If ever I have a cookbook of my own, I’m going to name it “The Brand New Book That No One Really Can Afford to Buy Right Now, But That Will Teach You How to Make Many Scrumptious, Low-Cost Meals, Depending Upon What’s Available That Season, Including Lesser-cuts of Meat, an Occasional Seafood Item, and Definitely Wine”. My inspiration for this title is the work of one Cristoforo di Messisbugo, a Renaissance chef and cookbook author who I learned about in reading up on risotto. His cookbook, published around 1549, was entitled “The New Book Which Teaches How to Make All Kinds of Food, According to the Season, Whether Meat or Fish”. A succinct, and no doubt accurate, title. Signore Messisbugo was cited as being one of the first Italian chefs to mention risotto in a menu, in this case, a Risotto alla Siciliana, served in 1543, and finished with saffron, as Risotto Milanese is finished today. Risotto is a preparation of a particular type of rice, fino or superfino. These are longer grained rices which are able to absorb the cooking liquid used in the preparation without disintegrating or becoming mushy. Rice is an important dish in the north of Italy, particularly in the regions surrounding the Po Valley where the majority of Italian rice is grown. Though rice is often thought to have made its way to Italy either with the Saracens (a medieval European term that encompasses all Muslim peoples) or through Venice as a result of trade with the Far East, the Romans had learned of rice from the Greeks, and traded in it, though they didn’t grow it themselves. It is possible that the first people to grow rice in Italy were the Aragonese, who arrived in Campania – the region just south of Lazio where Rome is situated – in the 15th century. Rice has never gained as much popularity in the south of Italy – pasta is the starchy dish of choice there, and who doesn’t love pasta? But when superfino rice is prepared as risotto, it can be difficult to declare pasta better than rice. I think the southern Italians are just too warm year-round and therefore can’t stand the idea of stirring a pot of rice for twenty five minutes. But that is not the case where I live, and so winter brings with it much stirring of the pot.
Many of the things that other people find tedious in terms of kitchen work, I rather enjoy. There’s the kneading of dough. I like the feel of the dough in my hands. I like the fact that when it is finally silken and elastic, my hands have brought it to that point, and I instinctively recognize that it is there at that point (instinctively after many sessions of kneading, I have to add). I like to make fresh pasta whenever I have the chance in spite of the fact that there are perfectly good options for purchasing both fresh and dried pasta within just a few miles of my house. I don’t mind having to roast vegetables and allow them to cool before making a dish. Multi-step preparations are a welcome endeavor. Perhaps I am too task-oriented, but completing each step makes me feel pretty damned good about the accomplishment. And then there is the meditative allure of cooking intricate or time-consuming dishes. Risotto is a perfect example of a meditative dish. Yes, you do need to stand by the stove and stir constantly, but as you do, you get to watch the rice plump up as it absorbs the stock, there’s the rhythmic and hypnotic motion of the spoon moving through the rice in circles, the occasional clanking of the ladle against the pot that’s keeping the stock warm, and the glass of wine for sipping while you stir. Never without the glass of wine, people. Never. Which is why I’m a home cook and not a professional chef. What a disaster that would be.
There is a huge variety of ways in which risotto may be prepared – with seafood, with saffron (alla Milanese), with peas, with artichoke hearts, with asparagus, with mushrooms (that’s a good one – we’ll do that later this winter, ok?), simply with parmigiano and butter (Risotto Bianco), or you can improvise and take it whatever way you like once you’ve got the basic steps down. JR and I had leek risotto a couple of weeks ago, butternut squash risotto (no, I won’t stop with the butternut squash. Not yet. I have so much butternut squash stashed at my house.) is a great holiday side dish, lemony risotto is good with chicken or seafood, on and on it goes. And so, in working on the menu for the lamb shanks we had on Sunday night, I thought goat cheese risotto would be a fitting accompaniment. If you don’t like goat cheese, perhaps you should try some more to be sure. Not all of it comes in a shelf-stable-for-ten-years plastic tube, you know (though don’t discount locally made goat cheese in a plastic tube. That’s a whole different animal than the grocery-store goat-cheese-in-a-tube). If that fails, feel free to make the risotto with Parmigiano-Reggiano instead, and you’ll have mastered a staple of northern Italian cuisine, Risotto Bianco.
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 large shallots, chopped fine
- 6 cups vegetable or chicken stock. If using store-bought, use low-sodium, otherwise, the salt may be overpowering.
- 1 1/2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice. Both of these are superfino. Fino rice is also acceptable, but do not use regular rice for this dish, it will be a mushy disaster and you'll wonder what all the fuss is about with this risotto junk.
- 1/2 cup dry white wine - I have to be honest, I didn't have any white wine hanging around, so I omitted this in my risotto on Sunday. You can, too, if you also don't have white wine available, but do know that you should use wine for some acidity in the dish if you're being a purist. Also, meatier risottos use red wine. We'll get into that through January, February, March, and April, I'm sure. And I always have red wine hanging around.
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 - 2 ounces fresh goat cheese - I used just over one ounce. That was plenty of goat cheese flavor for the dish. A local option for New Englanders comes from Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont, they make a good fresh goat cheese called Mettowee. If you'd prefer to use Parmigiano-Reggiano, use around 1/4 cup freshly grated in place of the goat cheese.
- In a medium sauce pan, heat the stock over medium heat until warmed through. Keep a ladle at the ready for transferring the stock to the risotto-cooking pot.
- In a large sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Once butter is completely melted, but before it starts to brown, add the shallot. Cook the shallot until it is translucent, but not browned, approximately 2-3 minutes. Maintaining the medium heat - you don't want to use too hot a flame (or coil, as the case may be) because overheating the rice will cause it to harden. Don't be nervous, it's really quite easy, but you should know that you must be patient. Now, pick up that glass of wine, have a sip, put it back down, take a deep breath, and add the rice to the pan. Stir the rice to coat it in butter, and cook for a couple of minutes at medium heat to warm the rice through before adding liquid.
- If using wine, add the wine now, stirring constantly until it has been completely absorbed into the rice. If not using wine, add the first ladle-full of stock and stir, yes, constantly, until it has been completely absorbed into the rice. By completely absorbed, I do not mean that the rice is dried out and sticking the bottom of the pot - you should still see a little bit of moisture still in your rice - but you do need to let the liquid be absorbed before adding the next ladle-full. It's a balancing act, but one that you are perfectly able to handle.
- To be clear, a ladle holds about one cup of liquid. At the start, this is a perfect amount, say for the first 3 or 4 additions of stock. After that, you may want to add a little less liquid - say two-thirds of a ladle-full. So here you are, stirring and admiring the rice as it plumps up, and enjoying a sip or two of wine from time to time - I tend to have a sip after every stock addition - it seems like the safest time to take my eyes off the pot as not much bad can happen to risotto while it has a fair amount of liquid yet to be absorbed. You will do this for twenty to twenty-five minutes or so, but the true test is in the tasting.
- As you get toward the bottom of your supply of warm stock, which is very likely around twenty minutes into the cooking process, you should take a little bit of the rice out and cool it so that you can test it without burning your mouth. The rice should be firm, but not chewy. Once I get to that twenty minute mark, I test before each new addition of stock to see how it's going. If this is your first time preparing risotto at home, not to worry. If you've had it in a restaurant, you have a pretty good idea of what the texture should be, and if you've never had it anywhere before because you live in a secluded mountainous and wooded area with not one road out of the wilderness, yet somehow you've managed to get yourself some superfino rice, just use your best judgment. Is it pleasantly firm to the bite or does it stick to the inside of your molars when you test it? If it sticks to your teeth, you probably want to add more stock. But, hey, if you like rice stuck in your teeth, you just move on to the next step at that point.
- The next step is to remove the pot from the heat and add the butter. Stir the butter into the rice until it has melted. Now, stir in the goat cheese. If you are not using goat cheese, stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Let the rice sit for a few minutes, then stir, and serve it out. As mentioned yesterday, this complemented the lamb shanks quite well, but any cut of lamb would be welcome with it, as would roasted vegetables in place of meat.
Dinner tonight: Broiled Sweet Italian Sausage with sauteed cabbage and cannellini beans. Estimated cost for two: $6.95. The sausage was on sale for $2.99 per pound. The amount we’re having tonight cost $2.28 – JR will have two links, I will have one. The cabbage was $1.10, we’ll use most of that, so let’s stick with $1.10 for our math. The beans are Whole Foods store brand, and cost 99-cents. The olive oil I’ll use will be around 60-cents, and I will add a couple cloves of garlic to the cabbage as it sautes, so we’ll call that 10-cents from a 50-cent head of garlic. We will shave some Parmigiano-Reggiano over our dishes, so at $29.99/pound for the Red Cow, that’s about $1.85 for the amount we’ll use tonight. You can always find a less expensive Parmigiano-Reggiano, but don’t use the green can o’cheese, whatever you do. You have standards, you know.