Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Best Risotto I've Ever Made

About two weeks ago, I made the best risotto ever. I wasn’t trying to do anything spectacular—the risotto was just a side dish—but it came out as the most scrumptious, homey, and flavorful risotto I’ve ever had. The rice still had a slight bite, and each grain could be separated, an important attribute to a proper risotto (no mushy rice!). It was also a little soupy, which is not so traditional, but it’s the way I prefer my risotto. By soupy, I mean there was a thin layer of starchy, thickened stock covering the bottom of each bowl, perfect for slurping up when the rice was gone. I could taste the richness of the stock, which paired beautifully with the distinctive flavor of the braised kale I folded in. I finished it with butter (this, also, is very traditional), lots of parmesan, and some freshly-ground black pepper. I think it changed my life. The question was, could I do it again?

A few nights ago, I tried to recreate this earth-shattering rice dish, mainly just by trying to remember exactly what I had done the first time, and repeating it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why when you are cooking without a recipe, you should write what you are doing down as you’re doing it, or right after, if you ever want to make it again. That is what I should have done. Instead, Andrew and I ate our risotto with great enthusiasm, and then melted into globby piles of post-gobbling goo, causing me to completely neglect jotting down notes on what I had done. So when I attempted to do it again, I worked from memory. The first few ingredients were obvious: shallots and garlic.

When I make risotto, I typically start by chopping and mincing these up, and sweating them for a few minutes in oil. This is a great base for your risotto—the oil becomes infused with the shallot and garlic, so that when you then stir in your Arborio rice …

… it gets coated in a flavorful oil. After letting the rice to cook a little in the oil, I deglazed the pan with some white wine (I used a buttery chardonnay—its richness worked really well). Once that had been absorbed, it was time to start adding the stock. Now, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: homemade stock is always better. However, the first time I made this risotto, I didn’t have any homemade stock, so I used store-bought, and, well, see the first paragraph for notes on how gosh-darned good it was. So, I used the same brand of stock the second time around, and it has become my new favorite store-bought stock. It’s called Kitchen Basics, and it comes in a yellow, modest looking carton:

It’s much darker and richer than other store stocks. I recommend it when you haven’t got any homemade. As to adding stock to your risotto, there are two schools of thought. The traditional way is to add hot stock to your rice, the idea being that adding cold or room temperature stock would mean having to cook the rice for longer, since it would take time for the stock to heat up enough to be absorbed, resulting in an overcooked final product. The second school of thought says that adding room temperature (note: not cold) stock works equally well, and saves the time, energy, and equipment necessary to heat the stock. I’m not sure who’s right, but I like to do things the traditional way, so I heat my stock. One day, I’ll have to conduct an experiment to see if it makes any difference! So I stirred in the stock one ladleful at a time (½ to ¾ cup).
Whenever I make risotto, I don’t stir it constantly, but I stay close and stir it often to ensure that the bottom doesn’t stick and burn and that the rice gets evenly distributed throughout the stock. When the stock has mostly been absorbed, I add another ladle of it. I continue to do this until the rice has softened, but is still al dente. Now, for this risotto, a little before this happens, I needed to deal with my kale.

I heart kale. It is yummy and incredibly, amazingly good for you. I washed, stemmed, and chopped a whole bunch of it. I brought my stock (there was only a little left in the pot at this point) up to a simmer, and then added the kale to it, letting it cook down into the stock.

Cooking it this way is amazing, because it gets cooked just the right amount, and any nutrients that escape the leaves in the cooking process turn up in the stock, so they aren’t lost. After about two minutes, I folded the kale into the risotto.

At this point, I tasted my rice again to see if it needed to be cooked more. It didn’t, so I just added a little more stock to get that soupy consistency, and removed the pot from the heat. To finish it, I folded in butter, parmesan, and black pepper. I served it in shallow bowls, and made sure that each bowl got a bit of that thick liquid at the bottom of it.

So, was it just as fabulous as the last time? Well, almost. It’s hard to remember exactly what I did before. Also, when I have a particularly memorable food experience, it is very difficult, usually impossible to recreate it: the memory will always seem better. That said, I did overcook the rice a little this time. The final result was a little mushy, and a little gummier than I would have liked. The problem was that the rice continued to cook after it had been taken off the heat since it absorbed a little more of the hot stock. The lesson: just as you take a steak off the grill just before it’s accurately cooked, take your risotto off the burner when it is just shy of al dente so that it will be perfectly cooked by the time you eat it.

Here’s the recipe—I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

Risotto with Braised Kale
Two main course servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup Arborio rice
½ cup white wine (chardonnay is good)
2 cups, or more good chicken stock, heated
1 bunch of curly kale, washed, middle stems removed, and chopped
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup, or more finely grated parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot, and sweat for about two minutes, until the shallot has softened. Add the rice, and stir to coat it completely in the oil. Cook for about a minute, until the germ is visible in the rice (you’ll be able to see a white spot in the center of the grain). Stir in the wine, and scape up anything sticking to the bottom of the pot.

Once the wine has been mostly absorbed, add one ½ cup ladle of the stock. Stir it frequently, ensuring that the bottom doesn’t stick and burn, and that the rice gets evenly distributed throughout the stock. When the stock has mostly been absorbed, add another ladle of it. Continue to do this until the rice is just shy of al dente.

Just before this happens, bring the remaining stock to a simmer in a medium pot. Add the kale to it, and let it cook down into the stock. Stir it for a minute or two, and then use tongs to add it to the risotto. Fold the kale into the risotto, distributing it evenly. Take the risotto off the heat and add one more ladle of stock (if you like it soupy).

Stir in the butter, parmesan, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve in shallow bowls, getting a nice layer of thick stock on the bottom of each bowl.


  1. I made this last night for our pre-Thanksgiving dinner with grilled salmon - it was a huge hit and the first time I had ever made risotto. You made it so much fun - and delicious - Thank You!!