Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Risotto Life

Whenever someone asks if I have a specialty in the kitchen, I scratch my head and say I guess it's risotto.

If my risotto is any good -- I hate to brag, but it is -- this is because I've paid my dues. I didn't just buy a bag of Arborio rice one day and instantly know how to tame that wild beast. No, no. I had to work at it; I had to domesticate the stuff, show it who's boss. Because, as I've said before, my early efforts had me stirring frantically for what seemed like hours.

But maybe the person who coined the phrase "practice makes perfect" was a cook, since all it really takes to get a dish right is a little familiarity. You can't immerse yourself properly in the details until you've gained some perspective on the general concept and readied yourself to dive deeper. Make risotto ten times, in a reasonably condensed period (so you're able to retain the lessons you learned during the previous run), and I bet you'll have a real handle on the process by No. 5 and will feel like a master by the time you're done.

It's easy.

There are only two kinds of people who should not make risotto:

* Those who are wholly, utterly, hopelessly devoid of patience
* Those who think store-bought broths and stocks are acceptable flavoring agents

I should probably add "Those who do not drink" to the list, since the risottatore's most trusty companion during the stirring process is a bottomless glass of wine -- hey, you've opened a bottle anyway; risotto itself demands a hearty drink of vino in order to cooperate with your spoon -- but that would be coarse of me. Do it dry if you must.

Now, I don't consider myself to have a specialty within my specialty -- that is, I prefer to switch it up. My most common choices are risotto alla pescatore, or "fisherman's" risotto, which I make with shrimp stock, and mushroom risotto, which I make with chicken stock. But the basic process is virtually the same for whatever kind you choose:

You gently cook a soffrito (always onion, sometimes along with other goodies, like leeks, celery, shallots, and anchovies) in butter and olive oil, add the rice and let it toast for a couple minutes, hit it with a splash of wine (see above), begin stirring, add hot stock, keep stirring, add more stock, do more stirring, and then, maybe 20 or 25 minutes down the line, you have the ultimate creamy, steaming, savory, delicious substance in front of you, begging to be devoured. (Some might call it the ideal comfort food, but I hate that term. I find all tasty food -- not just mushy stuff that doesn't require chewing -- to be comforting.) Near the end of the process, you might add precooked or quick-cook ingredients, like sautéed mushrooms. You may also add some cream and/or a bunch of grated Parmesan. I never work from a recipe, but if anybody wants one, I could whip something up.

Tonight it was morel mushroom risotto with leeks and pancetta (and cream and Parmesan at the end). Mmm! For my band's last Secret Santa, Enzo (Sant'Enzo) had given me a nice bag of dried morels from a specialty shop in NYC. I got comfy with them by using just a few in our spinach and mushroom empanadas, but this time I didn't hold back. I did also dispatch the last of the baby bellas that were in the fridge, but the morels dominated, with their pleasantly spongy texture and smoky, nutty flavor. The shrooms and the pancetta really brought out the best in each other. And since the morels had to be reconstituted before being cooked, I got to add their flavorful soaking liquid to the risotto.

I went for a loose texture. I know there is debate on this issue, but I'm pretty easygoing here, and my moods shift. One night I'll make it a little soupy, the next a little tighter. It's like I feel about pizza -- make me a good pie and I don't care how thin or thick it is. It just has to be good. There are so many lousy pizzas, and lousy risottos, out there that I'm not about to moan and groan about one being yummy but not the way I like it. I like it yummy.

Thanks to the morels, and to dicing the pancetta a little larger than usual so it could really be savored (and thanks to the leeks, and the cream, and the cheese...), this risotto leaped onto my personal top ten, and I told Margy so. But I don't think she heard me.

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