Posted in porridge

Questioning conventional wisdom: risotto

Being one of those people who thinks too much, I like to try to figure out why we cook things the way we do and how much of the rules are tradition or superstition rather than actual science.  Not that there’s anything wrong with tradition.  But I’d like to know the difference.  I figured that since I already have a blog about food, I’d put these thoughts here.

So, today I have a quote from the Cookstr Blog.  Cookstr is a website that I just found out about approximately two minutes before I found the quote that inspired me to write this.  The main website allows you to search for recipes and chefs and cool stuff like that; it has a simple layout that I appreciate and it looks pretty schmancy.  Next time I want to cook a schmancy entree (I’m bad at thinking those up), I’ll give it a try.

The post I read on their blog is about risotto, which I make with something approaching regularity.  That doesn’t mean I make it perfectly, but the Italians I know identify it as risotto, and I like the way it tastes.  The quote that got me wondering was this:

Don’t use too small or too deep a pot.  You want a generous amount of surface area so the liquid absorbs at a nice brisk, even pace and the rice doesn’t steam.

I wouldn’t cook risotto in a small, deep pot either, but I’m not sure if I know why, and I’m not sure if controlling the rate of liquid absorption and avoiding steaming have anything to do with it.  First of all, I don’t understand how having a thin layer of rice instead of a thick one affects liquid absorption at all; that seems to me to depend only on the properties of the rice and probably the heat.  I guess it’s possible that the liquid wouldn’t reach the lower layers as easily, but…liquid can do stuff like that, and I stir my risotto.  Secondly, I don’t see how steaming enters the equation.  I could see some form of wet heat – simmering, boiling – entering the equation, but I don’t think that is to be avoided at all.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat any rice that was cooked purely by dry heat; my understanding of starches is that they need liquid to be what we consider cooked, but someone correct me if I’m wrong.  Furthermore, I don’t think any reasonable size of pan will avoid wet cooking in a dish that you prepare by continually adding liquid. This is not the same situation as when you want to make sure that the water coming out of your mushrooms boils off quickly so they saute instead of stewing.

I’m not claiming that I’m right in being skeptical here.  If anyone happens to know more about the science of risotto-making or can do a better job of interpreting that sentence, please share.  I’ve wondered about other aspects of the risotto process as well; I don’t entirely understand it yet.  What does the saute at the beginning accomplish?  Just flavor, or something more?  How does adding liquid in parts affect the dish differently from adding it all at once?  The answer to this last question may also be the answer to why we shouldn’t use a small, deep pan….

In any case, I like this other tip from their blog:

At the end, add that extra splash  of broth – it should be soupier than you imagine because it will keep cooking and absorbing broth even after you take it off the heat, and if you’re adding cheese at the end, that will thicken it up even further.  The risotto is finished when the rice is tender, but still has a firmness to it, and the risotto it is still quite wet.

Posted in porridge

Carrot and fennel risotto

I had some chicken broth to use up after my last batch of risotto, and a bunch of vegetables from this week’s installment of my farm share.  Most of the vegetables are leafy, but I did find fennel and carrots.  These are aromatics, and I am currently lacking the aromatics (shallots or onions) that I would normally start a risotto with.  I must admit, though, that I have never cooked fennel before, so I wasn’t exactly sure how strong it was or how to cook it.  I should have paid better attention to Iron Chef America: Battle Fennel last night.  I used some of the green stem and some of the white root, and sprinkled some leaves on the top at the end.  I learned from Iron Chef that you can eat practically every part of fennel; I love foods like that.

Risotto generally tastes better than it looks.
Risotto generally tastes better than it looks.

The flavor wasn’t too strong; the risotto came out pretty well, with just a general soft, fresh sweetness to it.  Nice.  The only problem was that, even though I started cooking the fennel before starting the rice, and then cooked them together the whole time, the fennel was kind of tough.  At the very least, I’ll mince it in the future.  The internet says that fennel has that problem, and peeling it and cutting it thinly seems to be the general consensus on how to avoid it.  Here’s a post on good things to do with fennel, which I am mostly linking to because I love the tagline of the blog: “I wrote you a restaurant review, but I eated it.”

For anyone who doesn’t know how one makes a carrot fennel risotto, the procedure is as follows:

  1. Sweat aromatics in olive oil.  Meanwhile, start heating some broth in another pot.
  2. Add arborio rice and cook for a couple minutes.
  3. Add a splash of wine and let it cook off.
  4. Add broth, a ladleful or two at a time, to the rice.  Stir.
  5. Add more broth when the last installment is gone. Do this about 3-4 times, until the rice is the texture you want; if you normally like your starches very soft, you may want to cook it slightly less than you think you should, based on a past “adventure” I had with mushy risotto.
  6. Add any other stuff you want to be in your risotto.  Parmesan cheese is recommended.
  7. Serve immediately.  Yes, for real.

I used about 100g of rice this time, and I think it was just about right.  I’m really bad at eyeballing it because it grows so much when it cooks, so I’ve taken to measuring it on my baking scale.