Thursday, April 23, 2009

Basic Risotto

In my last post I mentioned risotto as a “culinary blank slate”, and I’ve been making it more frequently for just that reason. The basic recipe is delicious, but it’s also a convenient, inexpensive palate for numerous ingredient combinations, i.e., whatever I have left over in the fridge or pantry.

Before I started making risotto regularly, I was daunted by the much-ballyhooed 30-40 minutes of constant stirring the dish “requires”. Note the quotation marks – risotto does just fine with frequent, as opposed to constant, stirring.

This change from constant to frequent makes all the difference for me. I can’t leave the kitchen altogether (to watch the Yankees game for example) while the risotto is cooking, but I can do other cooking tasks in between stirs. My results may not be quite as creamy as constant stirring would produce, but for me the trade-off is worth it since the risotto is still fantastic.

I’ve found that the most important thing to do when cooking risotto is to taste it periodically. There will come a point when it is perfect – tender, but with a bite. Cook it any longer and it will become mushy – still edible but missing the essence of what makes risotto so special.

The basic recipe is straightforward.

For two servings:

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 TB olive oil
1 cup short-grained rice, like Arborio
1/2 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano cheese
1 TB butter
salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat the broth in a small saucepan. Keep it over a low flame near the risotto pan.
2. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the rice and toast it gently for about five minutes.
3. Add the wine to the rice and simmer until the wine has virtually evaporated.
4. Add a 1/2 cup of broth to the rice, stirring to incorporate it. The broth will gently simmer, and the mixture will get thicker as the rice absorbs the liquid. Stay close to the stove, but feel free to do a few dishes, or trim asparagus or the like. Stir again a few times, and when the liquid is mostly absorbed, add another 1/2 cup broth. Repeat the process until the rice is al dente – tender, but with a bite. (The rice may be perfect before you use all the broth. Don’t force the rest of the broth in; your rice will become too mushy. Or, you may use up all the broth and still have hard rice. In that case, add a 1/4 cup of water at a time and incorporate it just as you did the broth. In my experience the risotto is usually ready before I’ve used all of the broth.)
5. Turn off the heat. Stir in the butter and Parmigiano cheese. Taste for seasoning; add salt and pepper if desired.

Once you’ve got the basic method down, you can vary it in all sorts of ways. Omit the butter and cheese if you want. Add any number of other ingredients: sausage, shrimp, blanched asparagus pieces, shallots, garlic, butternut squash puree, nuts, blue cheese, baby greens…wherever your refrigerator and imagination take you. Sunday night I made porcini mushroom risotto, and it was creamy, earthy, and deeply flavored. Recipe to come in my next post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Pizza Pizza

Confession: I’ve only made pizza at home twice. And it was just okay. The crust was soft, too doughy. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I love making bread. I love the moment when the yeast begins to bubble in the liquid. I love the feeling that I’m working with something alive. And bread truly is alive; I get a charge out of it every time.

Pizza is also attractive because I know Rosa would love it (duh), and there are a mind-boggling array of toppings one could use based on what’s around. Pizza is sort of a culinary blank slate, like risotto and frittatas, infinitely variable and almost always delicious.

So homemade pizza is definitely in my future, especially after watching the new, long-awaited video from Jill Santopietro on the NY Times website. She demos a bacon, fig, caramelized onion, and gorgonzola pie, prepared in her very small kitchen. It’s not a quick recipe, but man does it look good.

Click here to see the video and stay tuned for pizza!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Shepherd's Pie

When I posted after Valentine’s Day about giving shepherd’s pie a try for St. Patrick’s Day, my husband’s cousin Laetitia emailed me from Montreal saying she had a sensational recipe for me to try: shepherd’s pie by way of Au Pied de Cochon. Laetitia is a passionate food-lover and a wonderful cook, who had made a few tweaks to the recipe, so I knew it would be a winner.

I loved, too, that it was from Au Pied de Cochon, a famous Montreal restaurant that I have read all about but not yet tried.

Anthony Bourdain sang the restaurant’s praises calling its food “all things porky, ducky, fatty and wonderful.” Chef Martin Picard has been hailed for his fidelity to local ingredients and innovative takes on classic dishes.

In fact, word initially spread about the restaurant thanks to its luxury poutine. Poutine is a Quebec specialty consisting of French fries topped with melted cheese curds and smothered in gravy. Just thinking about the dish makes me sick to my stomach, but Quebecers seem to love it. It’s their culinary claim to fame, and they’re sticking with it. Don’t even think about disparaging poutine when in Montreal.

Picard updated the “classic” poutine recipe by adding foie gras. Why not, right? If you’re already eating French fries, cheese curds, and gravy what will a little foie hurt?

But of course Au Pied de Cochon is much more than just poutine. The menu is unique, larded with an intriguing combination of offal, fat, and local ingredients. Much of it is mouthwatering: French fries fried in duck fat, foie gras with apples, duck magret in mushroom sauce, and maple syrup pie. And much of it is distressing (at least for someone like me who plays it relatively safe when it comes to food): tripe pizza, tarragon bison tongue, and stuffed pig’s foot with foie gras (actually this one doesn’t sound so bad).

When I read through the shepherd’s pie recipe Laetitia sent I was a little alarmed. Like the foie gras poutine, Au Pied de Cochon’s shepherd’s pie is similarly sinful, taking a “comfort food” dish and all that entails (i.e., more emphasis on comfort and taste than nutrition) and upping the fatty ante even more. Picard replaces the ground meat on the bottom with duck confit (basically a duck leg poached in duck fat). Top the shredded duck with corn cooked with onion, rosemary, two cups of cream, wine, and butter. Cover with mashed potatoes loaded with butter, cream, pecorino and a whole head of roasted garlic. The result is a shepherd’s pie straight from the mind of a culinary genius and a culinary rebel: someone who says to hell with healthy, to hell with low-fat. Someone who is focused on just the dish, on making the best shepherd’s pie possible, and throwing all dietary and other rules out the window.

It certainly fit with the “ducky, fatty, wonderful” theme, but could I really make a dish with that much cream, butter, and even duck confit??

Yes, I could.

(Although I did cut the cream by half.)

And it was sublime. Warm, rich, and delicious. Sweet from the corn and savory from everything else. I have my St. Patrick’s Day recipe -- thanks Laetitia!

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Organic or Not?

Clients and friends often ask me about organic produce. Is it really important to buy everything organic, particularly when most of it is more expensive than its conventional counterparts?

The Environmental Working Group has the answer for us. The organization compiled a list of produce most affected by pesticides, fruits and vegetables for which buying organic is best, and a list of produce least affected, for which buying conventional is probably okay.

Buy Organic – the most pesticides

- Peach
- Apple
- Bell pepper
- Celery
- Nectarine
- Strawberries
- Cherries
- Kale
- Lettuce
- Imported Grapes
- Carrot
- Pear

Buy Conventional – the least amount of pesticides

- Onion
- Avocado
- Sweet Corn
- Pineapple
- Mango
- Asparagus
- Sweet Peas
- Kiwi
- Cabbage
- Eggplant
- Papaya
- Watermelon
- Broccoli
- Tomato
- Sweet Potato

One exception I would make is when shopping at the local farmer’s market. Small farmers frequently practice organic methods without going through the long process of becoming organic-certified. So your local apples or lettuce may be safe without actually being labeled organic. When in doubt, ask your farmer.