Friday, March 30, 2007

Nancy Silverton's Maximum Fuss, Pain-in-the-Ass Challah

Some of you may remember me describing my foodie extremist forays into making my own sourdough bread starter. That adventure was spurred on by my reading "Breads from the La Brea Bakery" by Nancy Silverton. When I first picked the book up, I thought, "Jeez! This lady is a nut! Who would go through all this?!" And the answer is: Me.

It's been years since I've baked anything new out of this book, I've longingly eyed the gorgeous photos of homemade, sourdough bagels, soft-dough pretzels, caramelized onion-kalamata focaccia and challah bread. Well, I finally accomplished the challah the other day. I have to say that these loaves were excellent, rich, eggy, baked to a deep crunchy brown crust. They are the pinnacle of challah. OK? So I give Nancy Silverton her due. Now, on to the kvetching:

1. This is a 2-day recipe. Not that I'm not used to that with the sourdough, but still...after the first night of rising, you knead eggs and more flour into the sponge and then wait another 5-6 hours for another rising. It should be called "Midnight The Next Day Challah". To the right, you see the bread making a run for it only after 3 hours of second-day rising. Imagine what it would have done if I'd waited the whole 5-6 hours!

2. The first day's work includes making your own applesauce by boiling an apple to the mush stage to mix into the dough sponge. Why? The result didn't taste like apples, couldn't store-bought have sufficed? Not that I would know since they don't have applesauce in Italy so I plodded my way through making applesauce. Grrr!

3. 3 types of flour are called for: high gluten (check), semolina (check) and durum flour (che-- wait a minute, isn't that the same thing as semolina?) I just added more high gluten 'cause in my experience, semolina flour loaves are toothsome and rather hard.

4. The braiding is done among 6 ropes of dough. It was so wierdly complicated, I could never get the sequence right. But anyway, it still turned out pretty even if I felt like a moron trying (and failing) to braid the things.

But, like I said before, this DID turn out really well (I gave the second loaf to a nice widowed neighbor downstairs) and it's so far the greatest vehicle for peanut butter and jelly I have ever tasted. So, if you start making this challah now, you'll be just ready for Shabbat!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Basque Red-Bean, Chorizo and Borage Stew

The other day at the open-air market I saw a vegetable monger from another time. Unlike all the other sellers who buy fruits and vegetables from a central wholesale market, this rugged old guy looked like he had actually cultivated the produce himself. He was only selling "borrage" (different from the standard Italian word for the vegetable, "Borragine") "cima" (literally, "tops" as in turnip tops) and "coste" (chard). His rough hands with short, thick fingers had no problem bunching up the kilo of prickly, spiny borage I asked for. I was impressed.

I brought home my loot, excited to try a new vegetable and proceeded to comb epicurious.com and FoodTV to find a way to eat borage. The few recipies I found included borage as one of many raw ingredients in salad. You can also evidently candy the stunningly deep blue leaves to use as a cake decoration. It's true that the gorgeous cucumbery fragrance they have does make you think raw; I was immediately transported back to my last sushi esperience with the cucumber scent. But, if you could feel these leaves (ouch!) the last thing you'd want to do would be to stick them in your mouth raw! Evidently in the Anglophone online world, only the newest leaves relatively free of painful spikes are used.

So then I went Italian and googled "borragine" but no dice. So, I thought, Spanish? I googled "borraja" and came up with a goldmine! Evidently, the Basques of Northern Spain are so enamored of this cooking green, they call it "la reina de las verduras", the queen of vegetables. Who knew.

This recipe for "alubias con borraja" (beans with borage) sounded like a sure-thing, (even though the ingredient amounts weren't clear). It's typical of Spanish stews in that the flavoring comes from chorizo. Most stews and vegetable dishes are flavored with a ham bone, cured jamon serrano (which puts Italian prosciutto to shame!) or one of many Spanish pork sausages like chorizo. Here's how I interpreted the recipe:

1-1/2 cups dried red beans
4 ozs Spanish** chorizo, diced
1 large onion, diced
1 pound well rinsed borage leaves & flower buds
1 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp smokey-sweet Spanish paprika
salt to taste
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)

Soak the beans in water to cover by a couple inches overnight. The next day, drain the water and boil the beans, the chorizo and the onion (again, in water to cover by a couple inches) for about 2 hours or until tender. Add extra boiling water to keep the beans covered by an inch.
Once the beans are tender, boil a pot of water and add the borage. Boil for about 5 minutes or until the leaves are tender. Music to boil borraja by: "Spanish Bombs" by the greatest punk band of all time, The Clash! Drain and chop finely. Add to the beans. Heat the olive oil in a small frying pan over medium-low add the garlic and sautee for about 30 seconds or until it just barely golden. Add the paprika and optional cayenne stir for 10 seconds and pour everything into the bean pot. Simmer for another couple minutes and stir to combine flavors. Turn off heat and let rest for 10 minutes before serving with crusty country bread.
**Not Mexican chorizo, although the result would probably be great, It'd be a totally different thing.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Brown Bag Lunch #4: Frittata degli Spaghetti

I used to be very careful about how much pasta al pomodoro to make (just enough, not too much!) because the texture of reheated leftover pasta is just awful, starchy and too soft. But now after discovering frittata degli spaghetti, (a.k.a. lefotver spaghetti omelet) I make sure to make extra pasta every time. The tomato sauce on the angel hair pasta (my favorite) mixes with the eggs and infuses them with flavor; the edges of the frittata get crispy and brown so the texture is perfect. Frittatas are great hot or at room temperature, so this makes a wonderful brown bag lunch and it's easy as all get out.

The ingredient proportions are very flexible, which is good 'cause you don't always have the same amount of lefotvers. You may want just enough eggs to coat the pasta or you may want an egg-rich frittata.

Ingredients:
1. last night's pasta al pomodoro, perfectly seasoned (today, I have 8 ozs or 1-1/2 cups of leftover angel hair pasta)
2. enough eggs to just coat or more (for me that's 2 lg. eggs to barely coat and 3 for the "swimming" effect")
3. salt and pepper to taste
4. optional: anything else. You could add diced mozzarella, leftover wilted spinach or anything else that strikes your fancy. I once make a huge frittata with leftover spaghetti and leftover ratatouille, which knocked everybody's socks off.
5. 1 tsp olive oil

Place the spaghetti in a medium-sized bowl and add the eggs. With a fork, break up the eggs and mix them until all the noodles are coated. Add salt and pepper and any optional ingredient. If you'd like alternative suggestions about making this frittata, go here.

Put a non-stick frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the spaghetti/egg mixture and swirl the pan slightly to keep the frittata moving and not sticking to the pan. The edges should puff up. Music to swirl angel-hair pasta by: "Angel Face" composed by the great Enio Morricone from the Spaghetti Western, "A Gun for Ringo" Once you have assured that a crust has formed at the bottom lower the heat to the medium-low and continue cooking for about 5 minutes until the top is partially set or at least not really really liquidy.

At this point, follow my instructions very carefully: with a steady hand and your widest spatula under one corner of the frittata, scoop it out onto a dinner plate. Then, invert the frying pan on top of the frittata, hold the pan handle and the bottom of the plate really securely, think inspiring thoughts, believe in yourself (I think I can, I think I can…) and flip*. Now cook the frittata for another 2-3 minutes or until you feel with your finger that the center is firm.

Cool, pack into your brown bag, add a navel orange and a leftover piece of Guinness cake sandwich (2 slices of cake with the frosting between them) and you're set for a fab lunch tomorrow!.

*With practice you should be able to avoid dumping half the frittata on the floor. If this process makes you nervous, pre-heat your oven to 425F and place the pan in for a couple minutes until you see the top getting puffy and brown.

Great thanks to the Daily Tiffin, What's Cooking, and Eating Out Loud for hosting such fun food events!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Marinated Oven-Grilled Rabbit with Roasted Vegetables

Whenever I eat rabbit, I think back to this one Bugs Bunny episode where the king keeps demanding Hasenpfefer! Where's my hasenpfeffer? Before that, I never knew rabbits were edible. I mean Elmer Fudd just seemed like he was there 'cause Bugs needed a foil.

As with many cultural references, I experienced the Bugs Bunny version first: to this day I remember learning that the real title of Elmer Fudd's anthem, "Kill the Wabbit" was indeed Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries", that funny, myopic Asian guy with the bucked teeth was actually General Tojo, the leader of Japan during World War II. (Amazing to see the kind of racial stereotyping only 60 years ago) and the super strong working mom with the unruly brat babysat by Bugs was Rosie the Riveter, archetype of female factory workers during the war.

So I was in full nostalgia mode the other day when I made this oven-grilled rabbit, heavily adapted from Rosengarten's Dean & Deluca cookbook: Their idea was a summery marinated, outdoor-grilled rabbit with aioli. I turned it into an oven-grilled winter dish with lots of crispy-brown root veggies.

1 whole rabbit, cut into serving pieces (by your husband who knows how to do such things)
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp marjoram
1 tsp thyme
3 cloves garlic, mashed
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
red wine just to cover

olive oil for drizzling
1/2 pound bacon

roughly chopped root vegetables such as: carrots, red onions, turnips, potatoes, fennel (ok, so fennel's a fat stem and not a root, so sue me)

Place the rabbit and the next 7 ingredients in a bowl or zip lock bag (with the zip lock, you can add much less wine and still get the same marinading effect) and let marinate in the fridge over night. Next day, pre-heat oven to 425°F. Wipe off the rabbit pieces reserving the marinade, wrap each one in bacon, drizzle with a bit of olive oil and arrange on a grill fitted with an under-tray where you can put half the veggies (see image). Add a bit more olive oil (to your taste and calorie limits) to the marinade and toss with the roughly-chopped root vegetables. Arrange on wide oven trays or baking dishes. I did 2 layers in the oven. Roast/grill for about 45 minutes (stirring the vegetables a couple times) or until everything is browned and crispy. Music to roast rabbit by: "Kill the Wabbit" sung by Elmer Fudd, composed by Herr Richard Wagner.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Potage Parmentier / Vichyssoise

The meme that J. from Thinking About... tagged me for recently, reminded me that it's been too long since I've made the miracle soup, Potage Parmentier from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The chilled version, called vichyssoise might give you the idea this is something snooty you have to eat with your nose in the air and your pinkie finger at a sharp angle. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The ingredients are as humble as they can get, leeks, potatoes, water, butter, salt. Unlike many humble-ingredient recipes this dish requires no culinary gymnastics to make them taste good; Julia Child calls it, "simplicity itself". It was actually Julie Powell of the Julie/Julia Project who inspired me to try this. Hell, she inspired me to start blogging all together.

So in tribute to Julie, Julia and J. here's Potage Parmentier:

1 lb peeled, diced potatoes
1 lb thoroughly washed thinly sliced leeks
2 quarts water
1 tbsp salt
3 tbsp butter
minced chives for garnish

Simmer the potatoes and leeks in the salted water for 40-50 minutes. Music to simmer French soup by: "C'est comme ca" by Les Rita Mitsouko & The No Comprendo. I just love how they got three languages into their band name. Puree the soup using a food mill or an immersion blender. Add the butter in small bits and whisk in. Taste and correct for salt. Add chives and enjoy. See, wasn't that easy?

If you'd like to try vichyssoise, replace the water in the recipe with chicken stock and the butter with 1/2-1 cup whipping cream. Serve chilled. For my money, though. The hot potage is much better.

Monday, March 19, 2007

St. Patrick's Day Guinness Cake

As usual, just in time for St. Joseph's Day. (Happy Birthday to my brother Brian).
Yesterday our friend, Yovan who lives in Barcelona, visited and prepared a huge Catalan feast complete with chistorra sausage on toast points, deep fried whole green "pimientos del padron" (all mild this time! Usually one of them will blow your head off with no warning), deep fried "chipirones" (itty bitty little squids you eat whole) and the showstopper, two giant paella pans full of fideua, like paella but instead of rice, it's made with super thin toasted 1-inch lengths of angel hair pasta) one traditional and one "a la tinta", (that is, laced with black squid ink) Recipe coming soon.

I provided the superfluous dessert. We were all stuffed after those delicious tapas and the fideua but Guinness Cake presented itself as a patriotic must (at least for me as I was the only one in the room with Irish roots).

I more or less followed the Oprah Winfrey (of all people) recipe here. I replaced half the butter in the cake batter with home pureed pear sauce (works just like apple sauce) and then through a series of mishaps, I changed the frosting recipe entirely. I replaced the cream cheese with "light" cream cheese (the grocery store was out of the regular kind) only to add a bunch of mascarpone to the mix later to thicken it up. I used a simple sugar syrup rather than the powdered sugar (it was Sunday and I had forgotten to get powdered sugar when the stores were open on Saturday) All was well that ended well, the mascarpone rescued my too-thin-to-spread-well frosting and it turned out pretty tasty too. The Guinness does indeed add a coffee-like flavor to the chocolate-spice cake.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Braised Short Ribs With Root Vegetables

One of the great, stick-to-your-ribs, winter-weather treats is braised short ribs with root vegetables. It's so rich and satisfying. But now, it's getting springy outside and soon, we'll be dining on asparagus and strawberries, so now's the time to get all those hearty stews out of your system. I'm trying to think of when I can orchestrate a tamale assembly line to enjoy them before it gets too warm to steam huge batches of food in the kitchen. In the meantime, here's a great short rib dish. It's just a simple, one pot meal but oh so trendy! Impress your friends and neighbors with this one:

3 lbs short ribs
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 bottle of red wine
2 cups beef or chicken stock
1-14oz can of chopped tomatoes

mirepoix vegetables (all finely minced): 1 med onion, 1 lg carrot, 2 ribs celery, 3 cloves garlic

stew vegetables in large chunks: 3 med carrots, 1 lg fennel bulb, 2 med. potatoes, 2 sm turnips

herbs and spices: 1 tsp thyme, 1 tsp marjoram, 2 bay leaves, 1/4 tsp ground black pepper, salt to taste

In a heavy, cast-iron pot, heat the oil over medium-high then add the short ribs in one layer (no crowding the pan). Brown on all sides flipping every 2 minutes or so to get a good, medium brown color.* Remove the meat onto a platter, leaving the oil in the pot. Add the mirepoix of vegetables and sautee until they have sweat a lot of their moisture and begin to fry in the oil. At this point, return the meat and add the wine, stock, bay leaf and tomatoes. The level of liquid should just cover the meat, if not, add more wine or stock. Bring to a boil, then lower the flame so that the pot just simmers. Let simmer for 2 hours until the meat almost falls off the bone. Add all the chunky stew vegetables except the fennel 45 minutes before serving. Music to simmer root vegetables by: "Root" by The Deftones (on tour now and coming to a European capitol near you!) Add the fennel 20 minutes before serving along with the thyme and marjoram. The final product should be thicker than what you see in the photo. You should have tender meat and vegetables enrobed in a sauce thick as tomato sauce for pasta. If your meat and veggies are thoroughly cooked, remove them and boil the sauce down to the correct thickness, add salt to taste, and serve. Yum!


*This does NOT seal in juices or make the meat tenderer. Actually it does the opposite; you'll have to braise the meat longer than you would without the browning step to get it tender but I think it's worth it since it DOES create a lot of delicious, meaty flavor)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Let's Play...20 Questions

Thanks to J. from Thinking About... for tagging me on this one. You're such a flatterer!

1. What’s your #1 comfort food? For the moment it's white chocolate. Don't think of it as chocolate but as rich, creamy butter candy.

2. If you were on a deserted island, what one food would you want to have with you? What's got all the 4 food groups? Minestrone with pancetta and parmesan.

3. What is/are your signature dishes? (What dishes are you ‘known’ for?) I'm best known from my own sourdough bread from the starter I grew a few years ago and lives in my fridge.

4. It’s Friday night, you don’t know what to cook. You opt for…Easy pasta al pesto from the pesto cubes in the freezer. Snap.

5. What’s your biggest weakness when it comes to food? Sugar, sugar, sugar. It's been that way all my life.

6. What food can you absolutely not eat? Bananas. I hate their smell, their texture, their taste, everything. I once threw up after eating the required 1/2 banana on some fad diet when I was in 8th grade. I actually tell hosts who try to serve me something with bananas in it that I'm severely allergic.

7. You need a drink. You grab a… um...whaddya mean, by drink? am I thirsty? (water) or stressed? (red wine)

8. What’s the most decadent dish you’ve had? Another question with multiple interpretations: calorie-wise it would be the full cajun gumbo dinner last year where a guest brought some lasagne to share. Jeez. Money-wise, our wedding feast at Charlie Trotter's

9. What’s your favorite type of food? My favorite food nationalities are: Italian, Mexican, Indian and Thai.

10. Favorite dish? Come on! That's as hard as asking my favorite song! I could give you my top 100. But the first one that comes to mind right now (think! think!) is Gabriel's taramasalata.

11. If your partner could take you to any restaurant you wanted, which one would it be? Since I've already mentioned Charlie Trotter's (maybe for an anniversary) I'll say Chez Panisse in San Francisco. Gotta love that Alice Waters.

12. Are you a soup or salad person? Salad's great but soup all the way. Refer back to the desert island question.

13. Buffet, take-out or sit-down restaurant? I sooo miss the fantabulous street food of Chicago, Italian beef, tamales, paletas, Italian subs, etc. Guess take-out's the closest.

14. What’s the most impressive dinner you’ve ever made? Gabriel and I have collaborated on many an impressive dinner. Maybe the time he shucked 20 oysters for an appetizer, I made osso bucco with risotto alla milanese a green salad along with the cheese course and floating islands for dessert. It was really good.

15. Do you consider yourself a good cook? Yeah. I love it and I think I'm good at it.

16. Do you know what vichyssoise is? Yeah. It's cold Potage Parmentier. Believe me, the hot version is better.

17. Who’s your favorite TV cook? Um, believe it or not, there are only really sucky TV cooks in Italy.

18. Can you name at least three TV cooking personalities? Sure here's 3 I've heard of but never seen in action: Nigella Lawson, Alton Brown and Rachel Ray.

19. Homemade or homemade from a box? All homemade, all the time. Even bread and mayonnaise.

20. Name 3 or more other foodies you are going to tag. Hey you out there, are you feeling taggable? Get to it! Let me know in a comment if you decide to do this one.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Tortilla de patatas (The REAL Spanish Omelet)

Here's Brown-Bag Lunch #3. Any American diner'll offer the "Spanish Omelet" with peppers, onions and tomatoes, which is lovely and a helluva hangover cure, but in Spain the default omelet (called a tortilla, even though there is no flatbread involved) is made of potatoes. Seems boring? Not at all! This is the epitome of rich, satisfying, comfort food a la española.

With this recipe, you have to unlearn everything you’ve ever known about how to fry potatoes. No high heat to create a crunchy seal and keep the potatoes from absorbing all the oil. In fact absorbing all the oil is precisely the goal here. I said, rich, didn't I? This is one of those pre-foodie movement dishes where you use a lot of fat to make humble ingredients taste great. The thing is, despite the calorie content if you do it right, tortilla de patatas is fabulous.

Ingredients: (The austerest list you'll ever see)
1 lb potatoes
1 medium onion, diced
¼-1/2 cup olive oil
5-6 large eggs
salt
Cut potatoes in half, longways and slice in ¼ inch thick slices. Pour as much olive oil as you can possibly force yourself to into a smallish non-stick frying pan, heat to medium-low and add the potatoes. They should be at least half submerged. Keep them at a simmer, not a bubbly frying pace. As they cook, break the pieces up with your spatula. After 15 minutes, add the onion and continue cooking and breaking up the potatoes. By the time the potatoes are tender and permeated with oil (Mmmm…keep thinking "olive oil is GOOD for you!") they will look like corned beef hash made entirely from potatoes and onions.
At this point tip the pan forward and allow the oil to pool at the far end, while you scoop up the potatoes into a bowl, leaving as much oil in the pan as possible. Turn off the heat. Allow the potatoes to cool for 5-10 minutes until they are cool enough not to cook the eggs as they are added in. Add the eggs and mix, add salt to taste. Turn the heat back on to high under the frying pan and get it very hot before adding the potato-egg mixture. Once you add it, swirl the pan slightly to keep the tortilla moving and not sticking to the pan. The edges should puff up. Once you have assured that a crust has formed at the bottom lower the heat to the lowest setting and continue cooking for about 15 minutes until the top is partially set. At this point, I suggest you follow my instructions, contrary to those of every Spaniard I have ever met*, and with your widest spatula under one corner of the tortilla, scoop it out onto a dinner plate. Then, invert the frying pan on top of the tortilla, hold the pan handle and the bottom of the plate really securely, think inspiring thoughts, believe in yourself (I think I can, I think I can…) and flip.

Now cook for just another 2-5 minutes. I like my tortilla completely cooked inside, solid but not dry. Some people, Gabriel for example, like a bit of uncooked egg in the middle (the nutters!). Tortilla can be eaten hot or room-temperature, so it's great for brown-bag lunches. Cut into wedges for a simple lunch accompanied by a green salad or cut into cubes, putting a toothpick into each one for the most popular appetizer at any party**.


*Spaniards will have you placing a plate upside down on top of the tortilla-filled frying pan and flipping and then oozing the upside-down tortilla back into the pan. To me that’s just too messy.

**at any party where there are Spaniards.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Brown Bag Lunch #2: A Little Dab Nduja

Believe it or not, this is a jar of sausage. Nduja, pronounced /n-DOO-yah/ is a spreadable sausage from Calabria where word has it, people like it hot. This sausage spread has at least as much red, hot pepperoncino as it does pork and interestingly, the name derives from the French, "Andouille" sausage, the ancestor of Louisiana Andouille, the be all and end all of gumbo.
After almost 4 years of living in Italy, I have become accustomed to disregarding Italians' warnings of how "piccante" some food might be. As a rule Italian food (at least all the way up here in Milan) is mild, and Italians I know rather wary of spice in general. So when I saw this jar, I thought, "eh, it's probably moderately spicy." Let me tell you, ladies and gentlemen, this is 4-alarm chili hot! I stuck my pinkie finger into the jar and tasted less than a 1/4 teaspoon of this and proceeded to gulp down a full glass of water to calm the inferno on my tongue.
Don't get me wrong, this stuff is really good. Spread really thinly on a sandwich with some fresh mozzarella cheese and bread (both things help moderate spiciness) you can taste a good earthy base to the chilis here, there's an umami quality along with the spice that's really pleasant. Music to eat Nduja by: "Runnin' Wild" sung by Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like it Hot" And it makes a helluva lunch.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Rose Geranium Cookies

Ladies and Gentlemen, spring has sprung in Milan! We're wearing spring jackets to work (couture, of course!) and our herbs are sprouting on the balcony. We used fresh balcony chives in our risotto the other day, and today we introduce, cookies flavored with rose geranium. Oh they're sooo good! The dark flecks you see in the photo are the geranium leaves, themselves minced into the batter.

You Italians out there, don't be so shocked, scented geranium is not just for mosquito repellant anymore! It is very edible; the Victorians used to use it all the time in cooking, not that you lot would likely be impressed with what the English did with food 100+ years ago, but anyway...

Here's the recipe (improved from a mediocre cooking-with-herbs cookbook, which doesn't deserve to be named):

1 large egg
one scant 1/2 cup sugar (plus some for rolling)
3 tbsps unsalted butter, softened (add more if you want a more cookie-like and less fluffy, cake-like texture)
2 cups flour
2 tsps baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp minced rose-geranium leaves
1/3 cup vin santo or other sweet wine
2 tsps rose water

Cream the scant 1/2 cup sugar and butter together and add the egg, mix until homogeneous, then add the wine and rose water. In another bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, salt and rose-geranium leaves. Music to mix rose-geranium leaves by: the release "Red Roses for Me" by Celtic punk-rockers, The Pogues. Add the dry ingredients to the wet by thirds and mix until only just incorporated. Chill for 30 minutes to an hour. Preheat oven to 350F.

Once the dough is chilled, shape into a log and slice into 24 discs. Press each disc into some sugar on each side and place on a cookie sheet 2 inches apart from each other. Bake for about 12 minutes or until ever so slightly golden.

The result is a light and pretty sweet cookie full of rose flavor. Imagine inviting the ladies over for a schmancy 4:00 tea with these!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Whitefish Risotto With Saffron and Fresh Spring Chives

Here's a great dish to make with any leftover shrimp stock from your Louisiana gumbo experience! Most Americans I know think of risotto as difficult and most Italians seem to think of it was easy. It certainly is quick, cooking time being about 15 minutes, but the dish definitely has its particularities. The process becomes easy only once you have figured out the parameters of the situation. In order to cook a perfect risotto, you need to feel out (or mistake your way toward) the right balance between amount of heat (which determines how fast the liquid boils and thus evaporates), width of the pot (which helps determine how much evaporation occurs) and cooking time. I think Italians who’ve grown up watching their parents make risotto, don’t have to reinvent these particulars; they just reproduce what Mom & Dad did. If we had no risotto-making genitori growing up, we need to suss things out for ourselves. As you see in this photo, I let the risotto go a bit too long, having not set the table beforehand, so it got too thick. The fish was perfect, though.

4 cups shrimp (or fish) stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup minced scallions
2 cups arborio (or carnaroli) rice
½ cup white wine
1 pinch of saffron stamens (or 1 pkg saffron powder)
¼ to ½ pound of whitefish, cubed (I used plaice*)
1-2 tbsps minced fresh chives
salt to taste

Heat the shrimp or fish stock in a medium pot over a medium-low flame until it simmers. Hold at low throughout the recipe.

In another medium-sized pot, heat the oil over medium and add the minced scallions. Cook, stirring constantly until they are wilted and transparent. Add the rice and stir until each grain is shiny, coated with the oil and has toasted a bit, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and stir vigorously as it fervently boils and steams and almost completely evaporates/gets absorbed.

At this point the stock should be simmering. Add one ladleful of stock to the rice, stir constantly. Once that has been mostly absorbed, add another and continue this way until the stock is gone. Ideally this will take 15 minutes. During the last 2 minutes of cooking time, add the cubed fish and stir in. It will only take that long for the fish to get cooked through and still be tender. Salt to taste. Sprinkle on fresh chives at plating time.

If you got your heat - pan size - time ration right, the final product should feature tender, ever so slightly al dente rice grains and should be able to perform “the wave”. That is if you shake the plate your just-poured risotto is sitting on, it will shake it’s way down, and spread out. Music to shake your risotto down by: "Walking on Sunshine" by one-hit-wonders, Katrina and the Waves. You should not be able to make restaurant-style “tall food” on it. No placing, for example a fillet of pan-fried halibut diagonally up the side of your risotto mountain. Ditto, no staking chive shoots, flagpole-style in the middle of your mound o’risotto. If you’ve done the risotto right, it’ll be too liquidy for all that.

*I used plaice for this dish, but you can use haddock, cod, pollock, hake, whiting, sole, etc. You get the idea. In fact, if you use lake perch, you'll be creating your own version of Lake Como's famous dish, "Risotto al pesce persico"


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