Monday, August 8, 2011

Just Keep Stirring

Sundays tend to be the best days for me to try something even remotely ambitious in the kitchen.  During the week, the lack of time necessitates a hasty meal, but Sundays are for exploring.  Folks who know me might be surprised to learn I've never made risotto before.  It's not a hard dish, but a time intensive dish that requires near constant attention.  A couple weeks back I bought some Trader Joe's Arborio rice so I could try my hand at this oft admired Italian starch.

Whenever I set to do something like this I look for recipes online, just to get a sense of the steps, and what is supposed to happen.  I'm usually less concerned about measurements in any exact since, because I take more of a "food as jazz" approach.  So I found this recipe for an asparagus risotto, but my girlfriend likes broccolini and Harris Teeter always has it in stock, so I thought I'd mix it up a bit.  I'm also a big fan of mushrooms, so I picked up some cremini mushrooms to go in their as well.

To start, I chopped up the broccolini into 1.5 to 2 inch pieces that I then blanched in boiling water for a few minutes and then put them into an ice bath.  This is basically what the asparagus recipe called for and the green color the broccolini took on once hitting the ice bath was fantastic.  Next, I washed the mushrooms and halved them.  I melted a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan, melted it, and then threw the mushrooms in on med-high heat.  After sauteing the mushrooms for about 10 minutes, giving them some good color, I set them aside.

I took about three and a half cups of chicken stock and got it heating up on the back burner, per the recipe.  I think took three more tablespoons of butter and melted it in a saucepot at med-high heat and then tossed in two diced shallots. I turned the shallots through the butter until about translucent (just a couple minutes), then I tossed in a cup of the Arborio rice and turned it in the butter letting it take in some of that heat for a couple minutes.  Next I added a half-cup of Bare Foot Sauvignon Blanc (I use Bare Foot as my primary cooking wine, it's cheap, but I'd drink it on it's own, which is the test of any cooking wine).  I kept stirring the rice until it soaked up all that wine, which took less than two minutes and from their I added the simmering chicken broth a half to three quarter cup at a time stirring almost constantly.

I say almost constantly because I took the frying pan I sauteed the mushrooms in and brought it back to a medium/med-high heat and dropped in two chicken breasts (I have a mental block about a meal not having a  protein).  So at this point, I've got chicken browning in a fry pan and I'm stirring the risotto with every free moment I have, while also monitoring a loaf of Grapenuts bread I had baking in the oven for breakfast the next day.

The Arborio rice is really quite remarkable.  It sponges up any moisture incredibly fast and you have to keep it moving to avoid scorching it.  And so it continued until I'd put in about 3 cups of the chicken stock in and flipped the chicken breast in.  I tasted some of the rice and it had the texture, I think at least, you're looking for.  It was very soft on the outside with just the slightest resistance in the center.  The chicken breast was done and resting, and I took the risotto off the heat.  At some point doing all that stirring I had managed to grate about a half cup of Parmesan cheese.  I took the bulk of that and sprinkled it over the risotto, stirring it in.  I used a fine shred and the cheese melted away in the the risotto with ease.  After that, I threw the broccolini and the mushrooms back in and stirred a little more.  After plating the risotto and the chicken breast, here's what it looked like.
Broccolini & Mushroom Risotto w/ Chicken
Overall I think it turned out pretty well.  It lacked a little punch, but I couldn't decide if that was just how a risotto should be, if I had under seasoned, or if the vegetables I had couldn't stand up on their own.  The Parmesan flavor definitely came through though, which is one of my favorite flavor.  Now, if you're a Top Chef watcher (or just know risotto really well) you'll notice my risotto has Trae's disease.

Trae, the chef sent home after restaurant wars in Season 3 and sent home after a lackluster risotto during Top Chef All-Stars, was sent home during All-Stars because his risotto wasn't creamy enough.  It stood up on the plate.  Mine did too, and I think I know why.  There are two reasons.  First, the rice could have tolerated a little more chicken stock, probably another half cup or so.  Second, I pulled the rice off the heat at the wrong time.  I pulled it right as it has finished soaking up the last half cup of chicken stock I threw into it, versus right after adding a bit more chicken stock.  This is a minor thing that didn't impact taste, but certainly texture.

Overall, I think it was a successful attempt and I was able to crank it out much faster then I feared (the whole process took about 90 minutes from first cut to eating), but as with any first attempt there are lessons learned.  I've still got plenty of Arborio rice and my girlfriend asked why I didn't just use the asparagus because she likes that more then broccolini, so I'll be making more risotto in the weeks ahead.  I hope you find a random risotto recipe and give it a shot.  It's really not complicated, it just takes the right rice, enough chicken stock, and a lot of stirring.

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