Cooking is a lot like writing in many ways; the further along I get as both a writer and a cook, the more I notice the similarities. For example, in both writing and cooking, clarity is key. You can fill a sentence with lots of high-falutin words, just like you can fill a dish with lots of high-falutin ingredients, but if the idea doesn’t come across, then you’ve wasted your time. Another similarity? Breaking the rules. It’s fine to break the rules in both writing and cooking–see: Pale Fire, the Cronut–but you’ve got to know the rules before you break the rules. And so it was that on Sunday, I had some purple carrots from my CSA, along with asparagus and red wine, and I decided to go bonkers making something I know how to make very well: risotto.
Is there any dish with more rules attached to it than risotto? Watch any episode of Top Chef where someone tries to make it, and you’re bound to see someone packing their knives and going home. There are rules about the kind of rice you use (Arborio vs. Carnaroli), what kind of stock you use (dark stock, light stock) and the consistency it should have when it’s done (toothsome? pliant? mushy?). These rules matter if you’re cooking on television, but at home these rules go out the window: I’m here to tell you that risotto is a cinch to make–you can even make it with water! (something I learned watching Lidia Bastianich)–and, best of all, you can make a really good one, with bacon and egg and cheese, for breakfast.
Usually I have a gage in my head that lets me know how good the dinner I’m making is going to be. At some point, while prepping this Kabocha Squash Risotto (based on this one in Bon Appetit), I figured it would be pretty good but not great. Several reasons: the squash, which you pan-fry before adding to the risotto, came out a little mealy and dry. And instead of making my own stock, I took the recipe’s advice and used Swanson vegetable broth. I figured on a scale from 1 to 10, this risotto would be a 6. How wrong I was. This risotto was hands down one of the best risottos I’ve ever made–an absolute 11–and everyone I fed it to went nuts for it. What made it so good? Let’s examine.
Here’s a friendly tip: make yourself buy an exotic ingredient even if you’re not sure what you’re going to do with it.
For example, a few weeks ago I was at the Spice Station in Silverlake and I bought a little bag of white truffle salt. I bought it because after sniffing from the giant jar of it, I was like: “Whoah, that’s really potent and really smells like white truffles.” A small bag cost about $10 or so which is way less than you’d pay for an actual white truffle. And knowing that I had it, I kept my eyes open later that week at the farmer’s market for anything that might work well with it; which is how I ended up buying a bag of chanterelle mushrooms.
Spring is here at last and that means you’ll find two things at the farmer’s market that you won’t find there any other time of the year: ramps and asparagus.
Sure, you can find asparagus at the grocery store in January, but that asparagus is as far a cry from farmer’s market asparagus as a Monet is to a paint-by-number flower. And ramps, love them or hate them, are here for just a fleeting moment.
Here’s our latest video from Food2, featuring beloved Italian chef Cesare Casella (of Salumeria Rosi). Chef Casella (who’s also the dean of Italian studies at the French Culinary Institute) teaches us a technique so effective, I’ll never make risotto any other way again:
For those of you who can’t watch the video, here’s the recipe (after the jump)…
I can imagine many of you who read the last post about homemade chicken stock were probably thinking, “What’s the point?”
You were probably thinking that in far less time and with far fewer dirty dishes, you could just buy a carton of the boxed stuff, squeeze it into your braise or your soup and be done with it. And though I’d urge you, if you insist on using pre-packaged stock, to follow Michael Ruhlman’s advice to use water instead, I have a compelling dish for you to try on the day you do finally make your own chicken stock; that dish is risotto.
Risotto, more than any other dish (except maybe soup), becomes an entirely different entity when you use homemade stock. The Arborio rice acts like a sponge and sucks up all the wholesome goodness of your stock; the resulting risotto is richer and way more intense than any risotto you could make with a boxed stock. So do this: make your own stock, whenever you get the chance, and then make my citrus risotto with seared scallops. It’s a really simple process: just cook an onion (I used a red onion this time) in butter, add the rice for a minute and then start ladling in stock. At the very end you add the supremed fruit, its zest and its juices. This time, as you can see in the picture above, I had a beautiful result using two Meyer lemons and–this was the kicker–two blood oranges.
Make stock then make risotto and I guarantee you’ll never make risotto with a boxed stock again.
Visions of food sometimes arrive and you wave them away like an annoying fly. “Why am I craving lobster bisque right now?” you ask yourself while castrating a horse. “Get that craving out of my head!”
But what you don’t realize, person who is reading this, is that a craving is a gift, assistance from the great beyond advising you on what precisely you are crying out for in the deepest, most desperate part of your soul.
Take the experience I had yesterday. I was leaving work at Food Network (you have to call it Food Network, not “The Food Network” or you get fired) and I walked past the seafood store down there in the Chelsea Market and I had a vision of scallops on a citrus risotto. Was I craving this? Not necessarily. Did I really want scallops for dinner? Maybe, I wasn’t sure. But that vision was insistent. “You must make me,” the vision kept saying. “Scallops and citrus risotto is what you will eat.”
Finally, I caved and bought a pound of large, diver scallops which I brought back on the subway (my lucky subway neighbors!) and when I got off the train I hurried home to look up the citrus risotto from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook. I also read about it online and after reading my friend Heidi’s post on the recipe (a basic risotto recipe with grapefruit and lime segments added in) I took her conclusion to heart: “god, this would be great with oranges or lemons.”
I made a citrus risotto with lime segments, grapefruit segements and the segments and juice from a navel orange. I seared the scallops Batali-style in a non-stick skillet. And friends, believe me when I tell you, this dinner was a triumph.
I know it’s a triumph because Craig’s reaction to a pretty good meal is often a head-nod; his reaction to a triumph is: “Oh my God, this is so good. What did you put in this? I love this.”
Don’t thank me, Craig: thank my vision. What follows is how you can realize my vision at home….