Five years ago when I started teaching myself to cook I followed recipes to the letter. If the recipe called for a 1/2 teaspoon of oregano, out came my measuring spoons and in went a 1//2 teaspoon of oregano exactly. I didn’t want to experiment or test things out because I didn’t want to be wrong, waste the ingredients and ruin the food. It wasn’t until the last year that I became a little bit more comfortable improvising. This is because of a combination of things: watching Chopped like I was getting paid to be a judge, looking at recipes that weren’t just from the weight watchers website and Smitten Kitchen (not to knock either of those things), and also watching Rachel Ray. Say what you want about Rachel Ray, but she taught me that a tablespoon of olive oil is the same as one turn of the bottle around the pot, a teaspoon is a little bit less than the palm of your hand and that you don’t need a garlic press to mince garlic. As I watched more cooking shows my confidence in the kitchen grew and I began to experiment with recipes with more than 5 ingredients and 3 steps. I even began to cook without recipes, something I once considered basically impossible.
But before I had to create my own, I had to be a little bit more adventurous. One of the first more complicated recipes that I attempted was risotto. I know now that risotto is really not that complicated. Risotto basically involves toasting rice in oil, adding some wine and then slowly adding simmering stock until the rice absorbs the stock and cooks. Then you stir in parmesan and butter and eat. In 2009, though, risotto was Everest. I came across a recipe for Fresh Herb Risotto in the New York Times and basically obsessed over it for weeks before attempting it. One line in the recipe jumped out from the first reading and literally gave me nightmares. It was, “The stock should just cover the rice and should be bubbling, not too slowly but not too quickly.” What if the stocke doesn’t cover the rice? Should I add more? What if I add too much? How was I supposed to know what too slowly or too quickly was? I barely knew the difference between simmering and boiling. I was literally freaking out. I prepped every ingredient of the recipe (this was in the measuring herbs stage, not the “to taste” stage of my cooking), set my stock to simmer, and got to work. I couldn’t tell when the stock was absorbed at first, but then I began to see the rice liquid thicken and took that as my cue. Knowing what I know now about Risotto, its not nearly as finicky as I thought. I don’t remember exactly how it the risotto came out, but it was definitely edible. It was not the gummy mess I had read could form. My husband liked it because it had rice, cheese, and butter. I liked it because I felt like I had accomplished something and taken a step forward in my culinary education.
Cut to 3 years later (can we discuss how strange it is that 2009 was 3 years ago?!) Last night I decided to make a mushroom risotto. I’ve made risotto a bunch of times since that first night, but it’s been a while because its not what you would call a “healthy week night meal.” When I mentioned it to my husband in passing before we went food shopping yesterday he got excited and then I couldn’t say no. The experience last night was completely different from that first attempt 3 years ago. First of all, I had a recipe (actually a couple), but I didn’t really follow any of them. I used them as a security blanket more than anything else. Second of all, I didn’t stand over the pot stirring every second like my rice, and my life, depended on it. I washed dishes, I cleaned my work space, and I let my risotto do its thing. Not to mention the fact that the risotto was cooking in my gorgeous red Le Crueset that I didn’t even know was a necessity 3 years ago.
Last night’s risotto was definitely the best I’ve made. In the past I’ve had a tendency to over cook, thinking that just one more spoonful of stock will make it perfect. That one last spoonful of stock is the difference between perfect risotto and gummy risotto. I probably could have stopped adding stock a minute or two earlier, but I tend to err on the side of overcooked, a habit I’m trying to break. I was really proud of the result though and felt super confident in my technique. I know my husband liked it because he didn’t add any extra parmesan cheese, which is what he does when he’s trying to mask a flavor or texture he wishes were different.
So I guess I’ve conquered Everest, or one peak of it at least. I still need to attempt homemade ravioli and figure out how to use gelatin, but with risotto, I think I’ve got it now.
Read more of my Recipes here: Turkey Bacon Biscuit BLTs and Book Review: Apron Anxiety (and a Mac ‘n’ Cheese Recipe)
Last Night’s Risotto (Mushroom Risotto)
Adapted from Dinner: A Love Story(great book!) and Gourmet Mushroom Risotto
4-5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil (Divided)
3 Tablespoons Butter (Divided)
1 lb Cremini Mushrooms (or whatever you can find), thinly sliced
1 small yellow onion, diced
1/2 cup dry white wine (sauvignon blanc)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
In a small saucepan bring stock to a boil, turn the heat down so the stock is just simmering and put a lid on the pot to keep it warm.
In a medium saucepan (or your Le Creuset!), heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and one tablespoon of butter. When the butter melts, add mushrooms. Cook the mushrooms until they just begin to soften and release their liquid, about 5 minutes. Pour mushrooms and liquid into a bowl, cover, and set aside.
Add last tablespoon of oil to medium saucepan. Add onions and cook for a minute. Add rice and stir until rice is just toasted, about 2 minutes. The rice might take on a pale brown color, that’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. Add wine and stir until wine is absorbed.
Begin adding your warmed stock. Start with about a cup (or 2 ladles full). The rice should be simmering (not too slowly and not too quickly ;-). In other words, there should be bubbles on the surface like when your pasta water just starts to boil. Allow the rice to absorb the stock before adding 1/2 a cup more (one ladle full). After about 15 minutes, taste your rice. It should be mostly soft with just a hint of crunch in the middle (Al dente). Continue to add stock until your rice is Al Dente (stop just before you think its there). It will take about 15 to 20 minutes.
Add the mushrooms and their liquid, parmesan, 1 tablespoon butter, and the parsley. Stir until the butter melts.
Remove risotto from heat and serve.