Monday, December 7, 2009

Accidentally Great Risotto

Risotto is a tricky one to tackle at a Food Night. Normally, risotto involves standing over a pot of simmering rice goodness for some time while constantly stirring. I've never found it to be a very guest friendly dish, because if I start the dish ahead of time and try to magically "pause" it in the middle... it just never comes out right. It ends up overdone, underdone, too dry, too brothy, too something. I know this is my shortcoming, and thousands of restaurants make very good risotto every day using the pause button, but I'm just not there yet. Another thing is, making risotto is a calming process for me. The slicing and dicing of ingredients, having a sip of the wine I'm cooking with, the rhythmical stirring of the pot, it's all very relaxing.

At the end of a long week, I often like to relax and wind* down by doing a little cooking on Friday night if at all possible. However, sometimes a balance needs to be struck between cooking and... being social. For example, this past Friday was movie night. So in the interest of both scratching that cooking itch AND leaving the house on Friday evening to go see Meryl Streep's Sandra Bullock's alleged tour-de-force performance in The Blind Side**, I decided to try to execute a satisfying risotto in a reasonable amount of time (reasonable to me in this case was 90 minutes, give or take. Not anything rushed, but not an all night thing either).

* Attempting to spell the word "wind" in that scenario took approximately 10 to 15 minutes of back and forth "e" or not to "e" debating. Wind. That is what blows across the flat earth here in the upper Midwest. It's what I cannot play golf in. It's what rustles the leaves in the trees. I was utterly convinced that "wind" (pronounced wine-d) MUST have an "e" on the end of it. I must be channeling my inner Dan Quayle or something.

** Very enjoyable movie, made even more enjoyable by the three cans of Surly Bender that were sitting in the seat next to us. You mean that's never happened to you? You've never gone to the movies only to find some beers from your refrigerator went to the same movie at same theater at the same time and sat in the seat right next to you? Hmm, sorry about that. I thought Bullock was actually very good, too. My expectations for her were admittedly low however, as I haven't seen a Sandy Bullock movie since this mess that even Keanu Reeves knew to avoid.

I've made risotto ever since I first started to get interested in cooking as something other than a hunger suppressant. Risotto is a blank canvas, ready to accept whatever flavor combinations you dream up. Red wine risotto with sausage and tarragon? Sure! White wine risotto with mushrooms and carrots? Of course! Risotto with bourbon, rabbit and caramelized onions? Go for it! (and let me know how it turns out). It can be a fridge declutterer, a leftover user-upper, a semi-quick weeknight dinner, or the centerpiece of a really elegant meal.

Before I give a brief run down of how this risotto came together, I will say that I can be a bit of a Nervous Nelly when it comes to my food. I'm often not sure it's any good until it's done, and even then I'm not sure until someone other than me actually likes it. This dish, was different. It was the perfect storm of ingredients that I knew were going to work as soon as I got home from the store.

Ahhhh the store - I had a grocery dilemma thrown in for good measure, too. See, I had it in my head that risotto was going to be what's for dinner, but time was a factor. I didn't really have time to leave work and fly way past my house to get to Kowalski's and their killer cheese department to grab the usual parmeggiano reggiano, then retrace my steps back toward the house by which time I'd really be pressing my luck to make a leisurely risotto and be on time for the movie.* The store that is on the way home simply doesn't cut it when it comes to Parm. They put strangely shaped triangles of parmesan into these waxy, oily vacuum sealed pouches which seem to vacuum and seal all the flavor and freshness and texture right out of the cheese. Ish. But again, TIME. There is no time! No time for Home Depot, certainly not for Bed Bath and Beyond, and definitely not for the extra 30 minutes it would take for a Kowalski's run. So, I stopped at the store on the way home, hoping for some inspiration.

* On time for the movie for me means about 20 minutes after the published showtime. Sure, I'd like to see some previews....... but not 20 minutes worth, geez.

Then, BANG, it happened. As I wandered around the store feeling sorry for the waxy, oily parmesan, I saw it... Goat Cheese. Who knew? I enjoy goat cheese as much as the next person, but I'd never used it in risotto before since I'm such a parm-a-holic. So I grabbed some goat cheese, a hot Italian sausage from the meat counter, and a rotisserie chicken (why not... it'll get used at some point in the near future if not tonight). But what really set the dish off was apple. A freaking APPLE. Peeled, and diced into pea-sized pieces, added at the end.

Risotto technique undoubtedly will get it's own post at some point, but I'll just throw out the basics here. I sauteed some shallot in butter, and after a minute added some fennel thinly shaved on the mandoline. Then added the rice, some more shaved fennel and uber-thinly sliced garlic, and the white wine (and plenty of it, pictured here. Probably a 1:1 ratio of wine to rice, at least. I used Helfrich Pinot Gris, which is absolutely fantastic stuff for under $15, find it at Haskell's). After the wine, ladle in stock*, slowly, maybe 1/2 or 3/4 cup at a time, while stirring constantly. As I was "stocking the risotto", I took the sausage out of the casing, broke it up, sauteed it, and kept breaking it up into little pieces until they were crispy. Ditched the fat in the pan from that, deglazed it with some shallot and wine, and dumped that deliciousness into the pot of simmering rice.

*Stock. There is nothing that will improve your cooking faster than to make your own stock. It's magic. And it's a whoooooole different post, which I cannot wait to write because it really, really, REALLY is the truth. I'm not here to lecture, or to cause trouble, I'm just here to do the Super Bowl Shuffle. No wait. I'm hear to tell you that if there is one thing that the old Food Night blog is 100% certain about, it is that stock is magic. And I DEFINITELY am not talking about anything that comes out of a box or a tin can. To be continued.

To finish; I stirred in a pat of butter and the goat cheese, another splash or two of wine until the desired creamy consistency was achieved. Stirred in a little dark meat from the chicken, the crispy sausage and some fresh parsley, and the apple.

Good times ensued. And the beauty was, I knew as this dish was coming together that it was going to be exceptional. Which again is really, really rare for me unless I'm making toast. Goat cheese, sausage, fennel, apple. The rest (shallot, chicken, parsley, etc) is really optional and completely up for debate. It's risotto - a blank culinary canvas. Just be sure to go a little heavy on the wine. Wine is your friend in risotto. I also can't overstate how good the apple was from both a taste and textural standpoint. Each bite with apple was like getting blindsided (ever so gently blindsided, mind you) by a crispity, crunchity palate pleasing flavor surprise. An apple. The simple* things sometimes really do make the difference.

*There's that word again, "simple". Food Night loves simple things.

In the end, this dish turned out so well I put risotto back on the map for future Food Nights. To go with the risotto, I opened a 2000 Barde Haut Bordeaux from St. Emilion which was out of this world good for the small price I paid for it. I can only imagine how good this dish could have been with a Barolo or Brunello or some other Food Night caliber Italian wine.

I suspect we'll find out soon enough.

1 comment:

  1. great posting - thanks for sharing! Dish sounds fab and you're right about the stock - if risotto is a blank canvas then a beautiful, fragrant, rich homemade stock is the art.