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November 11, 2003

Small-Time Cooks: almost risotto and dill carrots

The days kept getting shorter, but work kept getting worse. Last week, these three professionals worked me over, and I was still hurting. One of them got a shot on my leg with some brass knuckles; it left a bruise the size of a dinner plate. I didn't mind, though. I'm a private eye—stuff happens.

At the tired end of a long day, I collapsed on the sofa like an old accordion. All I wanted to do was watch some good TV. As the night waned, the beer worked its way through me, dulling my frustration. I flipped to this cooking channel just in time to see a show on risotto.

Risotto is a renowned northern Italian rice dish, a staple in the region as much as pasta is in southern Italy. It is amazing—creamy, warm, and comforting all at once. A bowl of risotto is enough to ease the pain of the longest days. It is also famous for being one of the snobbiest dishes; any self-proclaimed cooking connoisseur will scoff to no end at an improperly prepared risotto.

I decided to make risotto with Maria, but without one of the key ingredients—chopped onion. Risotto almost always begins with sautéing chopped onion. We'd call it Almost Risotto, so no one could complain about it being unsuitable. Maria was wild about the idea; she was anxious to see what made risotto rice grains so special. We picked up some dried porcini mushrooms at Hyde Park Produce and set to work.

These dishes serve 3.

Almost Risotto

1 cup Arborio rice

12 white mushrooms, sliced

1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms

2 small baby eggplants

1/2 cup chopped spinach

3/4 cup white wine

3 cups vegetable broth

1/2 cup grated Parmesan

2 Tablespoons butter

Dash of black pepper

2 Tablespoons olive oil

Making risotto can be somewhat tedious, but with careful attention it comes out delicious. Rehydrate the porcinis in warm water for about fifteen minutes, and then chop them into small pieces if they are too large. Chop the baby eggplant into small chunks. Heat the oil in a large pot until the oil pops. Add the eggplant and both kinds of mushrooms, stirring occasionally. It is all right if the eggplant sears a little bit; that will keep it from soaking up all the oil and becoming gross. After a few minutes, add the rice and white wine, stirring until the wine is almost all absorbed.

The broth is the trickiest part. The risotto will be creamy and smooth if the broth is added slowly, about a 1/2 cup at a time. Otherwise you will just get a boring rice pilaf. Add the broth slowly, a 1/2 cup at a time, stirring gently. The heat should be reduced to a simmer (a low boil). Add the next 1/2 cup when the broth in the pot has almost all been absorbed by the rice. The amount of broth you will need will depend on heat and the rice, so you may need more or less than 3 cups. Keep adding the broth until the rice grains are just cooked. Finally, add the spinach, Parmesan, butter, and pepper, then stir for a couple of minutes, making sure the butter and cheese melt. Remove pot from heat. If not serving immediately, put a lid on the risotto to keep it warm. Do not serve cold.

Dill Carrots

4 carrots, peeled and sliced into disks

1 Tablespoon butter

About 1/2 teaspoon of dill

Steam the carrots by boiling a little water with the carrots in the pot with the lid on. Once they are cooked, drain the water, add the butter and enough dill to dust over the carrots (add by taste), and stir until the butter melts. Serve.

For vegans: I feel for you. If you ever had risotto in your non-vegan days (if those existed), then you know it can be great. Almost Risotto becomes Not Risotto to cooking snobs once it's made vegan. But fear not—it can still be tasty. Once the rice is cooked, add a little more broth and cook the grains a little more. Take about 1/2 cup of soy milk and bring to a simmer. Mix a Tablespoon of cornstarch with a little water to dissolve the cornstarch, and stir into the soy milk. Cook until it thickens, and stir into the risotto in place of the butter and Parmesan. For the carrots, use half as much olive oil in place of the butter, or use vegan margarine.