Albert Burneko is off. Your guest Foodspinner this week is longtime friend of the program Miserable Shitehawk.
Foods say things. Pizza, for example, might say let's take it easy tonight. It's been a busy day, you're tired, you're grumpy, you'd rather not use your brain for anything. Someone to your left says something. Who the hell is that person. What could they possibly want from you and your poor shredded brain. It's your spouse. Your spouse wants sustenance, and seeks your input. "Pizza," you say, dead-eyed and monotone. And you're not just saying pizza, you're saying God let's take it easy, leave me the hell alone, there's a man who brings cheese-soaked edible bread-plates to our door, please let's call him and make it his fucking problem. A friend comes over to hang out. There's uncertainty about what the night will entail. What are we having? I ordered a couple pizzas. Oh, cool, I can relax, it's a relaxed kind of night. Where's the beer?
Pizza says relax. Homemade chili says I want you to like me. Olive Garden says you're all alone in a dark and malevolent universe. Risotto? Risotto is the food of love. Risotto says I love you thiiiiiiiiis much.
There's something undeniably sensual about a good risotto: Smooth and rich and luxurious and soft and creamy, it's a food that seems appropriate for romance, the kind of thing you feel just the tiniest bit awkward about serving to your mom. But beyond that, risotto is kind of a mighty undertaking, a culinary endeavor that is ultimately best redeemed by the sorts of orgasmic noises one really isn't all that interested in hearing from one's mother. And, as we will see, you will need a particularly intense love to motivate you through what is ultimately a grueling and surreal cooking process. Get limbered up, friends, and let's get down to it.
Your shopping list for this risotto is pretty light. You'll need some Arborio rice, some good unsalted chicken or vegetable stock, some dried porcini mushrooms, a good handful of whatever fresh mushrooms you like, a small hunk of good Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano with the rind intact, some unsalted butter, a handful of pine nuts, and a big shallot or two. Also a bottle of dry white wine at room temperature. Pretty simple.
Now, don't screw around and buy a box of Uncle Ben's. Arborio rice is Italian short grain rice with higher starch content. It isn't just ideal for making risotto—it is cultivated for the making of risotto. Risotto is its reason for existing. But don't worry, this isn't some fancy gourmet ingredient. You should be able to find it in just about any grocery store. It's sometimes used in rice pudding and makes a pretty solid sticky rice in a pinch. You may screw around with other parts of this recipe, but you will not be making risotto if you use other rice. You'll be making stupid rice, and stupidly, and everyone will hate you and know, just know, that the world would be a better place if you weren't in it. Your risotto will not communicate love; it will communicate that its maker was cruel and existence is meaningless and there is no God.
Measure and chop your things. Before heat touches anything, get all your ingredients together in pre-measured little piles and cups and rows and stacks. Risotto is an uncomplicated thing to prepare, but the cooking process is ... well, it's involved, and you will be occupied constantly, and you will not have time at the end to clean the kitchen before serving unless you're OK presenting your tablemate with congealed lukewarm slop and hating yourself intensely for weeks afterward. Measure a cup and a half of rice in a vessel. Put five cups of stock in a saucepan. Finely chop your shallots. Slice a nice big handful of fresh mushrooms. Grate a couple tablespoons of your cheese and set the rinds aside. Pour ¾ cup of white wine into a vessel. This prep-work is important and will save you a lot of frantic terrified moments of wishing for the first time in your life that you were a giant octopus, not because they have eight dexterous arms but so you could distract everyone by squirting a giant cloud of sticky ink and retreat to the briny depths of the ocean.
Now, drop a small handful of pine nuts into a pan over medium heat, and toss them around gently for a few minutes until they start to darken. Remove them to a cutting board or a Ziploc bag or a food processor and work them over until they're roughly chopped or crushed, then set them aside and forget about them for a while. Also, unpack those dried porcinis, grab a big handful, drop them into a strainer, and rinse them gently in cold water for a few seconds. Those things can be fairly dirty in their packaging, but a quick toss under a cold tap should do the job.
(On porcinis: Upon opening their packaging, you may be hit by the strong smell of, well, dog food. Your olfactory system may find the powerful scent of foot-stank-accented dog food with a thin soupçon of by-God dirt somewhat off-putting. Yes, porcinis are pungent. Yes, they're mildly footy. If you're the kind of person who thinks mushrooms are eww gross I just don't like the texture mew mew mew, maybe it's time you take your third-grader's palate and go back to devouring the dry orange cheese dust packet in a box of Kraft Mac. If, on the other hand, you like good things—and mushrooms are among the best things—then cooked porcinis will wind up being a wonderful new challenge, something you will be genuinely excited by. But, yeah, at first? They smell like a sweaty sock stuffed full of dog food.)
So, you've got all your ingredients prepped in little piles and bowls and ramekins. Good.
Simmer your stock. If you're a super-cool home chef type, maybe you're using your own chicken stock, into which you were super-cool enough to throw peppercorns and parmesan rinds and leeks and it's killer, just killer. If you're not that person, it's perfectly OK to use store-bought chicken stock, so long as it is low- or no-sodium. Heat your stock to a low simmer. Now, drop that handful of cleaned, damp porcinis into the stock, along with the rind from your hunk of cheese, and cover. Yes. Just do it. Trust me.
Well, OK, trust me, but also, here's why you're doing these things: We want our risotto to be pretty close to texturally perfect, and we also want it to be intensely fragrant and flavorful. We want it to have the rich, dark, earthy flavor and aroma of porcinis, and we want there to be a distinct current of nutty parmesan scent in there without delivering cheesy, congealed risotto studded with rubbery or mushy nuggets of disastrously overcooked porcini. What we're doing, then, is extracting the flavors and aromas from their origins and adding them in liquid form to our risotto. This is going to work. Yes, it is.
Give the mushrooms and rinds a good half-hour or so to leave their flavors in the simmering stock and then get 'em the hell out of there. What you should have left in the saucepan is four or five cups of especially dark, aromatic stock, simmering gently. Toss the dried porcinis and cheese rind in the trash, cover your stock, keep the heat low, and leave it alone for a few minutes.
Get some oil going in a pan, toss in your chopped shallots, and soften them. The choice of pan is crucial. Before you get going here, take a good look at your cooktop. What you want is a pan that is not wider than the heat source. The beautiful stainless Calphalon sauté pan that is a solid three inches wider than your burner or coil or pile of burning leaves? No good. The ideal risotto-cooking vessel is high-sided, heavy, has a long handle, and is exactly as wide as the surface of the heat source. What I am describing is really more of a pot. A saucepan. It looks like it would make a great hat for a hobo in an adorable drawing of hobos as we imagine them as lovable loonies riding trains and playing the harmonica. Grab the closest thing you've got and do not wear it as a hat. Get a little olive oil going over medium heat. Throw your shallots in there and cook them until they're soft and translucent.
Add all the rice to the pan. Work the rice around in the oil until it's all coated, and then stir it around until it just starts to seem like it's getting a little clear, maybe two or three minutes. You're cooking! This is it! You are the chef. Things are hot and you've used some of your neat little piles and it's kinda fast-moving and exciting. Great! Now comes the part where things are totally not at all fast-moving and exciting. Now comes the part where you make risotto.
Pour the measured white wine into the rice. Keep the heat medium. Grab your favorite wooden spoon and move the rice around in the pan until all the wine is absorbed. Stir. Stir and keep stirring. We want to keep the rice moving so that none of it stays on the bottom for very long, because we want our risotto to have perfect consistency, and this will not happen if some rice is on the bottom nearer the heat while some other rice is cooling against the air. If we stir too slowly, there will be too much temperature variance from the top to the bottom. If we stir too quickly, we will introduce air into our rice, cooling it prematurely and unnecessarily slowing the cooking process. Stir medium, as chef Jim Zorn would probably say before sending his risotto on a double-end-around Statue of Liberty play on first and 15, after a false start.
Stir with long, methodical movements. Stir with purpose. Stir the kernels from the middle to the edge and from the edge to the middle. Stir in a big circle around the edge of the pan. Stir stir stir. Spend these few minutes imagining what it would be like to spend 40 minutes standing in place, stirring an ever-expanding pile of rice. Imaging how it will be therapeutic, this quiet time, the repetitive motion, the timeless movements that mirror those of your grandparents' grandparents' grandparents, leaning over a crude pan next to a fire, stirring stirring stirring. We have always been stirring, we humans, across all generations and civilizations and cultures, everyone stirs, stirring is the fiber of our common human heritage.
It will soon help to be passionate about stirring.
Stir the rice in the wine until the wine is absorbed and the risotto has a thin sticky coating.
Transfer one single ladleful of stock from your simmering pot into the rice. Steady the heat to a simmer and stir. Stir. Always stir. Stir and keep stirring until the stock is completely absorbed.
Transfer one single ladleful of stock from your simmering pot into the rice. Steady the heat to a simmer and stir. Keep stirring. This is who you are now, The Stirrer. The part of your life where you were not stirring has ended. Embrace the stirring. Be the stir. Bring the stock together with the rice with the power of your stirring.
Transfer one single ladleful of stock from your simmering pot into the rice. Steady the heat to a simmer and stir. Stir with your right hand. Later, stir with your left hand. Think important things while stirring. Why is stir spelled with an i? Couldn't it just as easily be replaced with an e? Ster? What about a u? Stur! Stir is a stupid word with a stupid vowel.
Oh look, the stock is absorbed.
Transfer one single ladleful of stock from your simmering pot into the rice. Steady the heat to a simmer and stir. Why should there even be a vowel? Where is the vowel sound in the word stir? Would we not pronounce str as stir? Is the vowel there for some legitimate purpose, or to satisfy the arbitrary rule that every word in the English language must have a vowel? The vowels are cruelly repressing the creative expression of the consonants.
Is the stock absorbed into the rice yet?
Transfer one single ladleful of stock from your simmering pot into the rice. Steady the heat to a simmer and stir. It will be good for you to continue the stirring.
By now, the mixture will have expanded significantly, and it will seem creamy and thick and starchy. It will be OK to use your stirring appendages for the unnatural act of tasting a tiny mouthful of risotto. What we're looking for is a nice al dente texture, tender but firm to the bite. Is it pretty close? Keep going with the ladling and stirring until it's pretty close. When it's pretty close, you're going to add one final ladleful of stock and a nice handful of chopped fresh mushrooms. And, yes, by God, you're going to stir. Stir as you have been stirring, over medium heat, this time stopping just short of full absorption when the stock has reduced and the mixture is smooth and wet and creamy.
You are now ready for the most dramatic phase of this cooking project: more stirring.
Add butter, stir like hell. To this point, you have been gently and methodically stirring your mixture. Now you're going to add a big fat tablespoon of good butter and stir like the wind. No gentle stirring. Stir as you have always wanted to stir. Grip the handle, tilt the pan, and whip that goddamn risotto. When the butter is melted and incorporated, add another tablespoon and repeat. This vigorous stirring is introducing air to your risotto, and the air combined with the butter is making the risotto lighter, smoother, creamier, more luscious. Whip in three or four tablespoons of butter. If your risotto still seems thick and very starchy, go ahead and stir in one final spoonful of stock.
Taste your risotto and add more flavor. Add salt as needed. Many recipes will tell you to chuck a handful of grated cheese in there, and then garnish with cheese, and then shower in cheese, and later marry cheese and become a cheese. I like cheese, but at a certain point, everything that came before the cheese orgy was just a fancy ritualistic dance to the gods of cheese orgies. Why bother with the mushrooms? Why all the stirring? Just nuke a block of Velveeta and ram your face down in there and get your cheese on. We want our risotto to be mushroom flavored, accented by the specific nuttiness of a good hard Italian cheese, not a starchy cheese soup that happens to be brownish. Go ahead and stir a hearty pinch—A PINCH, DAMN YOU—of cheese into the pan of risotto. A pinch goes a long way, even in that big-ass lake of risotto.
If we have done this right, your risotto will not thud down onto the plate in an unattractive sticky heap and congeal into a low brown boulder, but will ooze luxuriously into a saucy, hearty puddle. Drop a ladleful of hot risotto onto a plate or into a shallow bowl, sprinkle with some crushed toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley, grind a little black pepper over the top, maybe give it a quick drizzle of your fruitiest olive oil. Serve it with a glass of that dry white wine.
That first taste, the first steaming forkful of heavenly risotto, will paralyze your mouth. MMMMM, you will say, and possibly other, more suggestive, vaguely profane sounds will bubble forth as the decadent richness and velvety texture of this mushroom risotto do the erotic dance of seduction with your tongue. Your howling forearm, your shrieking shoulder, your perspiration-soaked clothing will all fade into the background. Risotto is passion and lust and romance and possibly madness, hey whoa this is looking an awful lot like obsession, why is your arm so huge and muscled? I stirred for you, you will say, but it will not matter, nothing you say will matter, with each successive bite the risotto is delivering the message of love, faithfully rendering all your dedication and hard work into an experience that grips the soul, softens focus, speaks to the heart, yes, let the risotto do the talking. And for God's sake, don't serve it to your mother.
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Miserable Shitehawk is happier to be a Virginian this week than he was last week. He eats food and hate-loves the Wizards. Find him on Twitter @MadBastardsAll and over on Sidespin. There's lots more food stuff over at foodspin.deadspin.com.
Image by Sam Woolley.