
When you are ready to serve the risotto, add just enough water to the rice to loosen it up, add the rest of your vegetable (asparagus, peas, spring onion greens...) and heat over medium-high heat until the rice is bubbly and the vegetables are cooked through (you might have to add a bit more water).
The risotto should be creamy-looking, slightly runnier than oatmeal, and the grains of rice should be cooked  (not crunchy, nor crumbly), yet still firm.
Add a teaspoon of butter, stir in until melted. Grind in fresh pepper.
Serve with grated or shaved Parmesan, if you want.


I do apologize for the dark pictures. Although I made risotto several days in a row, I'd been getting home rather too late to take pictures in daylight. And since summer is just around the corner, I had to get this post written up before it was too late for me to refer to 'spring vegetables'...
If you haven't already attempted to make risotto at home, do try this recipe. Should you feel it is too daunting a task, try making it with short-grain brown rice: it takes a little more time, and quite a bit more water, but the process is the same, and it will build up your confidence to move on to real risotto.

Bon app'!



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