Friday, June 5, 2009

The Truth About Risotto

Maybe it's Gordon Ramsay's fault. All his yelling and screaming on Hell’s Kitchen seems to have scared people off of risotto. It’s no wonder, as week after week we watched whichever bitchling had been dealt the unfortunate assignment of appetizers for that evening’s dinner service get their ass handed to them on a platter, Ramsay-style. It was with great pomp and circumstance that Gordon clutched his chef coat, pacing and agitated before tasting their pathetic attempt at risotto, grimacing dramatically, critiquing the lack of salt, groaning that it was either under cooked, or over cooked (it was hardly ever just right) before finally spitting it in the “bin” and declaring it, “Inedible!” and shouting, "Bollocks!" Meanwhile, the traumatized kitchen bitch dutifully endured the tongue lashing, doing their best to fend off a quivering lip before slinking away in embarrassment, shame and most likely cooking oblivion, all over a plate of rice! I’m not gonna lie, I was a little scared too and I was watching from the safety of my living room couch! Fortunately, I know the truth about risotto.

Bollocks indeed! The jig is up, Gordon! I’m here to “dispense with the rubbish” and let everyone know that risotto is one of the great culinary cons – it is not something to be intimidated by. Its origins are meager at best, yet restaurants have no problem charging $18 or more a plate for what amounts to a few cents worth of ingredients and a dish that essentially began its life as peasant food. And here’s the real rub: many a chef and cooking show have led us to believe that there is a built-in degree of difficulty if we were to actually attempt it in our own kitchens. That notion should be tossed in the “bin.” I’ve often thought that what puts people off about making risotto, Gordon's wrath aside, is the time commitment and the thought of constant stirring. Or perhaps, the fear of not cooking it properly. It is a tad bit laborious I’ll give you that, but it’s by no means difficult, so don’t confuse the two. The truth is, a child could do it given that there’s nothing more to do than sauté a few aromatics, tip the rice into the pan and cook it until it takes on a bit of nuttiness and gets slicked with whatever fat you’re using. If you’ve made a box of Rice-A-Roni (forgive the example), you’ve done this step! You’re well on your way to conquering risotto, so breathe.

To further put you at ease, continue my efforts of persuasion and perhaps attempt to erase the sound of Gordon Ramsay yelling, “Donkey!” in my own head, I’ll remind us all that not only is the time it takes to make risotto time well spent, but that there’s something almost meditative and Zen-like in the simple task and mindless repetition of stirring a pan of ingredients for 25 minutes or so. Proper risotto demands patience and attention. That’s the only way to achieve that melting creaminess and luxurious texture. Interesting advice coming from me, as I am quite possibly the most impatient person on the planet where everything else is concerned. That said, even I become transfixed in an almost Pavlovian fashion at the promise of a bowl full of soft, warm and meltingly creamy, saffron-infused rice as a great reward for such little effort. And perhaps best of all, I (and you) can enjoy that great reward in peace, without the looming threat of having our asses handed to us on a platter, Ramsay-style.

Saffron Risotto with Grilled Shrimp

Serves 4

5 cups good quality chicken stock
2 tablespoons Extra-Virgin olive oil
¼ cup unsalted butter
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ cups Arborio rice
2 pinches saffron threads
2/3 cups dry white wine
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon ground white pepper

1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails on
2 tablespoons Extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Preheat outdoor grill or indoor grill pan to high.

Toss the shrimp with the oil and lemon juice and season with salt and pepper, set aside. The shrimp only take a couple of minutes per side so I get them ready to go and grill them during the last few minutes of cooking the risotto.

Heat chicken stock over medium-high heat until just simmering. In a large sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sweat until translucent, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and saffron, turning to coat in the oil and sauté until the edges of the rice begin to look slightly translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed and the pan is almost dry. Add one ladle-full of hot stock, stirring constantly until liquid is almost absorbed. Continue adding stock, one ladle at a time, stirring each addition until the liquid is almost absorbed, about 25 to 30 minutes total. The best test for doneness is to taste it and make sure it’s lost its too chewy center, it should be perfectly al dente.

When the risotto is nearly done, toss the shrimp on the grill and sear until pink, opaque and curled in on themselves, about 2 minutes per side. Spritz the shrimp with more lemon juice when it comes off the grill. When the risotto is done, stir in the remaining butter and the cheese and season with salt and pepper, it should have a nice thick, but not too thick consistency. To serve, ladle risotto into warmed wide bottom bowls and shake slightly from side to side. The risotto should spread evenly on its own. Top with the shrimp, scatter with the parsley and dig in.

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  1. We love Risotto!And yours looks delicious.
    I have to compliment you on your exquisite photos!
    You do everything so well.
    On top of being a nice person.
    I am so glad I bought your book.
    It's great fun to be reading your blog.. when I have had the book for a while now! Well my son-in-law has the book:) I gave it to him as a gift I don't know if you remember.
    Yours Pistachio Salmon.. The blackberry sauce etc etc..All terrific delicious and easy recipes.
    I feel lucky you now have a blog!
    PS I would bawl my eyes out if I was to be on Gordon's show.
    Way too sensitive I am for his bantering:)

  2. Love the comparison to Rice a Roni. It is quite similar now that I think about it. As another personal chef, I have to agree, don't let the idea of making risotto intimidate you. It's so easy and so highly over-charged for in restaurants. I have also done baked risotto's which are quite nice. I think Gordon Ramsy is highly over-rated. I would never work for a chef that acted like that in any kitchen. Hmmm . . . I guess that's why I work as a personal chef. I get to be the boss...unfortunately I also get to be the washer upper!

  3. Well, I can't promise anything, but I'll try this recipe and see what happens. Never had luck with risotto, but here goes!