During an old-fashioned weekend house-party, my husband and I met up with two other couples (from Ann Arbor, MI and Columbus, OH) and we convened for some catch-up time and good food. Most of the time, I was drooling over the beautiful new home of our Columbus friends who graciously hosted all of us (six adults, four children). The rest of the time, we were cooking or eating. All three couples are what one might call “foodies”—interested in (and perhaps even a bit fussy about) food preparation, ingredients, restaurants, and cooking utensils. For instance, a topic of extended conversation revolved around whether Le Creuset’s enameled cast-iron casserole pot was really that much better than the much cheaper dutch ovens produced under the Tramontina label. What does Cooks Illustrated say about it? Did Taunton’s agree? Amazon.com reviewers thought so, etc. You get the idea.
The Tramontina dutch oven in question was on the stove because one of the recipes for our dinner was an “Easy, No-Stir Risotto” which called for the use of an enameled cast-iron pot. Because our host was busy marinating Thai chile-pepper chicken breasts (which turned out excellent and succulent!), he asked the rest of us to follow this new recipe he saw in one of his myriad cooking magazines. I briefly glanced at the recipe and decided that it was a variation on the traditional method except that one cooked the Arborio rice as you would steam rice and then added cheese, butter, and herbs at the end for a “creamy” risotto-like texture. I ditched the recipe and just made risotto my usual way, which others might call “Difficult, Stir Constantly Risotto.”
Home cooks often freak out about cooking risotto. I know I did. But once you make it a couple of times, it becomes one of the easiest dishes to prepare. Moreover, risotto is actually very dinner-party friendly. While one might opt for an easier no-stir option to alleviate stress during a dinner party, I find the stirring of risotto a calming and soothing act, almost an indulgent movement that reduces your tension and puts your guests at ease. Couple of tips though: 1) You should have everything else ready to go so that you may leisurely stir to your heart’s content and serve your risotto when it is piping hot and creamy; 2) If you find your timing is off and that your risotto will finish before your guests could sit down, you should turn off the heat halfway through your cooking time and remove from heat and resume cooking only when you can be sure that you can present your risotto hot. Otherwise, you might be presenting an unappetizing mess that is getting gummy and cold; 3) Always have extra hot broth/stock/water (whatever!) on hand so that you can incorporate more liquid if necessary.
Risotto is sort of like pasta or fried rice. Once you get the hang of it, you can make it with any ingredients and for any season. Experiment with varieties: Asparagus risotto for spring, Butternut squash with sage brown butter for fall and winter seasons, apple or pear with goat cheese or gorgonzola for a savory and sweet main course. I’m giving a recipe for Truffled Wild Mushroom Risotto since it’s quite basic and can be made with refrigerator staples and pantry ingredients.
½ cup (or more) dried wild mushrooms (porcini, chanterelle, etc.)
2 cups boiling water
1 medium chopped onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1½ cups risotto rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
¼ cup white wine or red wine
(Note: You might want to use red wine if you are using more beef broth. If you are using more chicken or vegetable broth, you might want to opt for white wine. In any case, don’t panic about things like this. Go with the flow.)
2½-3 cups combination of any stocks you have, like vegetable, chicken, beef
(Note: You need to have about 4½-5 cups total of liquid, including the water that you soaked the mushrooms in. I like my risotto only slightly al dente—not soft, not hard—but also with a little moisture too. You might need more or less liquid depending on how you like your texture)
Grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Truffle Oil or Truffle Salt
1) Before prepping other items, place dried mushroom in a medium bowl, cover with boiling water, and make sure the mushrooms stay submerged (by placing a saucer on top of the bowl, etc.). After about 30 minutes, remove rehydrated mushroom pieces and coarsely chop them into small pieces. Do not worry so much if some pieces seem harder than others as they will keep rehydrating as they cook. Bring the 2½-3 cups combined broth to a simmer, and carefully pour in broth from the dried mushrooms—but stop before you get to the gritty bits on the bottom of the bowl. Let the liquid simmer together on the lowest heat.
2) Using either a dutch oven or other large heavy-bottomed pan, melt about 1 tbs butter with about 2 tbs olive oil over medium (to medium-high) heat until butter is slightly foaming and becoming golden. Add chopped onion and minced garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they soften. Add mushroom pieces and stir another minute. Add the rice and stir another minute to coat the rice with the oil and butter. Pour in your ¼ cup wine and let the mixture absorb the wine.
3) Now comes the fun and relaxing part (really!). Using a ladle that holds about ¾ cup liquid, pour in a ladle of the liquid into the rice mixture and stir constantly until the liquid is almost all absorbed. Continue a ladle at a time until the rice is to the consistency you like, but make sure that you are reserving at least a few tablespoons of broth for the finishing touch.
4) When the rice is ready, stir in 2 tbs of soft butter and 2 tbs of grated parmesan with the last few tablespoons of broth. This last touch is essential to making the risotto complete and creamy. Salt and pepper to your taste.
5) Once you spoon your risotto into your serving bowl or individual bowls, you may surround the rim of the bowl with truffle oil (either white or black truffle oil) or shake truffle salt on top—or both! If you want a little extra color, you can sprinkle finely chopped parsley. If truffle flavor is not your thing, you can certainly sprinkle sage leaves (and skip the parsley in that case).