Today I made risotto. It’s been a while.
Risotto is a staple (yawn) vegetarian option at company dinners, holiday meals, etc. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good risotto – but it’s not a great vegetarian main dish.
First off, you can’t be sure it hasn’t been made with chicken stock. Ask. Even if it hasn’t, it isn’t technically vegetarian, if you want to be picky about it, because it has parmesan in it, and unless your restaurant has a line on certified rennet-free vegetarian parmesan – well, it isn’t. Also, nutritionally speaking, risotto is the fancy-pants labour-intensive Italian equivalent of mashed potatoes – a bowl full of refined starch, with some mushrooms or pumpkin thrown in if you’re lucky, and usually without a protein in sight besides the aforementioned cheese. (Yes, I know some risottos include beans, but it isn’t a texture that appeals to me. You can sprinkle in some nuts – delicious! – but the calorie-to-protein ratio is…you see where I’m going.)
Nonetheless. The weather outside is frightful. Therefore: risotto.
I had no vegetable stock on hand, and, in any case, I tend to make stocks that are rich and meaty in taste, full of soy sauce and coriander and even lentils. Risotto calls for something lighter, so I found this Mock Chicken Stock recipe. I had no carrots, celery, fresh garlic or parsley in the house. However, I had all the right spices, a squeeze-tube of roasted garlic paste, and a bag full of leek and herb trimmings that I keep in the freezer for just such an occasion. Also, a red onion, and I threw in a handful of nutritional yeast because it gives stocks a nice savoury taste and chickeny colour.
(Note to self: be more conscientious about filling the veggie trimmings bag every time you peel anything. Better yet, keep two, one for “light stock” and one for “rich stock.”)
I bought a slow cooker a few years ago, and have found that the only things it really helps me with are large batches of dried beans, and vegetable stock. Anything else – stews, puddings, etc. – is better cooked over direct heat in a pot on the stove, but for stock, the slow cooker is ideal: throw everything in, cover it with lots of water, and walk away for 8 hours or so.
My go-to risotto recipe is the Risotto Milanese from Moosewood Restaurant’s New Classics. In fact, this is my go-to cookbook for a lot of things, including the Lemony Baked Tofu that I happen to have left over in the fridge and that I will reheat in some stock to provide our missing protein. Both the risotto and the tofu recipes can be fiddled with, making them excellent bases for improvisation. When I made the tofu yesterday, for example, I threw in some shallot oil and sweet garlic chili sauce, products of an experiment with Burmese soup and condiments on the weekend. I don’t know if this will make it weird with the risotto. Who cares? Not me.
Despite the gory weather, I made it to the fruiterie while the stock was stocking. They had no saffron; I hoped the turmeric in the stock would make up for that, at least where the colour was concerned. I also bought mushrooms and a red pepper so that my risotto would be something more than cheesy rice porridge, and some arugula and romaine for a salad.
The stock turned out very chickeny! A bit cloudier than I’d like, but golden and tasty.
Then: saute the onions in olive oil and butter. I probably should have used a different pot, but why waste all that good mushroom flavour, even if the risotto ends up looking a bit muddy? This isn’t Top Chef Masters here.
Then, the rice. If I were really good at this, I’d use carnaroli, but arborio is all I’ve ever had. Toss it in the buttery oily onions until it’s all coated. Then throw in a cup or two of white wine. (Think carefully about how much you need to save for drinking with dinner.) Stir and cook until the wine is all absorbed.
Start adding the stock, which should be warm, a ladleful at a time. Stir a lot, and wait until one ladleful is absorbed before you add the next. Keep doing this until the rice is tender but still a tiny bit firm.
I used to make my risotto so thick and gluey that you could stand a lazy cat up in it, because it felt more like a real meal that way. However, I’ve been informed over and over that this is wrong. (In one agonizing moment on The Next Food Network Star, Wolfgang Puck took a bite of someone’s risotto, stood up from the table, took the contestant by the hand, led her back to the kitchen, and taught her to do it properly. I do not want Wolfgang Puck to ever do this to me, so I will endeavour to do as he says.) The risotto should be a little bit soupy and loose, and it makes sense to have enough stock ready so that, even once you think it’s all done, you can add a bit more to correct it. This is especially important if it has to wait for a little while because your husband isn’t home from work.
When it is nice and tender and soupy and DONE, stir in everything else: sauted veggies, parmesan (did I say I was a good vegetarian? No, I did not), salt and pepper to taste, and a bit more stock if necessary.