Friday, February 3, 2012

Look! Up On the Table....It's a Side Dish! It's a Meal! It's RISOTTO!

I love having recipes which are adaptable to changing needs....that can be molded to fit the requirements of the day or the moment, or varied according to seasonal ingredients or to whatever leftovers are threatening to go south in my fridge. Risotto is a prime example of such a recipe. At its most basic, it is a hearty, delicious, comforting and elegant side dish. But the real beauty of this easy workhorse recipe is that it can morph into a main course with only a few variations. The basic recipe can be made with any kind of flavorful stock, chicken, beef, veggie, seafood or even plain water if you have no stock handy. The cheese that finishes the dish can be Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano, Grana Padano, or even a combination.

Various meats or seafoods can be added to enrich the rice as can many different kinds of vegetables. Some of my favorite variations are listed below the recipe, in the Notes & Pointers section but these are only the beginning! Let your creativity soar. If you have any other leftover cooked vegetables or meats, stir them will be delicious!

Don't be intimidated by the thought that the rice must be attended each and every minute. All told it should take about 20 to 30 minutes to cook the rice to the al dente stage (still with a tiny bite in the center of the grains) but you don't have to be a slave to the occasional stir every 3 or 4 minutes when you add another half cup or so of stock will do the trick. The additions should be fully cooked before being stirred into the risotto during the last minute or two of cooking, just to heat through. All you need to complete the meal is a crisp green salad.

Serves: 4 to 6 (or more, depending on the additions)

1 small onion, minced
1/4 cup butter or extra virgin olive oil
2 cups arborio rice
5 or more cups hot beef, chicken or vegetable stock
1 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese

Over medium-low heat, sauté onion in butter or oil until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the rice to the pan and sauté for an additional few minutes or until the rice looks opaque around the edges. Keep the stock hot in another saucepan and add it to the rice a half cup at a time, stirring every few minutes over medium-low heat. Wait until each half cup of stock is completely absorbed by the rice before adding more. Stir frequently until the rice is just barely cooked. If you run out of stock before the rice is cooked, it’s OK to add a bit of plain water at the end. When the rice is cooked, stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano, Romano or Grana Padano cheese and serve immediately.

Notes & Pointers:
The frequent stirring makes the rice very creamy. Traditionally risotto is made with arborio rice which is a short grain, very starchy rice, but regular long grain rice seems to work fine in a pinch; just don’t use converted rice which has had most of the starch removed.

For one delicious variation, prepare roasted vegetables as follows before you start the risotto:

2 lbs. of the following in any combination: red & green peppers, zucchini, yellow squash,
    eggplant, asparagus, mushrooms, red onion, all cut into 1 inch dice
2 cloves garlic, minced or grated
2 Tbs. olive oil
salt & pepper, to taste

Toss all vegetables with olive oil and garlic. Roast vegetables in a single layer in a baking pan (in batches if necessary) at 425° for 35 to 40 minutes until cooked and beginning to caramelize. Prepare risotto as usual, then stir roasted veggies in a few minutes before rice is cooked. Taste for seasoning…you may want to add a bit more cheese.

Another option is to add bits of cooked ham along with some green peas (frozen peas are just fine). Sautéed shrimp is another way to go. Or add the grated rind and juice of one or two lemons (to taste) just before rice is cooked for a lovely Lemon Risotto.

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