Some say its easy, others find it hard, Top Chef has only got it right once. So, what is it?

RISOTTO.

Yep. You heard correctly!

This past January, a friend, my husband, newborn Mei and I went to the Suffolk Food Hall on a little field trip to the town of Ipswich to see what all the buzz was about. Once there, we found packets of “ready to make” risotto. It already had the mushrooms or saffron or whatever flavor of risotto you desire and the rice enough for four servings and all you have to do is provide the white wine and cook it! Perfect! – or so we thought….

I had been looking at different risotto recipes for months and looking at how many different people, namely master chefs were making their risotto. The process varies slightly between the chefs and opinions on whether the rice should be swished or stirred seems to differ between Italians and non-Italians, and how much liquid should be added. But the consensus on risotto is that it should be smooth and creamy. So we set out, mushroom risotto packet in hand, new bottle of white wine and bee-lined for the kitchen.

A bit distracted because I had to stop and take care of Mei, my friend – let’s call her “sous chef A,” took the stove and care of the risotto in her hands. We carefully listened for the rice to pop and crackle and dry out and watched every second of the cooking process to see that the wine and stock were being absorbed properly. It never quite worked out well. We thought we had baby-ed it through the process and it had cooked nearly an hour when we ran out of wine and stock and it still wasnt creamy, but the rice had cooked through and was tender, so we ate it with a side of poached chicken. It was beautifully flavored rice but not the famed risotto that we were after. We called it a night and vowed to try again soon.

Soon was a few months down the line. In the meantime, I bought a package of carnaroli rice for the day that I become inspired to try my hand at risotto again. That day is today. Mei and I were wandering through the produce section, salivating at a stock of asparagus, some mushrooms that caught my eye and thought RISOTTO. Since shallots were all gone, I picked up a simple yellow onion, some Parmesan Reggiano and chicken and headed home to re-read all the lessons on risotto that Saveur had to offer and all that Emeril Lagasse had to offer on the subject. It turns out that Emeril had some YouTube videos being on the Today Show, etc making different risottos so we could see the “magic” of the risotto come to life and instill a little bit more faith in my ability to make risotto; secretly hoping that once I can wrangle my powers and channel them into making a simple risotto, we can make a little fancier or varied versions over and over again soon.

So here are all the little tidbits we have read and learned along the way of looking into the success of risotto. This was especially helpful for us since we wanted to make a risotto (mushroom, asparagus and chicken) that no one really had a recipe for. But the wonderful thing about risotto is that you can add practically anything you want to it, so long as you cook the rice properly and add the liquids at the right time, it should all cream together at the end.

  • Bring whatever stock you are using to a boil and then simmer on low heat until you are ready to use it
  • Once the rice is added, stir constantly until each grain is opaque, this ensures that the rice wont release its starches too early but also keep it from absorbing the liquids it shouldnt until the time is right
  • Make sure the wine is cold. This will shock the rice and help to seal the rice grain and “toast” it properly.
  • Add the wine gradually. But don’t ever let the rice dry out and always just covered by stock.
  • You have to be by the stove, caring for your risotto for at least twenty minutes. If you are cooking it for less than twenty minutes, your rice wont cream.
  • According to Cesare Benelli, “you cook risotto by ear.” Risotto is auditory, and one need only pay attention to the symphony of sounds signaling different stages in the cooking process to guarantee success.The rice will whistle and crack at different stages and let you know what it needs next until it creams together and becomes…. risotto.

This in mind, we set out to begin making our risotto.

First, we had to start our veggies, meaning I blanched the asparagus, and tossed the ends that I was not going to include in the finished dish in with the pot of chicken stock that we had started boiling  – this was Emeril’s suggestion, to bring in more asparagus flavor. Why not? The more flavor the better!

We got the pan hot, put in the olive oil and butter and once they became bubbly, we added the onion and garlic (since I couldn’t get any shallots at the market today) and cooked them until the onions began to get tender then added the mushrooms and half of the asparagus stems (that I cut into coins), stirring constantly until the moisture from the veggies evaporated. If you are adding chicken, like we did, then add it here, push all the onions (or shallots), garlic and stems to one side and fry the chicken until it begins to brown then remove it and put it aside. Cook the mixture without the chicken some more to evaporate the liquid produced by cooking the meat before you continue on.

Now, add the rice (you can use carnaroli or aborio, the first is preferred by Italians, the aborio soaks up the moisture too quickly for some) and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until the rice is fragrant and opaque. Each grain must be opaque. the direct center of the grain can still maintain its white color before you move on. This takes several minutes.

Then add the wine. But make sure your wine is as cold as it possibly could be.

see how the grains are opaque?

I kept mine in the freezer for the three or so hours before I began to make the risotto.  Stir this mixture constantly until the wine is evaporated, but be careful not to let the rice dry out. Go a little more past where you are comfortable when cooking until the liquid has evaporated.

Reduce the heat to medium and add about two cups of the heated stock, being careful to strain out any whole pieces ( like the asparagus ends) that you have added. Cook until this liquid is absorbed. Continue to cook, stirring constantly, adding one cup of broth at a time until the broth is gone. After you have added the initial bit of broth, then add in the chicken you set aside earlier. If by the time the stock has been used up and the rice still hasn’t started to release its starches and become creamy (you should start to see a layer of cream building along the side of the pan as you stir the mixture), then add a little bit of hot water to the mixture until the rice creams together.

Once the rice has creamed together, add the grated cheese and rest of the asparagus until the cheese has melted and the veggies have come to temperature and enjoy!

Mei had a rough time in the kitchen today. She sat in her Bumbo chair on the counter and watched as I took the photos for the brownies, making the batter up, dicing the veggies for the risotto, grating the cheese, chopping up the chicken, and was not interested in sitting in her bouncy chair while I actually cooked the risotto. She put on her serious face while I was getting all the ingredients together and uncorking the wine, even trying to eat the bag of rice! She was taking interest in everything I moved and the measuring and especially the folding! So we alternated between sitting in her bouncy chair so I could have my hands free to stir in the stock or veggies and she would scream and fake cough impatiently waiting for me to pick her up again so she could stare at the risotto and watch with me as the “magic” happened. Eventually the risotto was ready and it was time to plate it, pour myself a glass of wine, and take the final pictures. So I set her down in her Bumbo chair on the counter, took the pictures, then ran my dinner into the living room because I was certain that aside from just being tired, she was also hungry, and by the time I returned from the living room, her head was slowly falling forward and her eyes closing! I took the opportunity to take some pictures of her sleeping after all that hard work watching the risotto come to life, then lifted her out of her chair and carried her into the living room. It was a sweet moment, she very rarely rests her head on my shoulder to sleep or rest and it was just the best ending to cooking, knowing that the risotto turned out good, wine was chilled and poured, brownies cooling on the counter and Mei sleeping on my shoulder.

Here is the recipe, so that you may create your own magic. Feel free to add whatever vegetables you like. Butternut squash and red bell pepper are really popular types of risotto around here – some people even add saffron, I just went with the veggies that stood out to me at the market and added some chicken; although Saveur has a good recipe for adding short ribs as a protein to risotto.

Ingredients:

  • 5-6 C of stock (chicken, beef or vegetable – whichever you prefer)
  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 2 TBSP unsalted butter
  • 1/2 C finely diced shallots (or white onion)
  • 2 cloves of minced garlic
  • handful of mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 2 C aborio or carnaroli rice (I used  just over one cup and there is plenty enough for two people to eat)
  • 1 C dry, COLD, white wine

Look above for cooking directions. It would be incredibly repetitive to write it down again for y’all.

Finito.

Itadakimasu!!!

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