Sunday, March 19, 2006
Dear Sweet Risotto
With time and practice, my kitchen repertoire is expanding. But risotto will always be my first love. (Margy, if you're reading this, no offense.)
When I first started cooking, in high school, I made two things for my hungry but nongourmet friends: stir-fries and "red sauce." (The secret ingredient of the latter was pepperoni.) So risotto wasn't the dish that got me going. But when I first made it, in college, for my girlfriend (Margy) and my friend Jake (who became a chef), it's what got me hooked. I liked stirring. Constant, relentless, unstoppable stirring. Did I have anything better to do? I didn't even mind so much when the stirring went far beyond the printed guidelines and stretched into hours rather than minutes. I had an important and delicious chemical reaction happening right under my nose and I was going to see it through.
I only had to make risotto this way for a few more years (I called it "fifty-minute rice") before I learned my heat was too low. My Italian friend Giuliana taught me this by example. She also taught me by example that you don't have to never, ever, at any cost, stop stirring. She'd be doing three or four other things -- making a salad, combing her toddler Silvia's hair, running out back to the cantina for another bottle of her father-in-law's homemade wine -- while she had risotto on the stove, and she just couldn't be that vigilant. I would say she stirred frequently bordering on often, and still her simple zucchini risotto was wonderful, better than what you'll find in most restaurants.
Not that it's easy to get decent risotto in a restaurant, but we'll save that topic for later.
The dish does represent a commitment of time and effort, and if you're going to fight that, you're going to lose. But it's not that much time and not that much effort, and it's more than worth it to have a hot plate of creamy, oozing, plump, savory rice in front of you, rich with the flavor of homemade stock. You realize you have to make your own stock too, right? Hello?
Actually, Giuliana didn't. She used some sort of Italian bouillon cube. That woman had the Midas touch. For me, though, risotto is a Sunday-night dish, and it's time to go all the way, because you are pumping each grain of rice full of whatever liquid you're using, and if your liquid is Campbell's broth, your dinner will remind you of that over and over. (Unless you're Giuliana.)
Tonight's shitake risotto came up almost by accident. Basically, I had some shitakes and a dream. And a freezer that held A) chicken stock, and B) pancetta. It was so obvious I almost missed it...