Small-Time Cooks 10-26-04

By Jon Walsh and Diane Dickel

Maria was back in the kitchen, and she was showing me some of her tips for making risotto. Fall had come up on me like a mugger in an alley, and I needed some warm food as consolation. Maria’s food did the trick, and we polished it off with some dessert from a local diner. That meal will keep me toasty all week.

Basic Risotto

Serves 4

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, finely diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/3 ounce dried mushrooms

1 cup white cooking wine

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice

6 cups vegetable broth

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh basil

fresh ground black pepper

In a large pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and simmer for about seven minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent. Before simmering, reconstitute the mushrooms in hot water for about 10 minutes, and chop. We recommend using porcini or oyster mushrooms, since they have a very earthy flavor. You can find oyster mushrooms fresh, in which case you should use about 3 ounces; crimini or shiitake mushrooms work great too. Add in the pieces of mushroom and cook for another three minutes.

Next, add the wine and rice to the pot at the same time, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to get all the glazed onion and garlic off. When the wine is almost absorbed, add the vegetable broth a half to three quarters of a cup at a time, only adding more when the liquid is almost absorbed. This will ensure a creamy texture to the risotto, which is what you want. You may not use all the vegetable broth, but it’s good to have it handy. Also, you should keep it warm on the stove so that you don’t stop the rice from cooking when you add the broth. We generally use broth made from vegetable bullion. It’s easy to make and doesn’t take up as much space as cans of broth. Once the rice becomes cooked and soft, remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese and add in the basil. Mix together and serve topped with fresh ground black pepper and more grated cheese if desired.

This recipe is just the base for risotto, but it’s good by itself. Often, you’ll want to add in more vegetables (or even chicken, which should be cooked first), and you can use this recipe as a starting point. Just add in the vegetables with the mushrooms, keeping in mind that they may absorb liquid, too. You can take away the mushrooms or use different varieties depending upon the taste you are trying to achieve with the added ingredients. Depending on what kind of vegetables you add, you may also want to change the kind of wine and the herbs you add. Everything else will pretty much stay the same; you just may need more broth. A couple different combinations of things you can add to risotto to flavor it are listed below.

Pumpkin Risotto

Half of a small pumpkin

2 Tablespoons butter

Pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon

Dry Marsala or Sherry wine

When we say “a small pumpkin,” that means it should fit easily into a cupped pair of hands. Something the size of a softball is good. Take the pumpkin and scoop out the seeds and fibrous insides. Skin it; a good way to do this is to cut the pumpkin half into strips and run your knife along the bottom to shave off the skin. Dice the pumpkin, and sauté it with the butter and nutmeg and cinnamon until soft, or about 15 minutes. The spices should temper the odor of the pumpkin. Puree, and stir into the risotto (following the recipe above) when the rice is almost done cooking. Keep the mushrooms in this recipe; they’ll go great with the flavor of the pumpkin. For this recipe, you’ll want to replace the white wine with something like Marsala or sherry, and make sure it’s dry. Don’t add the basil, and top with plenty of ground pepper.

Red Pepper and White Bean Risotto

2 cups cooked white beans

1 red bell pepper, sliced into strips

1 Tablespoon fresh thyme

This isn’t really risotto, since it has beans in it, but it’s still tasty. Add the bell pepper when you add the mushrooms, and sauté for at least 5 minutes. Add the beans next, and keep extra broth on hand since they’ll probably absorb some moisture. Use thyme instead of basil.