How To Make Asparagus Risotto

I think it’s easy and rewarding to make asparagus risotto. The season of asparagus is, I suppose, over (one website says it starts mid-April and ends two months later; which, using my calculator, means: it’s over) but you can still find it in your grocery store, I bet. I did. So can you. And you should buy some because this risotto’s pretty easy and fun to make. Maybe this picture will entice you:

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The recipe comes from The River Cafe cookbook (the one in London, not the New York one) and you’ll need the following:

2 lbs asparagus, trimmed

1 qt Chicken Stock (though I wish I had just a drop more)

coarse sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1 small red onion, peeled and very finely chopped

2 Tbs unsalted butter

3 Tbs olive oil

1 1/2 cups risotto rice (Arborio rice is what I used)

1/3 cup vermouth

3/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan

(1) So heat the chicken stock and check for seasoning. You don’t want to bring it to a boil or it will evaporate while you do everything else. Just warm it up. But make sure to season because if it’s not salty enough, your risotto will be bland.

(2) Cut the tips off the asparagus and keep to one side. Chop the tender parts of the stalks into approximately 1-inch pieces.

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(3) Blanch the asparagus tips for 2 minutes (in boiling salted water) and then blanch the stalks for about 3 minutes. In a blender pulse the stalks with a ladle of stock:

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(See, I really like this step because instead of having those unattractive stalks in the end product it gets all mushed up and incorporated into the risotto itself.)

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(4) In a heavy saucepan, cook the onion in half the butter and the olive oil over a low heat for about 10 minutes until soft.

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(5) Add the rice and cook gently, stirring, for 2 minutes to coat the rice with the oil.

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[So here’s your set-up for what follows. You should have your risotto rice pot right next to the heated broth and have your ladle ready. The next part is what separates the men from the boys, the ladies from the girls and the transgendered from the bi-curious.]

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(6) Start to add the stock, ladle by ladle, stirring constantly, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next. Continue until the rice is al dente, usually about 20 minutes.

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[Here’s where I entered a bit of a crisis: about 15 minutes in, almost all the broth was gone and the rice wasn’t nearly cooked enough. I somehow was able to save the day by lowering the heat a lot and rationing off the rest of the broth (that was the only broth I had) but if I were you I’d have more broth on hand. Make sure to taste as it gets close to 20 minutes to see how cooked the rice is.]

(7) So once the rice is al dente, add the stalk puree, vermouth, asparagus tips, the rest of the butter, and the Parmesan. Stir a bit and it turns a fun green color:

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That’s it! Now just plate it up and grate some more Parmesan on top. Here it is up close:

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It really captures the essence of asparagus; what more could you want from a risotto? Plus it goes great with white wine. And tomorrow, with the leftovers, I might make fried risotto balls. Pending cholesterol results, naturally. (Are you tired of me talking about that yet?) Happy risotto making!

Bathing in Butter: Pasta with Butter, Nutmeg and Parmesan AND Buttery, Oniony Peas

“When you get back to New York,” said my mother on the cruise, “We’re getting your cholesterol checked.”

“Ha!” I scoffed. “I am a gourmet! I don’t have cholesterol!”

I put that theory to the test tonight with the butteriest dinner ever. (Don’t you like the word “butteriest”?) What happened was I had a plan to see “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” but the plan didn’t include dinner. I had to throw something together fast and the only things I had handy were: 1/4 box of pasta, butter, Parmesan, nutmeg, frozen peas, and half a red onion. This would be a night of improvising.

So I started with the pasta. I cooked the pasta in rapidly boiling water, took it out just al dente, drained it and return it to the pot. Over low heat, I stirred in butter and grated some nutmeg over it. A little salt a little pepper and then some Parmesan. Into a bowl it went and I topped with more Parmesan. Behold!

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May not look like much, but it was damn tasty. And buttery.

Somehow, though, just eating that would’ve left me feeling icky. I needed something green to round out the dinner. Hence the peas.

These peas have been in my freezer since the time I made “Pasta, Pesto and Peas” a while back. The wonderful thing about freezers is that freezers are wonderful things. And frozen peas when defrosted just enough taste really delicious. I can’t imagine fresh peas tasting MUCH better. (Cue the reactionaries!)

So I defrosted the peas and then heated butter in a skillet. I cut up this red onion I’d halved the other day. (Why did I halve it? I forget… Oh, was it my Greek salad? My that was a while back! Gross!)

I cooked the onion in the butter til it was tender and then added the peas. It looked like this:

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Ok that picture’s kind of gross but check out the finished product:

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That’s something you’d want to eat, isn’t it? The recipe I sort of copied it from (in the River Cafe cookbook) has you add prosciutto at the end and I can see how a pork product would add a smoky flavor. But if all you have is peas and butter and an onion, you can go a long way. As for my cholesterol, I’m sure I’m doing fine…I feel ok…nothing bad can ahso[aes[oyiash[o”yoahisy

Cooking My Trip Part Two: Rigatoni with Cherry Tomato Sauce

As you’ll read in the post beneath this, the Monaco post, my favorite dish from the entire trip was the simplest thing in the world: rigatoni in a cherry tomato sauce. This would prove slightly difficult to recreate since my tomatoes came from a supermarket bin and the tomatoes at Il Terrazzino (where we ate this terrific dish) spent all day lavishing in the sun:

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Actually, for the first time since I’ve moved to New York (almost my one year anniversary!) I went to Fairway to do my grocery shopping. I was up near the park and I called Lisa who was near a computer to ask her to Google Fairway. “74th and Broadway,” she declared. So I trekked over and there it was, just as I’d imagined it. Funny signs advertised each item in the store. I wish I had a camera so you could see yourself but I promise to go back soon and photograph everything.

Anyway, cherry tomatoes came in red mesh bags at fairway and they were on a vine so that was pretty good. I bought basil and garlic and onion thinking I’d improvise a recipe. But when I got home (and for only the second time since I’ve moved to New York I took a bus home! Two big events all in one shopping trip) I looked up a cherry tomato sauce recipe on Epicurious. I came up with Pasta with Kalamata Olives and Roasted Cherry Tomato Sauce. Well I didn’t have kalamata olives or capers or many of the ingredients necessary, but I did have cherry tomatoes and basil (the recipe calls for fresh oregano.) So I merged the recipe with my memory of what I ate in Monaco.

It worked out perfectly. This is so easy you really need to do this. It’s easier than making fresh tomato sauce. All you do is dump two bags worth of cherry tomatoes into a glass baking dish (13 X 9 X 2) and toss with 1/3 cup olive oil, 5 cloves minced garlic, 1 Tbs balsamic vinegar, 1/4 tsp of crushed red pepper.

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Season with salt and pepper (I almost forgot to do this) roast for 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven. Make sure to stir every now and then and take out “when tomatoes are tender and juicy.” They’ll look like this:

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And that’s really it! That’s your sauce!

Otherwise, all you have to do is boil the rigatoni (just follow the box), drain it, put it back in the pot, add the tomatoes and then–if you want to go my Monaco route–tear up fresh basil into it. Here’s the resulting dish:

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I don’t think it photographed very well (certainly not as well as my Greek salad or, for that matter, the dish this is based on…)

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But it still tasted terrific. I’m sure I’ll tweak it over time, but that simple idea of using cherry tomatoes instead of regular tomatoes in a summer sauce works wonders. Give it a shot, you won’t regret it!

Alternative Pasta Lifestyle: Orecchiette with Pancetta and Broccoli

After my success with the River Cafe’s pistachio cake (celebrated, originally, at The Food Section) I decided to go ahead and purchase the book it’s from: Italian Easy by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. You can purchase it here:

This book is surely now the most vibrant in my collection. The cover is a shimmering mirror and the inside pages burst with pictures and recipes and novel layout designs. I really like it.

Most importantly, there’s the recipe for gnudi in there. Remember my 26th birthday lunch at The Spotted Pig? I fell in love with gnudi there and now I can make it. Stay tuned for that!

Last night (Monday night for those reading this in the future) I was hungry and I eagerly flipped through this new cookbook. I could have attempted something complicated but it was getting late and I’d still have to shop for ingredients, etc etc. So I settled upon Orecchiette with Pancetta and Broccoli.

I ran to Whole Foods and bought the appropriate ingredients. That amounted to: orecchiette, pancetta, and broccoli. Also: garlic and paremsan cheese. I could’ve bought a dried pepper (the recipe calls for it) but as you’ll see in a moment dried red pepper flakes (which I already had) worked perfectly.

This dish was a cinch to make. I got home and put two pots of water on the stove and got them boiling. I added salt to both. Once they were rapidly boiling (make sure it’s rapid) I added the broccoli (about 1/2 a lb, since I was cooking for 1—the recipe itself calls for 1 lb) which I chopped into little florets. The recipe says cook until soft and I kept tasting little pieces of broccoli so it wouldn’t get too soft. It took about 1 minute—then I drained it in the sink.

After that, I sliced one clove of garlic and cut about 2 slices of pancetta into thin matchstick strips. (By “slice” of pancetta I mean like bologna slice… you’ll know what i mean when you buy it.)

I added the orecchiette to the other pot of boiling water and poured 1 Tbs of olive oil in a skillet. Got the heat up, not too high, and added the garlic and pancetta. I stirred it around and let it cook, careful not to burn the garlic–controlling the heat but lifting the pan and turning the knob. The recipe says cook until pancetta is soft, not crispy. The garlic starts getting golden and that’s when you add the broccoli.** Cook for a few minutes more—let all the flavors meld. You should time it so the pasta is done just when the broccoli’s been in there for a few minutes. Drain the pasta and add to the skillet. Shake it like your mama taught ya.

Pour into a bowl and cover with freshly grated paremsan cheese:

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**Oh! I forgot to tell you! Don’t forget! When you add the broccoli to the pancetta and garlic add salt and pepper and, most importantly, red pepper flakes. Do this to taste but don’t skimp on the red pepper, it gives the dish a great kick.

Well I have to say this is going to be a standard for me now. I loved this dish. It’s wonderfully complex and the components are so simple. Here’s what you get in your mouth: the smokiness of the pancetta, the flavor-charge of garlic and red pepper, the brightness of the broccoli, the perkiness of the cheese. The textures great too: orecchiette apparently means little ears. It’s a nice alternative to your humdrum tubes and spirals. Make sure you only cook til al dente—taste as you go, that’s what I do. How, without burning your mouth? Take it out of the boiling water with a spoon, bring it to the sink, run some cold water over it and taste. It should be firm to the tooth (that’s what al dente means).

Also, I want to conclude by saying this dish is really for meat eaters only. Don’t bother making this is if you’re a veggie: the pancetta is really what binds everything together. I’m sure at some point I’ll make a lovely vegetarian pasta that I’ll rave about. But this one’s for the omnivores. Bon apetit!

A Tale of Two Papardelles

There are days when, in the morning, while throwing books into my bag and planning my day I decide: “Tonight we shall cook a splendid dinner. Not sure yet what the splendid dinner will be. Therefore, we will put a cookbook in our bag and decide later.”

Today was that sort of day. I almost threw in my new Marcella Hazan cookbook but then decided it was too heavy (I already had a computer in my bag) and went with Amanda Hesser’s handy dandy paperback novel of a cookbook (“Cooking For Mr. Latte”). After reading Nabokov’s lecture on “Bleak House” (which, I must say rather boastfully, I finally finished two days ago. Can I tell you what a glorious feeling it is to finish “Bleak House”? And not just the feat of finishing it: it’s actually a wonderful book. I loved it. I recommend it to you all), I did some writing and then, after writing, I decided it was dinner planning time. I flipped through the book and too many recipes seemed too expensive or complicated or ostentatious. I finally settled upon, “Papardelle with Lemon, Herbs and Ricotta Salata.”

I went to Whole Foods and purchased the simple ingredients: papardelle, lemon, mint, garlic, and marjoram. Oh and chicken broth. I decided not to buy the ricotta because I don’t really love ricotta. I know that calls into question my integrity as an amateur chef, but honestly why buy something that you don’t even enjoy that merely acts as a garnish? It’s a garnish, people.

I got home and put my groceries away. I logged on to AIM and began chatting with Lisa. The chat went something like this.

Lisa: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? ARE YOU HUNGRY? ARE YOU EATING?

Me: Lisa, I just got home. I am going to cook something you can’t eat.

Lisa: WHAT?

Me: It’s Papardelle with Lemon, Herbs and Ricotta Salata except I’m skipping the Ricotta Salata.

Lisa: So? Why can’t I eat it?

Me: It’s made with chicken broth.

Lisa: Oh.

Me: I mean, I have vegetable broth put away, so we can try making it with that.

Lisa: We can? WE CAN?

Me: I mean, I’m not sure how it’s going to taste, but yes, we can.

So that was it. Lisa was soon over and we attempted two separate sauces. Mine the Hesser sanctioned chicken broth version and Lisa’s experimental veggie broth. You can see the two pots on the stove here:

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You may notice that I’m not giving you explicit instructions, that I’m not raving over the deliciousness that would ensue. That’s because this recipe was merely ok. I enjoyed it. If you own the book, I recommend making it. But it’s not worth reprinting. Basically, you boil down chicken broth (or, in Lisa’s case veggie broth) with garlic until it reduces by half. Then you add lemon juice and lemon rind. Cook the papardelle. Add it to the sauce, then add chopped mint and marjoram. (You’re also supposed to add fennel fronds but I felt that was excessive). Salt, pepper and waaalaa:

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This is the correct chickeny version. It had a nice flavor and a nice combination of textures. Honestly, I enjoyed it, I’m just not recommending it with passion.

But how was Lisa’s? Was it gimpy, made with veggie broth?

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Nope. It tasted fine. Again, not glorious. And also not nearly as good as the chicken one (I think chicken and lemon go well together). But it had interesting flavors and textures. It was something different. I thought the lemon rind perked it up, but Lisa thought it was too lemony.

I suppose you could say it was the best of rinds, it was the worst of rinds.

Marcella Hazan’s CRAZY Tomato Sauce

[For a better post about this sauce with actual pictures, click here!]

My Secret Cookbook Santa (and paternal grandfather on my mother’s side) Brain W. purchased for me a humongous, beautiful Marcella Hazan cookbook that I’ve been flipping through since I received it. Finally, tonight, I put it to use by making her basic tomato sauce.

Well first I was at a coffee shop and it turned freezing and I wanted to go home and never leave my apartment again. On the way I walked past a grocer with onions and garlic sitting outside. So I grabbed one of each and the total came to $1.02. The cheapest dinner ever.

(I already had tomatoes and pasta at home.)

So anyway, that’s a tangent. The point is that I didn’t know I was going to make Marcella Hazan sauce until I got home with the onion and garlic. I flipped open the book and the recipe SHOCKED me. Here is what shocked me about it:

(1) You don’t chop the onion. You cut it in half and throw it into the pot.

(2) You don’t use olive oil, you use butter.

(3) You don’t use garlic.

I decided to disregard (3) since she doesn’t explicitly say “don’t use garlic”—it’s just not in the recipe. And besides, I had bought garlic so I wanted to use it. I decided to halve the recipe since I was only cooking for one. Here is what went into the pot pre-tomatoes:

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(Half an onion, 2.5 Tbs butter, and two garlic cloves cut in half–my own touch.)

Then I added 1 lb of canned tomatoes:

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I cut them up in the pot with two knives. Then I turned the heat on, got it to a simmer, and simmered for 45 minutes. It was honestly that easy. I ended up with this:

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What a brilliant sauce! Seriously–who knew using butter instead of olive oil would make such a difference. It had a creamy richness that may make this my signature tomato sauce for tomato sauces future. The lack of chopped onion had no impact on the flavor–meaning, cutting the onion in half and throwing it in is an excellent alternative. I’m not sure how the garlic affected it–all I can say is that the end result was top notch.

And that, my friends, is Marcella Hazan’s CRAZY Tomato Sauce. (Oh, and don’t forget to add salt when you add the tomatoes. I didn’t forget–but just in case you follow this recipe, I don’t want your sauce to be not salty enough. I care about you, people.)

It Was Cold and I Wanted Pasta: Penne with Spicy Goat Cheese and Hazelnut Pesto

My love affair with New York has hit a bump. It has nothing to do with New York, really, just living up North. It gets very dark very early now that we’ve set our clocks back. I leave school at 5 o’clock and it’s almost completely dark out. How depressing!

Plus tonight it was cold. The air was stinging a bit. If life were a novel, this would be the foreshadowing–winter is fast approaching. What will I do in those bitter months when the darkness and coldness overwhelm me? Who will I turn to?

I know… Mario Batali!

Tonight I cracked open his “Simple Italian Cooking” and found a scrumptious and easy looking recipe for Penne with Spicy Goat Cheese and Hazelnut Pesto. It required 2 cups of basil so I worried the store wouldn’t have it now that summer is over. But I was wrong. They did have basil. They just didn’t have hazelnuts. So I subbed walnuts. It was only a quarter of a cup, anyway, and I don’t think it made a huge difference.

Actually, it brought to mind a golden nugget of wisdom I gleaned from a random Julia Child episode I caught. She said, “A real chef doesn’t stop a recipe just because they’re missing an ingredient or they louse up a step. It’s about working with what you have.” (I worded that myself, but the spirit is the same).

So walnuts it was.

As for the basil, I washed it in the sink but sinced I didn’t have a salad spinner I had to dry it on layer upon layer of paper towels. I really should by a salad spinner:

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Here’s the recipe with photographs. If you still have basil around you, I highly recommend it. Came out great.

First make the Hazelnut Pesto.

Ingredients:

2 cups fresh Basil leaves, lightly packed, washed and spun dry.

2 garlic cloves.

1 tsp hot red pepper flakes.

1/4 cup hazelnuts.

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil.

Salt.

Place the basil, garlic, red pepper flakes and hazelnuts in a food processor…

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and pulse 3 times to start the chopping process. Turn the machine on and drizzle in the olive oil in a thin stream. Season with salt.

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PART TWO requires:

8 oz. penne

the pesto

and

4 oz fresh soft Goat Cheese (preferably Coach farm, at room temperature)

Bring about 6 quarts of water to a boil and add about 2 Tbs of salt.

Cook the penne according to package instructions until tender but still al dente, and drain well. Transfer the pesto to a 12 to 14-inch saute pan. Whisk in the cheese until smooth. Toss the penne into the pesto mixture and stir together over very low heat for 1 minute, until thoroughly coated. Pour into a warm serving dish and serve.

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The perfect antidote to a winter that hasn’t come yet.

Let It Be Fall: Butternut Squash and Wild Mushroom Risotto

Walking around New York yesterday was a rather surreal experience. There were cops on every single street corner–sometimes in clusters of threes and fours. Near 8th Ave., barricades upon barricades lined the way to Madison Square Garden, between which protesters stood–in the hot sun–holding signs decrying the horrors of George W. Bush. Red “No Smoking” stickers replaced the cigarette with a “W,” and stores appealed to the political climate with cutesy signs that read, for example: “Feeling Bushed? Kerry yourself inside.”

In many ways this is a good and exciting time to be in New York. In most other ways, though, it’s not. I find myself growing more and more weary of the political scene. Also, I’ll confess, it’s a little bit scary: helicopters flying overhead and sirens wailing past every few minutes. I really want this convention to be over.

Therefore, I decided to do the equivalent of a culinary rain dance: I decided to make a dish more appropriate for fall than summer. Call me a rebel, I can take it. I whipped out my newest Strand cookbook purchase—Tom Valenti’s One-Pot Meals.

I like the concept of this book because you basically end up with a big pot of food that will last you through the week. That’s one of my newest goals in this expensive city: to make food that will last a long while.

Risotto is no such food. It turns gloppy and pasty once it sits in the pot after being taken off the heat. Yet it’s in my fridge right now and I plan to eat it anyway. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

To start, you must buy many things to make this risotto. Among those many things is sage:

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Sage is an herb I haven’t worked with much. I am told it complements butternut squash incredibly well. This is appropriate, then, because here’s a butternut squash:

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Ladies and gentlemen, this is my first butternut squash. Scary, no?

Now I watched a Sarah Moulton once where she talked about safely peeling and cutting up a butternut squash. Unfortunately, I forgot everything she taught me. So I began by peeling the squash straight down with a vegetable peeler:

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This worked fairly well, though the outsides were still tough and bricky. I eventually cut off the outsides with a knife. But before that, I cut the squash in half and scooped away the seeds:

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Now Tom has you cut up the squash into half inch squares. This part, I’ll concede, was quite difficult. I almost sliced my thumb off twice. But somehow I made it work:

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Then into a pot with 2 Tbs of butter:

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Season with salt and pepper and cook “until brown and slightly softened but still holding their shape, about 12 minutes.”

Sadly, it began losing its shape 8 minutes in–begining to resemble mashed sweet potatoes, so I took it off the heat.

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Poured it into a bowl with the chopped sage and stirred it around. This won’t get used until later.

Tom has you wipe the pot clean and then put it back on the heat. This leaves glorious brown bits on the bottom that white wine will eventually pick up, giving a huge flavor boost to your risotto:

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But first mushrooms. Now I cheated here and I regret it. Tom wants you to separate all your wild mushrooms and cook them separately with 2 Tbs of butter each. But it was getting late, Lisa was coming over, and I wanted to have dinner ready. So I threw all the mushrooms in: (Also, I’d done all the mushrooms at once before when I made the Chez Panisse Wild Mushroom risotto, so I figured I’d be ok):

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Unfortunately, I only used 2 Tbs of butter to start and then, halfway through, as the mushrooms got dryer and dryer I realized it was 2 Tbs for each type of mushroom so I quickly added 6 more Tbs of butter. This made the mushrooms way too buttery:

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Then I thought about Julia Child and wondered if one could really have too much butter. I yanked a mushroom out and tasted it and it tasted wonderful. Very good, then. I poured the mushrooms into a bowl and tossed with freshly cut thyme. Mushrooms and thyme is a killer combination.

Now, we wipe the pot clean again and add 1 large spanish onion diced. That cooks for four minutes (in olive oil and butter) and then we add 2 cups of Arborio rice:

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This is a ton of rice for risotto. Since it plumps up with the liquid, this is way more than two people can heathily eat. No matter. Remember our goal: to eat through the week. And to skip past the Republican National Convention. I peered out my window: still Republicans.

Lisa arrived just as the vegetable broth on the back of the stove began to simmer. I had added wine to the rice and onions and it was now absorbed. The challenge was now to begin: the 18 minutes of frantic stirring and ladeling simmering broth into the risotto. This was a job for a virile, well-endowed kitchen god. This was a job for Lisa:

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After 18 minutes (the requisite time), there was still broth left but the risotto looked well brothed. I tasted a spoonful and felt the texture was right. The flavor was off, but we hadn’t added the mushrooms or squash yet.

And that, indeed, is the last step. You add 2 more Tbs of butter, the mushrooms and the squash and you end up with this:

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Suddenly, I looked out my window and saw a flurry of white men in suits spinning in a tornadoed mass back to middle America. The helicopters fled the skies, the police left the streets and the only noise was the noise of New York applauding. Lisa and I sat down and ate risotto. And it was good.