It’s been a little cool for Florida over the past few days. A few nights have gone down into the 40’s and 50’s here by the gulf. While it hurts my heart to say that I now consider this “cold”, it did make for a perfect excuse to making some more warm, homey dishes. We’ve had some Arborio rice knocking around in the cabinet for a minute now, and we had a half of a container of white button mushrooms in the fridge… Risotto night!
Many people, including myself until recently, are intimidated by risotto. It requires a special rice. You need to watch it constantly. You need to add just the right amount of liquid at just the right time. It’s temperamental and can easily come out still crunchy or as a bowl of cream of wheat. You get the picture.
The truth is, if you have your mise en place and you keep your pairing / approach simplistic, this dish is extremely easy to prepare. Yes, this dish does require your attention. No, this is not a dish you can set-and-forget while you go about peeling, trimming and assembling an entire tray of micro-veg. Additionally, this is not a dish you should attempt to cook while your team is playing its top rival of the last five decades for that final playoff berth in the other room, or, while you are trying to catch up on the last week’s episode of “American Horror Story”. If you take your time to properly prepare your ingredients, plan or sequence all of the steps for your meal ahead of time, and put a little love into it, risotto can be an impressive recipe to add to your repertoire. Just make sure you have a playlist that you can leave alone for 45 minutes!
- 2 cups mushrooms, sliced (I used button mushrooms, but any variety will work)
- 1/2 white onion, fine chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, fine minced
- 1 1/4 cup Arborio rice
- 32oz beef stock (homemade is preferable)
- 3/4 cup of dry red wine (anything you would like a glass of while you’re cooking)
- 3 tbsp EVOO
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2+ tbsp grated pecorino romano cheese
- 3-5 sprigs of flat-leaf parsley, fine chopped
Before your do anything else, get your stock into a sauce pan and get in on the stove. You need this to be steaming hot before you start your onions. As you go through the cooking process, if you add cool or cold stock, water or wine to your pan, you will shock the rice, and you will absolutely interrupt the cooking process which can lead to problems.
Once the stock is on, prep your mushrooms, onions and garlic, then portion out the rice and wine. Now, heat 1 tbsp of EVOO in a large pan over med-high heat. Add your mushrooms and pinch of salt and saute until starting to brown. Remember, with mushrooms, if the pan is not hot enough or if you crowd the pan, you will wind up with steamed mushrooms… That said, if you need to cook the mushrooms one cup at a time, do so. Once you get a color you are happy with, remove the mushrooms to plate with a paper towel and set them aside.
You can either use a new pan, or clean and re-use the one you had the mushrooms in. Either way, this pan needs to be the largest you have. You are doing to want at least a 2″ – 3″ rim. Don’t forget, the 1 1/4 cups of rice will expand quite a bit, and you want the layer of rice to be as thin as possible in your pan throughout the whole cooking process. Bring your pan to medium heat and add the remaining 2 tbsp of EVOO. Add your onions and cook for 3 minutes, or until starting to turn translucent. Then, add your garlic and cook for another 2 minutes. You do NOT want the onions or garlic to take on any color, so watch them closely. About five minutes after you’ve started the onion, add the rice to the pan, stirring constantly for 1 minute. You need to stir the rice constantly because you do not want the rice to take on any color, and you also need to make sure that each grain of rice get coated in your EVOO and the oils from the onion and garlic. Getting them coated with fat will slow the release of their starch and will help ensure that you don’t end up with mush. After the rice has been on for 1 minute, add the wine and the first ladle of stock. Your stock should always be added at either 1/2 of 3/4 cup increments. This is not an exact science, so don’t stress about it. As long as you keep the rice wet but not drowning, you’ll be fine. Think of it this way: The rice needs to absorb liquid to expand and become tender (cook). You want to add just enough liquid so that the grains can ‘drink’, thereby absorbing the flavors you are adding to the pan. If you add too much liquid at once, the rice will not be able to absorb the flavor quickly enough and your liquid will start to simmer or boil. Now you are cooking the rice without the benefit of it absorbing flavor…. That’s the reason you want to take your time with risotto. You need to impart the flavor of the onion, garlic, leek, shallot, wine, stock, etc… into the rice. In some regions of Italy, risotto takes the place of pasta dishes. Think about the time and effort you put into your traditional red sauces… you want to put the same time and effort into this process. As the liquid is absorbed, add another ladle of stock to the pan. This process continues for up 30 minutes. As this is ongoing, it is crucial that your stir almost constantly. As you stir, you are accomplishing a few things. 1) you are making sure that all of the grains are getting the same amount of exposure to the stick as you add it. 2) you are creating friction between the grins which helps release the starches. The starch is what makes the risotto we all know and love so rich and creamy. Arborio rice has a higher starch content than other grains, which is why Arborio, in my opinion, is really the only rice to be used in a risotto (sorry, Baldo). Now, again, don’t stress out about the stirring. You have time to check get dishes organized, check on the other components of your meal, take photos for your blog, etc… as long as you are not leaving the rice sit for minutes at a time, you will be okay.
After the rice has been on for approximately 15 minutes, add the mushrooms to the pan. Once these are stirred into the risotto, grab a spoon and check a few grains of rice for flavor and doneness. It will still have crunch to it, but it will give you a good benchmark as to how the dish has progressed over the last 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning as needed and continue with the stock-and-stir. After about 25 minutes of total cook time, it’s time for the spoon test. Take a clean spoon and, without pushing down on it, drag it across the top of your risotto. Check the bottom of the spoon. If you have a nice, creamy coating on the bottom of the spoon, you’ve done good work.
Continue to taste your risotto, checking for doneness, until you’ve reached your preferred level of al dente. For The Love Of All That Is Holy, Do Not Cook Until Soft And Mushy. You’ve invested too much love and effort into this to eat it any other way than how it was meant to be eaten… Once done, remove from the heat and add 2 tbsp of pecorino romano, stirring to incorporate.
Serve hot (within a few minutes of removing it from the heat), spooning the desired amount onto plates and garnish with parsley and another pinch of cheese.
I paired this risotto with some simple roasted carrots, tossed with EVOO, salt and pepper, a few whole garlic cloves and a few sprigs of thyme. Left in the oven at 350 F for 25-30 minutes. (prepped these prior to starting the risotto).
One of the beautiful things about risotto is that the only limit to it is your imagination. This being Fall, mushrooms were an easy choice. Also, as mushrooms are one of the more hearty vegetables, they stands up well to the robust flavor of the beef stock. I’ve always enjoyed the dark risottos to the lighter ones anyway…
As far as nutrition goes,the Arborio rice is not going to hurt you. With no fat to speak of, and as a good source of protein and dietary fiber, it’s not a bad choice for a side or a main. You will need to be careful about what you add to it. EVOO should be used sparingly. Most recipes you will see call for copious amounts of butter to be used. Obviously, I cut that out. Constantly stirring the rice, as well as adding the cheese at the end will give you the creaminess you are looking for. The vegetables and stocks you use in your risotto will make not only a big difference in your flavor, but in nutrition. Try risotto with vegetable stock and one of your favorite vegetables and see what you think! Be careful though, as fresher vegetables like peppers or peas should not be added until the last few minutes of cooking in order prevent them from breaking down.
I hope you make some room in your schedule one night soon and devote some time to making this. Forget that 5-minute rice in a box for a night, and roll your sleeves up. Taking the time to make this dish is relaxing as well as rewarding. Trust me, you’ll taste the love in it when you do it right.