Monday, August 8, 2011

Dusting the Ol' Blog Off. aka My Favorite Rice in the History of Rice

It has been a little over a year since I last posted. I swear I have meant to update the entire time. I still cook every night and at least once a week, I think to myself that I should write down what I am doing so I can update the blog. Alas, in the past year-ish, I have gotten married and much busier at work, and generally just don't have nearly so much time for dicking around online. These past few months I have been thinking about the blog a lot though. All of my friends have their summer gardens in full swing and the recipe requests are pretty constant. I occasionally direct people this way when I have exactly the recipe they are looking for, but I don't mention the good ol' Apartment Vegan as much as I want to, because I am so ashamed of the current state of neglect around these parts.

Enough babbling and excuse making though; let's talk about food. Specifically let's talk about making risotto.

I am not really sure where risotto got this reputation that it has as being some terribly complicated, difficult, fancy pants dish. Risotto is at heart, just the Italian preparation for rice. Yes, there are lots of Italian rice dishes that are not risotto, but in traditional Italian cuisine if someone was just going to make a dish of rice, risotto is probably what they would be making. Somehow over the years though, we 'mericans have gotten scared of making risotto. We seem to think that risotto is a delicious dish to have at a nice restaurant, but nothing we would attempt at home.

In actuality, risotto really is not difficult to make at all, but it requires two things that no one seems to want to invest in their cooking any longer, time and attention. You can't just throw some ingredients together, stick em on the stove and ignore them until they are done, if you want a nice risotto. You can make a decent rice pilaf that way, and if you were a no talent hack, you might thin that out a little and call it a risotto, but you will never have a true risotto without time and attention.

In a true risotto every grain of rice is cooked perfectly, they are tender but still have a little bite to them, yet no crunch. Every grain of rice is separate, cooked on its own, but held together in a thick, velvety stock. That stock becomes both a cooking medium, and a sauce. There are as many different risottos as there are people cooking risotto. Risotto can be made with meat, seafood, veggies, even fruits or other sweets. There is one unifying theme across all risottos though, and that is that no matter what the addition, the rice is the star.

Recipes may vary, but they all have a few things in common, and it is these things that allow the rice to cook perfectly while the delicious creamy sauce forms:
  1. When you are making risotto, you need to use a short grained rice. Arborio is what I have always been told is best, but I have had great success with other rices as well. They just need to be short grained, that you can't really work around. Longer grained rices are delicious in their own right, I won't argue that. They just don't cook as fast, or release as much starch as a short grained rice does, and that starch is really important.
  2. Before adding any liquid to the equation, you need to toast your rice in a skillet with a little oil. This going to do two things for us. First it is going to give the dish a layer of flavor that would really be missing if we just added raw rice to stock. It is also going to give each grain of rice a nice protective coating of fat. This will allow the grains to start cooking without clumping together into a big lump of rice. Because the rice grains are all cooking separately, they will cook much more evenly, and will release a lot more starch.
  3. Your cooking stock should be hot, abundant and available.
  • You need your stock kept at almost a boil, so when it is added to the rice, it is already at cooking temp. Risotto takes a bit of time to cook, and during that process you are constantly adding more stock. If the stock was cooler than the rice you are adding it to, you would have a pan that was constantly being cooled down and then heated back up, over and over again, and it would be very hard to cook the rice evenly.
  • You need quite a bit of stock for the amount of rice you are cooking. The traditional 1.5 parts water to 1 part rice equation does not apply here. Remember, this stock is going to be both cooking the rice, and forming the sauce. On top of that, a lot of the stock is going to boil off during the cooking process.
  • You need your stock to be easy to get to. Risotto absolutely hates being ignored. If you find yourself needing to leave the risotto pan unattended every time you fetch some more stock, things are probably not going to end well. My favorite way to handle stock, is to keep it in an electric kettle, in arms reach, just to the left of the stove (my right hand is my stirring hand.) If I do not have an electric kettle available, I just keep a sauce pan of stock simmering on the burner closest to the burner that my rice is cooking on.
This recipe is going to be for a fresh beet risotto, but once you get the hang of the technique, you will find that you can swap the spices and additions out as you see fit and make some really tasty dinners.

Fresh Beet Risotto

1 cup short grained rice
4 cups of weak stock (the stock will reduce a lot during cooking, and can make the dish too salty if you aren't careful. I use 3 cups worth of bullion to make 4 cups of stock. If I am making my own stock, I make it a little less salty, or thin it down a bit before using it for this recipe.)
1 cup of fresh beets, cut into 1/2" cubes (aprx. 3 beets)
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
2 Tbsp fresh minced garlic
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp cold margarine
1 tsp dried dill weed
salt to taste

1 large skillet
1 medium sauce pan
1 long handled 1cup ladle (the size and shape of your ladle may vary, but this is my preference.)
knife, cutting board, etc...

  • Like I mentioned above, you want your stock to be very hot, just shy of a boil. I usually put it on the heat before I even start cutting veg. That way when I am ready to cook, so is the stock. I don't mind investing time in cooking right, but I hate sitting around just waiting for a pot to boil.
  • Add the olive oil to your large skillet and allow it to heat for a few moments over a low to medium flame.
  • Add the minced onion, dill and just a touch of salt (to help the onions sweat out)
  • Once the onions are starting to cook through (they will turn translucent and smell awesome) add the dry rice.
  • At this point you are going to start stirring constantly, and will not stop until the risotto is finished.
  • Once the rice starts to smell nutty/toasty, and takes on a slightly golden brown color you are ready to go.
  • Turn the heat up to med-high
  • Add the wine to the pan CAREFULLY. In a pan this hot, with this little wine, you will probably get a little flame up. That is fine though, it should flare up and then calm down pretty quickly.
  • Once the flame is out, add about a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of stock. What you are shooting for is to have just enough stock that all the rice is covered, but there isn't much standing stock.
  • As the stock boils away/is absorbed continue to add just enough stock to keep the rice covered.
  • When you have gone through about half of your stock, add the chopped beets, and immediately follow them with a full ladle of stock (the extra stock will help the temp even back out from the cold veg quicker.)
  • Continue adding stock just a little at a time, just to keep the rice covered. As you continue cooking, it will become more of a sauce, so it will be harder to judge if the rice is "covered." At this point, I will judge it more by the consistency of the risotto than by whether the rice is covered or not. The end result should have a smooth creamy sauce, and should just spread out when ladled onto a plate. If the risotto keeps it's shape when ladled, it is too thick. If more than a little sauce spreads out around the rice, it is too thin. This is really a judgement call, and you will get much better at making that judgement, every time you make risotto. The idea I am getting at though, is that as the stock becomes more of a sauce, and it is harder to judge how much stock needs to be added, just think of what your end result is going to be like, and aim to keep it at that consistency throughout the rest of the cooking time.
  • When your stock is about 3/4 gone, start tasting the rice after each addition of stock. At this point it should still be under cooked, but tasting early and often is going to make it a lot easier to nail that exact moment when the rice is perfectly done. You want it to be soft, but not mush, still with a little body to it when you take a bite, but no crunch.
  • When you finally take a bite that is perfectly done, adjust the salt if necessary (you will probably need to add just a touch) and add enough stock to get that sauce just a little thicker than you think it needs to be (like I said, that will take a little experience.)
  • Remove you pan from the heat, add the margarine and stir vigorously until the risotto is nice and smooth.
  • This recipe should make 6 starter sized portions or 3 entrees

  • Don't fool yourself into thinking you can make risotto with longer grained rice. It just doesn't work. If all you have is a long grained rice, make something that calls for long grained rice.
  • Remember, practice makes perfect. Your first few batches will probably be good but less than stellar, but once you get the hang of it, they will be awesome.
  • You should have more than enough stock to get your rice to where it needs to be. If you think you are going to run out though, you can always put on another pan with a cup of water to boil. If you run out of stock at the end, it won't hurt to use a little water to carry you through.
  • Risotto doesn't like resting. Ideally this should go from the pan to the table with as little time between as you can handle. If you let the risotto sit, the rice will keep cooking and get mushy, and it will soak up all of that delicious sauce.
  • EXPERIMENT! I love all difference kinds of risotto, and will regularly use this basic recipe with different spices and add ons to make all sorts of different end dishes. Some of my favorites include sweet potato, spring pea, and walnut. Just remember, different ingredients are going to have different cook times, so you will need to experiment a little with pre-cooking and adding things at different points in the cooking process.