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.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Let’s Hear it for the Local Butcher

Last time, I talked about my ever-evolving food philosophy. I spoke about how I’m trying to cut down on meat consumption and switch completely to organic and ethical meat sources. I said that I was buying my meat from Whole Foods and PCC, both of which offer organic meat options. Whole Foods, once a smaller organization, dedicated to local and sustainable foods, is now a huge corporation who uses their “green” focus to overcharge customers for products they are made to feel are morally superior to those from the Safeway down the road. By reading the labels on many of their products, indicating places of origin everywhere from California to Australia, they seem to be far less committed to local products than they once were. Now, this is not to say that Whole Foods is not a store worth going to: they do offer great variety and quality in many of their products, especially fish, meats, and cheeses, and if you know where to look, you can get some local and sustainable products. PCC Markets is much smaller than Whole Foods: they have a total of nine locations, all in the Seattle area. They are similar to Whole Foods in their focus on organics, but they seem to be a lot more dedicated to local products, and a better bet for meat that is local, organic, ethical, and sustainable.

Both of these options have their advantages, but neither can beat Bill the Butcher, the awesome butcher shop that just opened up two blocks away from my place. I’m not going to lie: I am ridiculously excited about this place. Their meat is all very local, organic, ethical, sustainable, and, just as important, of very high quality. I’ve been on the hunt for a place like this: a small, local shop where I can go in and talk to the (knowledgeable) butcher about what I’m buying. I’ve been in there three or four times since I’ve discovered it, and every time I’m greeted by an enthusiastic butcher who can’t wait to tell me about what they’ve got in this week, whether it be the exquisite grass-fed beef tenderloin on display, or the impressive wagyu rib steak that just came in.

Last time I went, the new excitement in the shop was the bag of morel mushrooms that just came in. When I say “just came in”, I don’t mean it came on a big refrigerated US Foods truck with a bunch of other produce from California, Mexico, and Chile. These morels arrived in the hands of a man who goes foraging for them in the nearby woods and the mountains and then goes around, selling them to local shops. The butcher, described him as quite a character.
  Now, can we just pause for a moment and appreciate the awesomeness of this? I went wandering in to my local butcher shop, thinking of buying some flank steak to serve while my mother-in-law was visiting, and maybe something else for the week ahead, and I left with (among other items) wild morel mushrooms. I want to emphasize how vastly different this experience is from anything that ever could happen in a large supermarket, and that includes Whole Foods and PCC Markets. I didn’t take these mushrooms out of a bin in the refrigerated area of the produce section, picking through dried, broken, and old-looking fungi to select the few edible ones. I didn’t toss a plastic-wrapped package of these mushrooms into a cart filled with every other category of food one could imagine. In fact, these mushrooms were not on display or in visible evidence anywhere in the shop. I only learned about them because I had a conversation with the butcher, and he told me about these morels that they had just gotten. The personal connection was necessary in order to even know that this treat was available, and I absolutely love that. It makes it so special, and this is no small triumph. I believe that food should be special, all the time, and I believe that we should have this personal of a connection to it. I believe in the importance of having the story behind where my food has come from. When you buy food from the big, national supermarket, you don’t get the stories behind what you are buying; at places like the local butcher shop, you do. Does the story make the food taste any better? I would argue that absolutely, yes, it does.
 So, along with my flank steak, I left the butcher shop with a few house-made Italian sausages (good enough, by the way, to make you swear off eating any sausages from the supermarket ever again), and a quarter pound of freshly gathered morel mushrooms. A quarter pound may not sound like much, and it isn’t, but (understandably), they were not cheap. The five mushrooms that made up this quantity cost twelve dollars, so I took great care to treat them gently and use them well.
 I sautéed them with the sausage, along with some blanched green beans, shallots, and garlic, tossed with whole wheat spaghetti and parmesan. It was a satisfying meal, perfect for the beginning of spring, made special by the knowledge of the story behind what I was eating.

Whole Wheat Spaghetti with Sausage and Morels
Serves 3-4
¼-½ lb. fresh morel mushrooms, or 1.5 oz. dried morel mushrooms, reconstituted in hot water and drained
½ lb. green beans, rinsed and trimmed
1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
1-2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, if necessary
1 tbsp. butter
1 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lb. whole wheat spaghetti
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

If using fresh morels, soak them in a large bowl of cold water for 30 minutes to one hour to remove dirt and any critters in the caps. Do not skip this step! Remove mushrooms gently and dry well with several paper towels. When mushrooms are dry, slice them.
While the mushrooms soak, blanch and shock the green beans: bring a large pot of water to a boil. As it comes to a boil, fill a large bowl ¾ of the way with ice water. When the water boils, dump the green beans into it and boil them for 30 seconds to one minute, depending on how crisp you like your beans. Drain the beans and then immediately plunge them into the ice water. Leave them for about five minutes to cool completely, and then drain them again. Slice the beans on a bias, into halves or thirds. Set aside.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water, and then drain. Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and brown until cooked through, 8-10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the sausage to a separate dish and tent with foil to keep warm. Add olive oil to the hot pan or remove dripping as necessary to equal two tablespoons of fat in the pan. Add the butter and let it melt. Add the mushrooms and sauté until browned and softened, 4-5 minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, remove from pan, and set aside.

Reduce heat to medium, and add olive oil, if necessary, to equal one tablespoon of fat in the pan. Add the shallots and sauté until beginning to soften, and then add the garlic. Sauté one minute, then add the green beans. Sauté another minute, then return the sausage and mushrooms to the pan. Stir to combine, and then add the cooked spaghetti to the pan. Toss for a couple of minutes until all ingredients are well combined and heated through. Remove skillet from heat, and stir in the Parmesan. Season to taste with salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper.