I was packing up floral arrangements at the memorial service for Kaytie's late mom when I was approached by someone who said she heard I enjoy cooking. After I told her that I tend to lean towards Italian and French ideas:
"What?!? It should be Asian!"
(I don't feel I need to explain how offensive this was - even more so because she wasn't Asian of any sort)
"Sorry... I mean I grew up eating asian foods so i'm pretty familiar wit..."
"But you really should be cooking more Japanese dishes! It's your culture!"
I stopped emotionally listening to her after that. I was offended although not entirely upset. I grew up answering to a lot of asian stereotype demands from my classmates and friends. It wasn't until high school that people stopped reacting when discovering I, in fact, do not have a black belt in karate (again, i'm chinese) nor do i know how to speak chinese. It wasn't often that i was given a chance to explain that I did, in fact, grow up very chinese and that I didn't need to be well-versed in Japanese martial arts to qualify as chinese.
I remember after a few more uh-huhs and yups, she left and I began thinking of risotto. It's not exactly the set-it-and-forget-it dish but one of my favorites to make. I think risotto is often misunderstood as too fancy or too much effort. I love it because it really is simple to make and far, far, far worth the effort. Oh and since it's really just a rice-based dish, it can actually be very cost effective.
Risotto is made with a special type of rice, most commonly found in America would be the arborio variety. This has a very clean, even texture compared to the other, less well known varieties that can range from nutty and to nearly melt-in-your-mouth. For classic risotto, you want your rice to be soft but firm, like you would expect from cooked beans. Not mushy, not crunchy (although in some italian recipes I've read the cook actually preferring the center of the rice grains to still be a tiny bit crunchy... and i very much share that preference).
Here's the basic drill: Heat a pot of salted / flavored water (four parts liquid to one part raw rice). In another pot, sautee some onion and the rice grains in a fat (any oil or butter, i prefer olive oil). Then from here, add the heated liquid in one cup increments, stirring until fully absorbed each time. On the last cup of liquid, add some cheese and stir with a whisk to form the luxuriously creamy texture that risotto is known for. It's important to stir the crap out of the dish because risotto-rice actually contains a variety of gluten that is similiar to wheat gluten. The aggressive stirring effectively kneads the risotto, causing the rice to release it's gluten that thickens and forms a silky texture that is kept interesting with the subtle firm texture of the rice grains.
I typically prefer lighter risotto. Ettore's in Fair Oaks has an excellent risotto that matches my tastes. Maybe it's because i grew up in California and not italy. I don't know. Either way I typically omit butter in my risotto. Sometimes I'll even omit the cheese, although I recognize that's a greater break from tradition. And again, I prefer my risotto with a itty bitty, subtle crunch. This allows leftovers to resist becoming overly mushy as the rice cooks a second time when you reheat.
Lemon Risotto w/ Mushrooms, Bacon, and Spring Peas
8 cups water or broth (in cold weather i go for broth, in hot weather i prefer water)
2 cups arborio rice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
1 lemon's worth of juice and zest, chopped
1/2 cup parmesan, shredded (you can get a great deal on a chunk of grana padano at costco, actually)
2 pounds mushrooms, sliced thick or quartered
1/2 pounds bacon, diced
2 pounds spring snap peas, shelled
Chopped parsley to taste
Pour the water / broth into a pot and put on the backburner. Heat to a gentle simmer and then maintain on low heat.
While this is heating, sautee bacon in a fry pan until just a bit crispy and you have some bacon fat rendered in the pot. With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon to a bowl, leaving some of the bacon fat in the pan. Sautee the spring peas in this bacon fat for 1.5 minutes... just enough to cook them but retaining a firm texture. Transfer to the bowl with the bacon, wipe the pot clean with a paper towel, add some olive oil, and sautee the mushrooms until they just begin to give off their water. Transfer to a bowl, add the lemon zest you saved from the lemon, and stir. Set aside for folding into the risotto at the end.
Heat olive oil, sautee onion until translucent, add rice and sautee for one minute.
Add lemon juice and 1 cup of water to rice and stir until fully absorbed. From here add 1 cup of water/broth at a time, gently stirring often until absorbed. When it looks like you have about 2 cups of liquid left in your stock pot, begin tasting the risotto. You're looking for the rice to still have just a bit of crunch... you should burn through about 6-7 cups of liquid to get to this point. Add one last cup of liquid and the shredded cheese. Stir fast and aggressive. You're developing the gluten in the risotto with this step to create the silky texture this dish is known for. You can add a pat of butter at this stage too if you want but i typically leave it out as I prefer a lighter dish.
Fold in the mushroom / pea mixture and chopped parsley and add salt / pepper to taste.
Eat with warm whole wheat rolls. Or just eat this. It's incredible.
Lemony, earthy mushrooms, smoky bacon, and fresh peas.
This food helps me feel alive.
Risotto! If you haven't tried it yet, try it. It's worth it. You're worth it.
If you have tried it, get a recipe and cook it again. You're worth it.
Celebrate spring! Wait, it's summer.