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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.

 

 

Peas and Rice with Crispy Shallots

Rice and Peas with Crispy Shallots

I never feel like people like to cook rice unless of course they are from a country or region where it is a staple.  I will say it took me a while to get the hang of it.  Even after culinary school, because I didn’t cook rice often, it was a struggle.  It seemed like it would either be a gooey mess, or dry and not cooked all the way through.  Some recipes seemed to work one time and the next they failed.

It wasn’t until I started to look for a rhyme and reason that it started to get better for me.  I stopped buying different brands, types and kinds of rice for regular use and narrowed my selection down to two.  I use medium grain brown rice from Lundberg farms in California and a kapika short grain white rice from Japan.  For other dishes such as risottos or paella I use carnaroli.

For those not familiar with kapika it is a process where by the rice is polished using the grains themselves to remove the outer husk which also allows for greater water absorption.  What I like about the kapika process is you do not need to rinse the rice before it is cooked and it has a stickiness to it that allows you to be able to eat it with chopsticks if you choose.  Still there is more to kapika then just chopstick usability, there is the chew.  It has, for me, the perfect chew it is tender with a spring.

I cook brown rice using a method that is wildly different from how I cook any other rice.  I always parboil it in large quantities of lightly salted water, drain it and cool it much like you might pasta.  They I use it in applications like fried rice, casseroles and pilafs.

I usually by larger quantities of white rice then brown.  I love brown rice but brown rice can go rancid if left sitting around or because of lower turnover in the store, the rice is already old and needs to be used up before it goes south.  It has an acrid smell to it when it is old.  White rice like white flour has a longer shelf life.

Obviously brown rice is better for you because it is a whole grain but I am certain white rice is more soothing to my stomach.

For this recipe I could simply enjoy sitting at the table and eating it all on its own.  I need no other dish alongside it but if it is going to be a side dish roast chicken is a real good choice as is rabbit.

My absolute favorite condiment for this dish is the gelatinous stock (not the chicken fat) that forms on the bottom of the roast chicken pan.  If you have it available stir some of it in to the rice after it has cooked but before serving.

Serves 4 to 6

2 cups kapika rice

2 3/4 cup vegetable broth

1 cup peas, fresh or frozen

1/2 cup shallots, sliced into very thin rounds and separated

peanut or safflower oil

2 teaspoons fresh chives, minced

2 teaspoons parsley, minced

1. Place the rice into a 3 1/2 quart enameled Dutch oven with a heavy lid.  Add the vegetable stock and a pinch of salt.  Bring the broth to a boil over high heat.  Immediately turn down the heat to simmer and put the lid onto the pot (I weight the lid with a two pound weight but that is up to you).  Set a timer for 20 minutes.

2. While the timer is running place a 2 quart sauce pan over medium high heat.  Add a 1/2 inch worth of oil to the pan.  Once the oil is to temperature, you can test this by dropping in a shallot ring it should drop to the bottom then come back to the top all in slow motion, add the shallots.  It won’t take long for them to brown so don’t leave the stove.  Once they are brown remove them from the pan with a metal slotted spoon to a paper towel lined plate and season them with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

3. When the rice timer goes of quickly lift the lid and add the peas.  Don’t stir them just leave them on top to steam.  Cover the pot and set the time for 10 minutes.

4. At the end of ten minutes remove the lid to the pot and with a fork fluff the rice which will also stir in the peas.  Bowl up the rice, sprinkle on the herbs and finish it with the shallot garnish.  Serve.

Wild Rice and Barley Pilaf

Wild Rice and Barley PilafThis is so good for you you won’t even know it taste really delicious. Seriously good eats and a great side dish for roast birds of any kind and I’ll even throw salmon onto that list.

Yes, I know it uses two sauce pans but, please, neither grain leaves behind a sticky mess. You could almost just wipe the pan with a towel after emptying it of the grains. Don’t get any ideas I said almost.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

3/4 cup wild rice

3/4 cup pearl barley

1/2 cup yellow onion, small dice

1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, minced

3 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter

kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper

1. Put the grains into two different sauce pans. Add water to cover by 2 inches and add a two finger pinch of salt to both pots.

2. Bring the water to a boil then reduce the heat to a gentle but continuous bubble. Cook both grains until they are tender. The barley should take about 30 minutes and the rice maybe 40. The rice will just begin to open up its pod.

3. Drain both grains. The dish can be done up to a day in advance at this point.

4. Put the larger of the two sauce pans over medium heat and add the butter. Once it has melted add the chopped onion and sweat it until it is tender. Add both grains and season everything with salt and pepper. I like lots of pepper but season to your liking. Heat everything until hot, taste, and if it needs more add more butter or even a dash of water. Stir in the parsley, plate it and serve immediately.

Chicken and Rice Soup with Saffron

Good soup is hard to come by but it isn’t hard to make good soup.  It’s only as difficult as you want to make it.

While I know there are all kinds of prepared soups on the shelves of every supermarket I just can’t bring myself to do anything other than make it from scratch.  I beg of you to do the same.  You will be all the better for it and your health will be too.

If you are new to the kitchen it might take you a while to get the prep down.  There is cutting and chopping but as you practice and as your skill level increases your time in the kitchen drops.  Trust me.  I like to spend time in the kitchen some days but not all days.  I want to do things with my kids more than I want to make some three-day dish out of Modern Cuisine but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat flavorful good food

The one thing for which I am grateful is I worked in a from scratch restaurant where not only did you work the line but you did all of your own prep.  I became efficient because the Bob-Knight-of-Chefs boss I had demanded it.  I am eternally grateful to him for his persistence and for making me a better cook.

Makes 6 servings

For the broth:

1 yellow onion, trimmed, peeled and chopped

1 carrot, peeled and sliced

1 celery stalk, washed, trimmed and chopped

4 leg/thigh chicken quarter, skin removed

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns

6 cups water

For the soup:

1/2 cup yellow onion, peeled, trimmed 1/4 inch dice

1 cup carrots, sliced

1/4 cup celery, 1.4 inch dice

1 cup brown basmati rice, cooked

1 tablespoon Italian or curly leaf parsley

1 heafty pinch of saffron

1. Place all the broth ingredients into a three quart heavy bottomed pot and place it over medium high heat.  Bring it to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer.  Simmer the broth until the chicken is very tender, the meat should have pulled away from the leg joint bone on its own.  Remove the chicken quarters to a plate and let them cool.  Once they are cool pick the meat from the bones and break it up into spoon size pieces.

2. Strain the both.  You should have anywhere from 4 to 5 cups.  If it is less add some water.

3. Discard the vegetables from the stock.  Clean the pot and pour the strained stock back into the pot.  Add the soup vegetables, saffron a heavy pinch of salt and some pepper to the pot.  Bring the soup to a boil.  Reduce the heat and cook until the vegetables are tender.

4. Once the vegetables are tender add the chicken, cooked rice and parsley.  Make sure everything is good and hot.  Serve.