Searching for the Perfect Risotto

I don’t get the allure of risotto. Years ago at culinary school, every student revered the dish except me, and slowly I’ve come to hate it. It’s overrated.

I’ve practiced making it at home with the guidance of some of the best cookbook authors of the day. I stand at the stove as instructed, stirring, hot broth on the back burner, and all of the ingredients at hand. Inevitably after the required 19 minutes of stirring, ladling, and coddling as instructed, I have a pot of hot, goopy rice, but I am never impressed.

I never get tired of cooking, but eventually I did tire of making risotto.

I had given up ordering risotto in restaurants long ago for the same reasons I quit making it at home. But on a chance, just like the dollar I dropped into a slot and pulled the arm as I walked by, I ordered it. I took the gamble and it too payed off, just like the $1600 slot earlier in the day.

I don’t eat at restaurants often. Not because I don’t enjoy them – because I do – it’s more that my wife, Amy, and I splurge when we go out to eat. A few times a year we spend lots of money at a few restaurants. A weekend in Napa or New York City is perfect for this. This time we headed to Las Vegas where there are lots of great restaurants tucked within a confined space. We made plans to hit several famous chef’s restaurants. It’s what we do when we go to Vegas. Others gamble, we eat.

On a whim, we decided to go into Le Cirque, the off shoot of the famous New York City restaurant. Le Cirque is whimsical. It ’s dinner under the big top, draping curtains hanging from the ceiling like a technicolor circus tent, highlighting a huge chandelier centered in a huge circular room. No corner table. Gaudy at best but it pairs perfectly with Cirque Du Soleil playing one ring over.

As I glanced at the veritable circus around us, the ringmaster balanced hot plates on his arm and delivered them to our table. The risotto dish set in front of me was the most exquisite rice dish ever. Tender rice but with a spring to it. The acidity of the white wine, added and burned off au sec, is a perfect match for the Parmesan and the starchy rice. Brothy, but not too much so. Fine dinning at its best. It is out of place in Vegas: to simple, not garish enough. Still, that rice dish will hold a place at the front of my mind for the rest of the weekend and follow me around for a long time to come.

I arrived back home with renewed determination. I had to figure out how to make risotto like that. It’s like a three-ring circus in my kitchen: ingredients spread all around while I’m stirring and ladling and stirring and measuring and stirring some more. Another carefully measured attempt ends yet again with disappointment. How could it not? I can make a perfect pot of rice, but I can’t make risotto. No amount of hope can fix that.

I did my best to just move on. There are so many wonderful foods in this world; there is no point in getting hung up on any one failure. It’s not like anyone notices a gaping risotto hole in my cooking repertoire. And what if they did? It’s only risotto.

But I do. I notice. And for me it is an empty pan smoking over high heat. Cooking is what I do. Making food the best that I possibly can is what drives me. Once my palate has experienced something new and exciting there are no lengths to which I won’t go in order to replicate that experience.

And so I head back to the stove with another recipe for Risotto Milanese, seeking yet again that illusive pairing of a creamy texture and toothsome rice. I carefully ladle in the broth, stirring and stirring and seeking to master the ultimate balancing act.

Perfect Risotto Milanese (serves 4)

2 tsp. unsalted butter

1/2 cup yellow onion, finely diced

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup arborio rice

1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 3/4 cup homemade or sodium free chicken broth

1/2 tsp saffron

2 TBS. unsalted butter, cold

1/2 cup Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

1 TBS. chives, minced

  1. Place a 4-quart pressure cooker over medium high heat.  Add the butter, and when it begins to bubble, add the onions.  Sauté until the onions begin to soften.
  2. Add the dry white wine and bring it to a boil.  Reduce the wine by half and add the rice and stir to coat.  Add salt, chicken stock, and saffron, and bring the liquid to a boil.
  3. Lock the lid into place and bring the pressure to high.  Once the pot is to pressure start a timer set for 7 minutes.  Remove the pot from the heat and use the cold water release method to drop the pressure.  Remove the lid.
  4. Stir in the chilled butter followed with the Parmesan.  If the risotto is stiff, add more broth 1 TBS. at a time until you reach the desired consistency.  Divide the rice into 4 bowls, garnish a little more cheese and chives.  Serve immediately.

 

 

Asian Spaghetti, Changing Seasons

Asian SpaghettiIf your weekend was anything like mine then you are comfortable having put summer to bed, tucked-in snugly with the knowledge it will sleep tight until it awakens again next year. Windows will close, doors are shut, and the nuanced smells of long simmered foods become more prevalent.

I can’t imagine a life without seasons.  Not because I like the hot and cold but because they are markers, clear delineations that it is time to get on with life, a deep breath of reflection before pushing on, no summit to conquer, no eye on a prize, just a moment to reflect on the journey.

I am back to doing what I love—cooking, my way.   This time of year I always cook Asian cuisine.  It is such a departure from what I have done all summer, cooked from the garden, be it mid-western or southern foods, or farm favorites.  Now I go to the Asian grocery and buy up bok choi, pigs liver, shiso peppers, lemon grass, and Chinese celery.  Foods that I have done without since last fall.

For a few months I will get my fill, until winter.

Asian Spaghetti (serves 4)

This is great for weeknights.  The sauce like many gets better with age and can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days (you can even double the recipe and freeze half.)  Then simply make your noodles, warm the sauce, and serve.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 lb. ground beef

1 medium red onion, fine dice (about 1 cup)

3 celery stalks, trimmed, fine dice (about 1 cup)

1 tablespoon ginger, minced

1 tablespoon garlic

1/2 cup Hoisin sauce

1/2 cup canned chopped tomatoes with juice

1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lime juice

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1 Fresno red pepper, chopped

3 Shiso peppers, chopped

1/4 cup cilantro

rice noodles, cooked

  1. Set a 3 quart (3l) enameled cast iron pot, or any heavy bottomed pot onto the stove.  Turn the heat to medium high.  Add oil and let it become hot.
  2. Add the ground beef, break it into small pieces and let it brown.  Add red onion, celery, ginger, and garlic.  Stir, let the vegetables soften and become fragrant.
  3. Add Hoisin sauce, tomatoes, lime juice and soy.  Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to simmer and let the liquid reduce until it thickens, about 15 minutes.  Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  4. Place the hot noodles onto a platter, top with sauce, and sprinkle the peppers and cilantro over the top.  Serve with a nice stir fried vegetable like bok choi in oyster sauce.

A Life-Changing Loaf of Bread (Redux)

DSC_0420

I often wonder what makes a recipe so good it goes viral. I am sure it’s lots of factors. Sometimes it’s the recipe itself, other times it is what the author expresses in words through their post, and sometimes it is simply because the author is very famous. This recipe, originally posted on the blog My New Roots, has shown up on lots of other sites and was even a Genius Recipe on Food 52, and rightly so.  At the very least it has gone viral in my circles.

There are lots of things to like about this bread, like stacking it with thinly sliced crisp cucumbers, topped with oily mackerel, shallots, and parsley like in the picture above.  I also like it with thick cut bacon and peas shoots, or simply toasted and topped with butter and lingonberry jam.  It is delicious bread.  I even bake it on my Big Green Egg to give it a more authentic, and Danish, baked-in-the-dying-embers of a wood fired oven flavor.

My only problem is if I make the loaf of bread following the original recipe it comes up short. I heard the same words of disappointment from others who tried it too. The bread can be fussy, difficult to cut, crumbles, and becomes dry.  Many I know have given up making it.

I am sure the loaf bakes up perfect and to the satisfaction of many people every time. It doesn’t for me, but I understand when it comes to cooking and baking there are so many variables that to place fault elsewhere is simply not taking responsibility for ones own abilities. After all, it is up to the cook to get what they want from a recipe.  It is why you need to know how to cook rather then simply follow directions.  Just like different musicians playing the same piece of sheet music. The song sounds very different depending on the players abilities.  It is only because there are so many things about this loaf of bread I like that I stuck with it, experimented with it, until I got the loaf of bread I wanted, until I heard the song I wanted to hear.

I didn’t change much, although I used pumpkin seeds instead of sunflower and ground psyllium instead of seeds and I ground a portion of the oats and pumpkin seeds to create a finer crumb in the end product.  And while I use coconut oil in some recipes I didn’t use it here nor did I use maple syrup but instead brown rice syrup was substituted.   For me all these small touches made for a more manageable loaf in the end.

The fact is, made from the original recipe this loaf of bread is delicious, the taste is very satisfying, nutty, feels good to eat, and it is nourishing.  I simply made adjustments which gave me the product  I wanted to eat.  Rest assured though,  for those on a restricted diet, and those that aren’t, this seed bread is an important find.  It’s worth practicing to get it right.

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Seed bread packed into a pate mold and waiting to be wrapped up for a rest before baking. Notice the parchment handles.
Seed Bread
This recipe creates a less delicate loaf.

Seed and Grain Bread (adapted from My New Roots)

1 cup unsalted pumpkin seeds (1/2 cup coarsely ground)
1/2 cup golden flax meal, ground
1/2 cup walnuts
1 1/2 cups rolled oats ( I generally grind 1/2 cup coarsely in a coffee grinder )
2 tablespoons chia seeds
3 tablespoons powdered psyllium
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoons brown rice syrup or whatever syrup you have and want to use
3 tablespoons spectrum vegetable shortening (it’s palm oil and non-hydrogentated) or unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups hot water

1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Using your hands work the mass until the shortening or butter and the other ingredients are evenly distributed.
2. Line a pate mold, or small loaf pan, with parchment. To remove air bubbles, literally, pack the dough into a 3 x 4 x 10 pate mold. Wrap the whole thing in plastic wrap and let it sit for 1 to 2 hours.
3, Heat the oven to 350˚F. Remove the plastic wrap, place the loaf pan onto a baking sheet and bake the bread for 25 minutes.
4. At the end of the baking time remove the tray from the oven and using excess parchment paper as handle lift the loaf from the pan. Place the loaf, with the parchment still under it, back onto the sheet tray and bake the bread for another 20 minutes.
5. When the timer sounds, roll the loaf so that a new side is flush with the sheet tray. Bake another twenty minutes. Do this until all four sides have been baked against the sheet tray.
6. Remove from the oven and let the bread cool completely before cutting.
7. The bread is best toasted. Store in the fridge wrapped in plastic wrap.

Note: recently I baked a loaf on my Big Green Egg. It is a fantastic way to bake this loaf. Much like it might be baked in a shop in Europe using the dying embers of a wood fired oven.

Let’s Talk Turkey

Hen and Tom Broad Breasted Bronze As with anything in cooking there are many ways to cook a turkey. It is only limited by your imagination. Beer can, the Louisiana Turducken, deep fried, you name it and someone has attempted it, some with better results then others. Simply put, I am from the midwest. When it comes to the holidays I want to know what I am getting into. On the holidays I don’t like change, I am good with tradition and see no need to break with it. Continue reading “Let’s Talk Turkey”

Classic Creamy Coleslaw

cabbage

My favorite kind of coleslaw is the classic, creamy variety; it comforts me because I grew up eating it at a mom-and-pop catfish bar whose coleslaw was second to none. Their version was made with finely grated cabbage and bright orange ribbons of carrot. It was a bit tart and a little sharp — the way horseradish can be — because the cabbage was freshly grated. It paired perfectly with deep-fried catfish, whose crispy tails tasted of bacon. This is the slaw by which I judge all others. Continue reading “Classic Creamy Coleslaw”

Memphis Style Barbecue Nachos

Memphis style pulled pork nachos

Great barbecue is about the cut of meat, the smoke, the rub, and the sauce. But just because sauce is only one part of the equation, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be excellent. In fact, barbecue sauce should be so delicious that you can use it for much more than simply dipping or brushing. Continue reading “Memphis Style Barbecue Nachos”

Small Batch Barbacoa Beef for Tacos

DSCF4507There is something about big hunks of meat cooked over long periods at low heat that appeals to us at a very basic level. Pit-cooking traditions like hog roasts, barbacoa, and luaus aren’t just barbecues — they’re celebrations. They conjure up visions of earthen pits and long buffet tables with folding chairs, all set up for a multitude of guests.

This kind of cooking takes judgement and practice, though, so unless you host these kinds of events on a regular basis, you’re more than likely cooking blind. After all, you probably aren’t buying a whole lamb or calf more than a couple times a year. It could take you a few years to get it right. Continue reading “Small Batch Barbacoa Beef for Tacos”

Mandarin Orange Cake

Mandarin Orange Cake   I am a last-minute baker — a procrasti-baker. As such, I am most likely going to make the least complicated sorts of desserts and baked goods. On the occasions I have my act together, I like to make cakes — and even then, I want them to fit my schedule. At one point, I believe, Mandarin Orange Cake — also known as “Dream Cake” or “Pig Pickin’ Cake” — was made from scratch. Continue reading “Mandarin Orange Cake”