What’s Risotto?

What is risotto,  you ask?  If you’ve never had risotto, I strongly encourage you to try this recipe.  Risotto is a dish that intimidates many people needlessly, and many others have never heard of it.  Then you have restaurants like Olive Garden totally ruining risotto’s reputation by pouring alfredo sauce on it.  They should stick to pasta.  Seriously.

If you are one of the people who has never heard of risotto, let me tell you what it is.  Risotto is a thick, starchy, rice-based dish made with medium-grain rice, usually arborio, although there are other varieties that can be used.  I don’t know the names of those other varieties and it’s 7:18 in the morning so I am not going to take the time to research them right now.  Suffice it to say that I have never, ever seen any other variety of risotto rice in a grocery store.  In fact, arborio can be quite difficult to find, but you can find it in a jar at Publix or Greenlife in the rice aisle.

The reason that people are so intimidated by risotto is that it cooks quite differently from other rice varieties.  Generally with rice you just simmer it with a liquid to rice ratio of 2:1 for a specified length of time, fluff it with a fork, and eat.  Not so with risotto.  Risotto is first lightly browned to increase the flavor profile, then slow-simmered with just a little liquid at a time while being stirred constantly.  If you undercook it, it’s hard and chalky.  If you overcook it, it’s mushy.  If you get it just right, though, it’s just perfect-firm and chewy and creamy without a drop of cream.

Let me go ahead and qualify this by saying that in order to get just the right flavor you are going to have to use some wine.  If you are someone who just “leaves it out”, let me kindly exhort you to rethink that strategy.  I am pretty much a teetotaler….I don’t like the taste of alcohol and I hate wine (for drinking).  I realize that I just lost some street cred as a foodie, but I fail to see the importance of forcing myself to pretend to like something that I think tastes terrible, especially when water is cheap or free.  However, when it comes to cooking, I pour freely.  Chicken pot pie?  Pour some Chardonnay in there!  Beef stew?  Hand me that Burgundy.  Chicken and mushrooms?  This calls for port!  Tomato soup?  The sherry flows freely!  Cheese fondue?  Pass me that bottle of lager, please!  One of my friends and I have a joke that I am a “cooking lush”.  Recipes will tell you that you can substitute chicken broth or even water for the alcohol, and I guess technically you can, but you will be sacrificing flavor.  Alcohol, and wine especially, gives an amazing depth of flavor to food.  I’ll never forget the first time I added some Chardonnay to my chicken pot pie.  I didn’t tell Philip, and as he was eating it, he said, “What did you put in the sauce?  It tastes different.  This is really good!”

A quick note: please do not use the cooking wine that you buy at the grocery store!  That stuff is nasty and salty and shouldn’t be legal.  This is one case where I’d tell you that if that’s the best you can do, just go ahead and use the chicken stock or water.  All the chefs on television say to “buy a wine that you would drink.”  If, like me, you don’t have a wine that you would drink, ask for help at your liquor store.  Staff in liquor stores are so helpful!  I asked for a recommendation and stuck with it.  Oh, and I buy wine in little single serving bottles so I don’t have to open a whole big bottle.  It works great!

Now, let’s cook.

This particular recipe is bacon, sundried tomato, and mushroom risotto, so I am going to start by cooking three strips of bacon (chopped up) until they are crisp, then removing the bacon to drain on a paper towel.  I’m making enough risotto for me and Philip to have for dinner tonight and for me to eat the leftovers for lunch tomorrow, but this is just enough bacon for tonight.  Adjust your amounts accordingly.

While the bacon is cooking, chop up some onion.  This is half of a medium yellow onion.  Cook the onion over medium heat until soft in the bacon fat. At the end of the cooking time I threw in a little bit of butter to add some fat for cooking the risotto. I never said this recipe was heatlthy. If you want to make a more basic risotto, start with this step and cook the onion in about a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil (the back of the jar says two tablespoons of each but I think that’s a little excessive).  While the onion was cooking, I heated one of those little baby bottles (about eight ounces) of wine because I had just picked it up at the store and it was in the cooler there.  If it’s been in my pantry I don’t worry about heating it and just pour the bottle straight in when it’s time.

Once the onion is cooked, pour one cup of arborio into the pan with the risotto and cook for two to three minutes to lightly brown it.  Once you get there, pour in the whole amount of wine, reduce the heat a little bit, and stir until all of the liquid is absorbed.  While the wine is cooking into the rice, warm two cups of chicken stock.  I usually use homemade, but this is Pacific organic low-sodium chicken broth, which is the only variety I have found that is truly low-sodium.  It’s a nice substitute for homemade, and the best (least expensive) place to buy it is Greenlife.


Once all of the wine is absorbed, you are going to add the chicken broth about half a cup at a time, stirring frequently until all of the liquid is absorbed.  You can also shake the pan a little to agitate the grains of rice.  The goal here is to get as much starch as possible out of the grains of rice.  You are going to continue adding liquid and cooking and stirring until it’s all absorbed until you’ve used it all.

 

While the rice is cooking, stem and clean a bunch of mushrooms.  These are creminis but you can use any variety you like.  I have no idea what the weight is on these; I just grabbed a bunch out of the bin at Greenlife.  I clean my mushrooms by wetting a paper towel and wiping the tops of the mushrooms.  Quarter the mushrooms and melt about half a tablespoon of butter with a drizzle of olive oil over medium heat.  Throw the mushrooms in and cook until soft, stirring frequently, then remove from the heat.  Since I am going to be seasoning the risotto, I didn’t bother seasoning the mushrooms themselves.

Next, slice up a bunch of sundried tomatoes.  I love sundried tomatoes, so I use a quite a few.  If you don’t like them, feel free to leave them out.  In fact, feel free to leave the mushrooms out, too.  I throw the tomatoes in after the last addition of chicken broth so they soak up a little of it.

Once all of the liquid is absorbed, grab a spoon.  Taste the risotto then add salt and pepper to taste.  *If you don’t taste your food while you’re cooking, shame on you!  That’s the only way to get the perfect level of seasoning.  You don’t have to gorge.  It’s just a taste-seriously-grab a spoon!*  It’s just me and Philip eating tonight, so I double-dipped my spoon.  Sue me.  I promise that if you ever eat dinner at my house, I will get a clean spoon before re-dipping. Now, stir in the mushrooms and some chopped parsley.  This is from my yard.  Parsley grows rampantly in my front yard.  If you need some, call me.

Now, plate up the risotto and garnish it with the cooked bacon and some parmesan cheese.  If you are still buying parmesan in a can, stop it RIGHT NOW.  This is real parmigiano reggiano that I bought at Greenlife.  In theory it’s very expensive, but I buy the smallest chunk I can find and it usually lasts for a few months.  Get a fine Microplane grater and a little will go a long way.  Trust me, it’s worth it. And no, that’s not my arm. In case you were wondering. Shout out to Sick Boys Ink!

Serve your risotto with some yummy bread.  That’s all you need.  It’s a simple, perfect meal!

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