Sunday, July 5, 2009

Risotto for Dinner

People I know sometimes seem surprised to learn that I like to make risotto for dinner. I've even been known to make it on a weeknight. But, it's one of those foods that many people have only had in restaurants, plus a mystique of sorts has developed around the whole risotto-making process so that it seems slightly intimidating, and the end result is that people just don't think about making it at home. Well, the truth is that it's not intimidating at all, and it's actually a great dish to make to use up those little bits of leftovers that have accumulated in your fridge. I have a sort of master recipe that I use when I make risotto, developed from one that I found online on the website (if you're not familiar with that site, it's a GREAT recipe resource). The original recipe was for mushroom risotto, but my kids aren't crazy about mushrooms, and I calculated that if I actually used the amounts of various "fancy" mushrooms called for in the recipe, I'd have to spend around $10 just for the mushrooms. That seemed kind of crazy to me for an everyday family meal. So I just substituted other vegetables that suited my family and my budget better, and I've found that many different vegetables work well.

Also, one of my goals when I'm planning menus is to have at least one meatless dinner each week. Risotto is a great vegetarian entree, so I'll often make it with just an assortment of vegetables. But risotto is also great with a little chicken or shrimp tossed in (remember what I said about using leftovers?). So, what I'm going to do is go through my risotto recipe using shrimp and vegetables, but I'll make all of the various options clear as we go along.

Easy Risotto

6 cups chicken broth
3 T. olive oil, divided
1 cup small broccoli florets
1/2 cup carrots, finely diced
1 small onion, diced
1/2 lb. raw shrimp, any size, shelled, cleaned, and cut into small pieces
1-1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 T. finely chopped chives
2 T. butter
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

A couple of notes before we start. First, arborio rice is a short-grained Italian rice. The grains are fat, and they absorb lots of liquid, which is what makes risotto creamy and delicious. These days, almost all sizeable grocery stores carry arborio rice, either in the rice section or the international foods section. I've been told that you can make risotto with other kinds of short-grained rice, but at least for your first foray into risotto-making, buy the real thing. Second, although the ingredient list above assumes that the carrots, broccoli and shrimp are raw, they don't have to be. Leftover cooked vegetables and shrimp are fine, you just won't need to cook them like the recipe states. And, as I said earlier, if you don't have any broccoli but you happen to have a cup of leftover peas, feel free to substitute. Seriously, almost any combination of vegetables will work in this recipe. Mushrooms are sort of classic in risotto, and they go great with almost any other vegetable, too. My only caution would be to not use more than three vegetables, simply because you can end up with some unexpected tastes. You can substitute chicken for the shrimp, too, or leave out a meat/fish item all together.

Ok, to start the risotto, first get the chicken broth warming in a large saucepan. You want it to be hot when you add it to the risotto, which is done in stages.

Now put a large skillet (I use a 12" skillet) over medium high heat and add 2 T. of the olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the raw broccoli and carrots, and cook for a few mintues until they are softened. (If you're using leftover cooked vegetables, you can heat them through in the oil or you can skip this step all together and just add them in toward the end.) Remove the vegetables to a bowl and set them aside for now. Add 1 T. olive oil to the skillet and stir in the onion. Cook for a minute or two, then add the rice, stirring to coat all of the grains of the rice with the oil. Keep cooking and stirring for a few minutes.

When the rice is a pale, golden color, pour in the 1/2 cup wine, stirring constantly until the wine is fully absorbed (this won't take long). Add 1/2 cup broth to the skillet (I don't measure the 1/2 cup, I just use a big ladle), and stir until the broth is almost completely absorbed. (How can you tell when a ladle of broth has been almost completely absorbed? If you run a rubber spatula down the center of the bubbling risotto, like you're Moses parting the seas, and you can see the bottom of the skillet for a brief second before the risotto comes back together, the broth is almost fully absorbed.) Continue adding broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring continuously. When almost all of the broth has been absorbed, add in the broccoli and carrots, then add in the last ladle of broth and continue cooking until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Add in the shrimp and continue cooking for one more minute, until the shrimp is cooked through.

Ok, once the shrimp is cooked through, turn off the heat and stir in the chives, butter and Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve. This recipe should serve 4 adults.

Now, most cookbooks and Food Network shows will tell you that it will take 15-20 minutes for the entire broth-adding and stirring process. I'm not quite sure how professional chefs pull this off, because I've made risotto lots of times and for me, it takes more like half an hour or even 35 minutes for all of the broth to be added and absorbed. Maybe I need to turn up my burner a little, but those are the times I've clocked. Also, I've discovered that you don't really have to "stir continuously." Yes, you should endeavor to keep stirring while the risotto is cooking, but if you need to drop the wooden spoon for a minute or two to chop the chives or answer the door, trust me, the risotto will be fine. I'll say this, though, think twice before making this in the summer in an un-air conditioned kitchen. Half an hour is a long time to be standing over a hot burner.

One final note. As I write more cooking-related posts, you'll find out that I'm not an ingredient snob. Although I like to cook, I cook for a family, and I'm accustomed to cooking with ingredients I can find at the local grocery store. I also sometimes substitute ingredients according to what I happen to have in the fridge, or even what I might be trying to use up. All that said, do not scrimp on the Parmesan cheese for this recipe! You can get a pound of really good Parmesan cheese for, say, 11 or 12 bucks, and it is completely worth it. Keep the piece whole and just grate or shred as you need it, and it will stay fresh forever. A really good Parmesan adds the finishing touch to a risotto, and because you're adding it in at the end, off the heat, the taste is very pronounced. Even if you don't normally buy the good Parmesan, try it for this recipe, and I don't think you'll regret your purchase.

Ok, this probably goes without saying, but risotto pairs wonderfully with white wine. Enjoy!

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