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!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Photography Skills

Lately, I've been noticing ads in the scrapbook magazines and other places for photography retreats. These are usually weekend or several-day sessions, with classes taught by celebrity scrappers who are known (and justifiably so) for their fantastic photography. I've also seen lots of chat about these retreats on online message boards. They can be expensive, so there is lots of talk about whether they're "worth it" or not. Scrapbooking has become more artistic and single-photo layouts more popular, at the same time as DSLRs (digital SLR cameras) have come way down in price, causing scrapbookers, many armed with new, feature-laden DSLRs, to want to learn how to take better photographs. After all, when you really examine some of the layouts published in magazines,often times it isn't the artistry of the design or the great color scheme that most catches your eye, it's the outstanding photographs. Great photos are, without a doubt, easier to scrapbook because they can stand on their own and don't require lots of embellishment to make them look good.

While I think the kind of photography retreats that have become popular lately are wonderful, if you're considering attending one, I'd like to suggest that you check what your local community college has to offer first. I did this several years ago, after finding out that a series of photography classes being offered at a local scrapbook store were on a night that I simply couldn't attend. I checked the community college course catalog and, one dreary winter, signed up for a class called "Beginning Photography for Non-Majors." I was able to take the course in the evening (I work full-time) on a night that fit my schedule, and for approximately $125, I got a 14-week course taught by a professional photographer.

The very best thing about taking a class like the one that I took is that it lasts long enough that the instructor can cover complex topics slowly, so that the students have time to practice and master each skill. In my class, we were generally introduced to a topic in one 2-1/2 hour class session (and we had reading assignments to go along with the class instruction). For example, one topic that we spent several weeks on was "qualities of light." We learned about different kinds of natural light and how they affect photographs, and during class, the instructor showed examples of each type of light using student work from previous classes. We then had to complete a shooting assignment on the topic, where we had to take at least 24 photographs with at least two photographs illustrating each type of light that we were studying. The instructor picked 24 as the minimum number because although most people in the class had digital cameras, there were a few students who were shooting film, so the idea was to shoot an entire roll of film. We were required to put our images onto CDs, because over two class sessions, each student presented what they considered their best photographs to the class, explaining how they took the shot, why the shot was a good example of a certain type of light, and so forth. Can I just tell you how amazingly inspirational and educational it was to see the images other students had taken? My class was a mixture of adults like myself taking the class for their own enjoyment, and regular students at the college who were majoring in other areas but had an interest in photography. There were quite a few students studying filmmaking, and I found out later that was because the class was a beginning requirement for film students. These students, in particular, were amazingly creative and seemed to see the world in a completely different way. Some of the images they captured took my breath away, and made me see my own photographs (my own life, in fact) in a new light.

In addition to qualities of light, we studied composition, motion techniques, self-portraiture, and other topics. Each topic was covered in depth, and we had to practice the things we were learning by taking photographs using the techniques or illustrating the concepts. While I'm certainly no expert photographer, I learned an amazing amount about photography during that semester. The photograph above is one that I took for our first class assignment, which was an autobiographical photo essay. We were supposed to photograph things and people that were important in our lives, but the essay also had to include a minimum number of self-portraits. All self-portraits had to be exactly that, taken only by us with no one else helping. The myriad creative ways that people got portraits of themselves was eye-opening. For my part, I captured the toaster photo by setting up my camera and tripod in the kitchen, draping myself over the counter so that I got the reflection that I wanted in the shiny metal side of the toaster, and then using my remote control to trip the camera shutter. I used a pretty long exposure time (1/13 second) because I was shooting inside and I didn't want to use a flash. This image, I'm proud to say, earned rave reviews from my classmates as well as from the instructor; it was one of the best that I shot for that assignment.

In future posts, I'll share some of the ideas, tips and tricks that I learned in that photography class. But in the meantime, if you want to learn how to take better photographs, whether for scrapbooking or simply for your own personal pleasure, I definitely encourage you to check out your local community college. Although I've been digital for a few years, I generally do very little to my images outside of the camera because I've never taken the time to learn how to use Photoshop. So, one of my goals is take another class at the community college, this time in Digital Photo Editing.