Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Sunday (or any day) risotto

Risotto is often our Sunday dinner, because we tend to have a roast chicken for Friday or Saturday, and so the carcass is available Sunday to make a chicken stock, which is the beginning of the risotto recipe I follow from Lidia Bastianich's Lidia's Italian Table.

I prepare the chicken stock and start it simmering at about 2:30 or 3:00 in the afternoon. Then I can wander off (not too far away) for a while and do something else. Lidia explains that risotto takes only about 16 minutes to make once you start the rice cooking (!), so there is no pressure to stand slaving in front of the stove all day.

The real cooking begins with warming a lot of olive oil in a big heavy pot. Lidia calls for a few tablespoons, but I use an ample 1/2 cup, based on a recipe from Wolfgang Puck which is more generous in its liquid measurements. In the oil, I heat a chopped onion and sometimes a chopped leek. A clove of garlic is also a good thing.

When the onions and garlic have softened and turned golden, I add 2 and 1/2 cups of short grain, pearl, or arborio rice, or plain risotto if I can find it. I stir it for a few minutes, until the edges of the grains "become translucent." This is hard to judge. I watch the clock and reason that three minutes is three minutes.

Then I add a cup of white wine and a little salt, and keep stirring. It is from this point on that Lidia claims the cooking process should take 14-16 minutes and then you are ready to serve. For professionals, perhaps; I've found that's not enough time to soften the rice, and I suppose in turn my risotto probably comes out "less than perfect" -- each kernel not "retaining its al dente texture in a creamy suspension."

The wine is absorbed into the rice and onions very quickly. After that comes the tedious process of whisking the hot chicken stock by ladlefuls into the risotto, stirring after each addition so that the rice absorbs another dose of stock and the cooking process is never interrupted by the addition of anything cold. Slowly, the rice expands and fills half the Dutch oven. When it is soft and palatable -- which sometimes requires more time, or the judicious ladling in of some hot water from the pot of carrots I happen to have simmering on the stove -- I add a small hunk of butter to it, stir that in, and set the Dutch oven on a back burner to carry on by itself. At dinnertime, it looks like this:

I have a pot of carrots boiling next to the risotto because I have recruited my teenagers to peel and chop them, and because Lidia recommends a bed of buttered mashed carrots, spiced with nutmeg, to go underneath each person's helping of rice. It is a tasty accompaniment.

A really ambitious cook would plan a nice meat to go with all this Vegetarian Delight. Cornish game hens, or a pork tenderloin would be delicious. However, we usually make a meal of the risotto, and I add quickly wilted and buttered spinach to the menu, for the grownups. Who knew that the big, ugly, locally-grown spinach would be so much better and cheaper than the elegant looking "baby spinach" leaves from California?

Freshly grated parmesan cheese can be stirred through the risotto, or sprinkled atop each serving, as desired. Or both. Lidia says that any leftovers are good fried the next day as a pancake, but I find this turns the risotto unpleasantly chewy. Far simpler to zap it all in the microwave, carrots and all, and call it lunch.

The wine: a chardonnay, rich and buttery? A viognier, similar but slightly more acerbic? A very fresh and crisp Italian white, or a light (red) Valpolicella? The possibilities are endlessly delightful.

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