Risotto Demystified

Risotto is one of those dishes that has a certain level of mystique and mythology associated with it, most of which is unnecessary and untrue. When prepared properly it can be absolutely heavenly, but miserable when done incorrectly. Although it has a somewhat daunting aura associated with it, it is, in fact, quite easy and something of a blank canvas when it comes to being creative and adding your personal touch.

As with most cooking, Risotto relies on sound technique, and while there are plenty of recipes out there, understanding the basic technique is vital. Once you get that feel for when to add liquid, how much to stir, and when to stop the cooking, the flavors and accouterments you add are infinite and you are free to be truly creative.

The key to a great Risotto is activating the amylopectin in the short-grain rice and creating that wonderful creamy sauce. While a lot of tradition calls for you to be chained to the stove and constantly stirring, this is neither necessary or beneficial to your Risotto. The only requirement for Risotto is using said short-grain rice, as they contain the highest ratio of the amylopectin that leads to the proper texture. While Arborio rice is widely available, there are certainly many more short-grain varieties that can be used instead. Stir it when you feel it needs to be stirred, add liquid when you feel it needs it. The key to avoiding a miserable result is stopping the cooking process at the appropriate time.

With these guidelines and this recipe illustrating the basic technique, you're sure to have success as well as a delicious meal.

Kale, Herb and Gruyere Risotto

(Recipe serves 2 people)

1 cup, Arborio Rice (any short-grain rice works)
3-4 cups, Chicken Stock
1 Meyer lemon, Juiced
1 T. Butter
1 T. Olive oil
2 cloves Garlic, sliced thin
8-10 Parsley stems, minced
1/4 cup, Gruyere cheese, shredded
1/4 cup Herbs, chopped fine (Parsley, Oregano, Thyme, Rosemary)
1/4 cup Hazelnuts, toasted then roughly chopped
1 bunch Kale, stems removed, sliced thinly, blanched and drained

Combine stock and lemon juice in one pot.
Heat over low, boiling is not necessary, the stock just needs to be hot.

In another pot, heat oil.
Add Parsley stems and Garlic and toss.

Add rice immediately and stir until the grains become somewhat translucent.

Add enough liquid to cover the rice and stir.
Adjust heat so the mixture is boiling lightly.

Stirring constantly is not necessary, but the occasional stir lets you get an idea of how much liquid has been absorbed.
When most of the liquid is absorbed, add liquid to cover. A good indicator is that the rice separates when a spoon is pulled through.

Repeat these steps until the rice, when tasted, has a bit of texture left ("tooth" as it's called.)
Remove from the heat.
Stir in the Kale, the herbs and the cheese.
Finish with the butter and stir until it's incorporated.

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.
Plate and garnish with more herbs, cheese and the toasted hazelnuts.
Drizzle with a good olive oil and enjoy!


In a Pickle

One of my absolute favorite treats has to be the pickle. Sweet, salty, and sour with a lovely texture to match. Be it as a snack or as part of a meal, these culinary delights pack quite a delicious punch. I have nothing against pickled cucumbers, but there is a world of pickle possibilities that do not include what most would consider when thinking of a pickle. Onions, carrots, cabbage, chiles; you name it. What is important is a basic understanding of the technique involved, not a steadfast recipe. Like many other cooking techniques, once you understand the method, there are myriad options and flavors that you can experiment with.

The basic pickling template is as follows: Equal parts vinegar and sugar. Add spices. Boil. Pour over desired pickle subjects and let sit.

The type of vinegar and the spices you use should be based on your desired flavor profile and should also take into account the nature of what you are pickling. I chose Asian-style spices as I'm pickling Thai chiles. I prefer whole spices, as they don't cloud the vinegar and strain out easily. If you like your pickles sweeter, increase the amount of sugar. If you find them too acidic, lower the amount of vinegar. If you like them salty, add more salt. There is no right or wrong, just what you like, so be bold and have fun.

Most pickling involves canning, which can be tedious, somewhat scary to the first-timer and equipment-heavy. I prefer, for ease and speed, a quick pickle, which skips the canning and assumes you'll polish off your preserved gems before they'd even have a chance to go bad. For the purpose of illustrating this technique, I will be pickling some beautiful Thai Chiles.

Quick-Pickled Thai Chiles

Large handful Thai Chiles (about 15-20)
1 cup White Vinegar
1 cup Sugar
3 Star Anise Pods
1 Bay Leaf
1 tsp. Corriander Seeds
1 tsp. whole Black Peppercorns
2 Cloves
1 tsp. Cassia buds (or one cinnamon stick, split)
1 clove, Garlic, smashed
1 oz. piece Ginger, peeled and sliced
1 tsp. Salt

Combine everything but chiles and bring to a boil.

Remove from heat and let steep for a good 15 minutes.
Strain pickling liquid over chiles.

Cover and refrigerate.
Pickles will be ready to eat in about 3-4 hours but are best overnight. (If you want the pickles done faster, slice them before adding the pickling liquid.) The pickles will keep for about two weeks in your fridge.

Pickled chiles are great as a garnish as they bring a lovely combination of heat, sweetness and acidity to any dish. Try them with Sashimi or seared Tuna. I recommend serving them sliced thinly, and with most of the seeds removed (unless you want some serious heat.) Also, the vinegar goes great on greens.


Simple is Delicious

Frivolity and fussiness aside, the most delicious food is more often than not the simplest. Nothing embodies simplicity to me more than roasted chicken. There's something so soul-warmingly special about a really good roasted chicken that all the foam and fanciness can't possibly touch. With a beautiful pasture-raised chicken from Dewberry Farms (thank you Wheatsville) the best you can do is use proper technique, get out of it's way and let the chicken shine.

Meyer Lemon and Herb Roasted Chicken
(Recipe serves 3-4 people)

(Served here with Potato Puree, sauteed Leeks and Maitake)

1 3lb. Whole Chicken, innards removed, trussed (if you don't know how, ask your meat-person)
1 Meyer Lemon, split
1 yellow Onion, sliced
5 cloves, Garlic, smashed
3 springs, Rosemary
3 bunches, Thyme
1 bunch, Italian Parsley
2 T. Butter
Salt, Pepper and Canola Oil as needed

Place onion, half the herbs, and 3 cloves of the garlic in a roasting pan. Toss with Canola Oil.
A rack is not necessary, but use one if you have it.

Set aside half the lemon, 2 cloves garlic, half the herbs. This is your stuffing material.

Season the outside AND inside of the chicken with salt and pepper.
Sear chicken on all sides to brown in a hot skillet with enough Canola oil to coat.

Remove chicken.

Stuff cavity with reserved stuffing materials (lemon, garlic, herbs.)

Squeeze half the lemon over the bird.
Rub the outside of the bird with the butter.
Roast at 400 F for about an hour and a half. (roughly 30 minutes per pound)
Do not rely on the time, it is just a guideline. The best way to tell when a bird is done is a thermometer. The desired doneness for poultry is 165 F, but pull the bird when it measures about 158-160. It will continue to cook as it rests. The best place to take a bird's temperature is the joint where the leg meets the body.

As the bird rests, remove the lemons from the cavity and squeeze over the bird.
Carve up your bird and enjoy with your desired sides.
Be sure to drain off the pan drippings and use as a complementary sauce.

A note: When you've picked your bird clean, use the carcass and some mirepoix/herbs and make some homemade stock.


Sustainable USDA

The folks over at fooddemocracynow.org have put together another great petition to help influence our country's agriculture policy.

Their focus has shifted to the Under Secretary positions at the USDA, and they have put together a list of the Sustainable Dozen candidates they are recommending. Hurry over and sign the petition and help steer our public policy and help keep our food local, fresh and sustainable.



'Spaghetti and meatballs' gets a really bad rap, as far as I'm concerned. While I'm sure we've all had a really crappy plate of overcooked pasta with dry meatballs swimming in sauce, I still really enjoy the combination of flavors and textures this dish provides. This recipe provides a really quick and easy Arrabiata sauce (spicy tomato sauce) and a basic (but yummy) meatball recipe that won't fail to renew your faith in this classic combination.

A note: Canned tomatoes? Yes, I use canned tomatoes. In fact, the Italian San Marzano tomatoes are quite easy to find, and are absolutely delicious in many applications. These canned gems are a staple item in my pantry, and make a great sauce.

Pasta Arrabiata with Meatballs

For the Sauce:
(Recipe makes about 1 cup sauce)

1 28oz. can, San Marzano Tomatoes
2 cloves Garlic, smashed
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 tsp. Fennel seed
1/2 tsp. dried Oregano
1/2 tsp. dried Basil leaves
1 Bay leaf
1/4 cup red wine
1 T. brown sugar
2 T. Capers, drained, rinsed
2 t. Olives (any kind you wish) drained, rinsed, rough chopped

Simmer tomatoes, garlic, herbs, spices, wine, and sugar on low.

When most of the liquid has evaporated, remove from heat.

Remove bay leaf and break up garlic cloves with your spoon (or remove if you desire.)
Stir in capers and olives.
Season to taste.

For the Meatballs:
(Recipe makes about 20 1" diameter meatballs)

1 lb. meat (beef, pork, veal or any combination of the three)
2 oz. hot Sopresata, diced (or Salami, Pepperoni, etc.)
1/4 cup Parmigiano cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs
3 cloves Garlic, minced
2 sprigs, Thyme, removed from stem and minced
1 sprig, Rosemary, removed from stem and minced

Pulse meat and Sopresata in a food processor until combined.
Add in bread crumbs, cheese, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper.
Pulse to combine.

Remove a piece of the mixture and cook. Taste. This is really the best (and only) way to check the seasoning of raw meat products.
Adjust seasoning accordingly.
Remove from food processor and roll meatballs between your hands to shape.

(Freeze any unused meatball mix for up to two months.)

Saute meatballs (5-7 per person) in olive oil to brown, then add in about 2 oz. of sauce per person and a little red wine and simmer to finish meatballs.

Add in a small handful of cooked pasta per person (I used linguine, use whatever you like) and toss to coat.

Serve with a drizzle of olive oil, freshly grated Parmigiano and a nice hunk of toasted bread.

Blog Hard for the Money

I know I could use a vacation (to a foodie destination for sure) and HomeAway is offering us bloggers a chance to do just that.

HomeAway is offering all bloggers, vloggers and photographers the chance to win a $5,000 getaway to the HomeAway vacation rental of their choice!

Enter from December 18, 2008 - January 7, 2009 by telling (or showing) us why you need a break and where you want to spend it. To participate, contestants must submit a 350-word blog post, a two-minute video, or up to 10 photos with captions that are 20 words or less.

Then, from January 8-15, people from around the world can browse the entries and vote for their favorite.

Visit http://blog.homeaway.com for more information.