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Monday, May 5, 2008

Against Risotto

For a while I've been carrying a guilty secret around with me: I don't like risotto. I mean, I would eat it if it were the only thing standing between me and starvation, but I would really never order it by choice. And with foodies all around talking up risotto, risotto appearing on all sorts of fine dining menus, I couldn't help but feel a bit, well, estranged. So I brought a little wisdom from my career to bear on my favorite hobby. In the world of academics, if you think you don't agree with an argument or ideology, the wisest scholars go out and study with the best thinker of that position. If you still aren't convinced, then you can feel secure in your opinion. Well, I think the same applies to food. So I finally had my chance to learn risotto from one of the best and I leapt at the chance. One way or another, I would finally feel secure in my opinion of risotto.

The Whole Foods in Evanston, IL offers a really wonderful demonstration cooking series, where for only $20 per person you get to sit in on a multi-course cooking demonstration with "tasting" portions large enough to satisfy a linebacker. Recently they held a class taught by Mary McMahon, a former [Charlie Trotter's] Trio chef and two time Jean Banchet award winner who now teaches at Now We're Cookin'. Though she is most famous as a pastry chef, a former Trio chef is still a former Trio chef. To learn how to make two different kinds of spring risottos in a close class setting with such a chef was an opportunity too good to pass up.

I began a quest to settle, once and for all, my opinion on risotto. The class also managed to deepen my already great appreciation of beets. But that was just the opening act. By the time I was done I had a few great tips and tricks for the kitchen, and two killer garnishes I will use again and again.


For a nice twist on a classic combination, try your next roasted beet salad with arugala. The goat cheese was rolled in finely chopped pistachios, and the balsamic vinegrette had just a hint of citrus. I was delighted and surprised by how well the additions of citrus and pistachio worked with the peppery arugala. It was a twist definitely worth replicating at home.

The second great surprise of the night was that my husband and I discovered how tasty beet greens are. I have roasted beets plenty of times and always thrown the stalks and leaves away without a thought. McMahon's class focused not only on themes of spring, but also on sustainability. So after the beet salad, we learned how to make use of the whole plant. She chopped the greens and stalks and then sauteed both in a bit of olive oil with minced garlic. This healthy side was finished off with salt, pepper, and a healthy squeeze of lemon.

While preparing the first courses, Mary shared an interesting kitchen tip that I thought you might be interested in. First, she mentioned that she just got back from a chef tasting of specialized mineral salts hosted by Chicago's famous Spice House. She said that when the chefs dipped simple apple slices into the different salts, they could taste slight differences. But when dishes were cooked with the specialty salts, none of the chefs could tell the specialty salts from regular, non-iodized salt.

Mary made two delightful garnishes, one of which is one of the more creative and memorable garnishes I have ever seen: an amazing parmesan gellato. That's right, you read that correctly: parmesan cheese gellato. Working on a double-boiler, Mary brought a cup of cream to simmer, and stirred in about one cup of finely grated parmesan cheese. She allowed us to taste the mixture before salting, and then she added a half teaspoon of salt and we tasted again. It was never clearer that effective salting amplifies the flavor of the dish (more parmesan) not the flavor of salt. Then she put the cream and melted parmesan cheese into the freezer to freeze. Remove one hour before serving and allow it to soften just until it is scoopable. Place a scoop on top of each serving to garnish.

The second garnish was a gremolata. Mary explained that gremolata is a traditional accompaniment to osso buco in Italian cooking. She explained that even though we now see all kinds of varieties of "pesto" (e.g. cilantro pesto) actually pesto is a very particular type of the broader class of gremolatas defined by the combination of basil, pine nuts, olive oil and cheese. Gremolatas in general are finely chopped or blended herbs, and may optionally contain olive oil or cheese. The most traditional gremolata includes blended flat leaf parsley, lemon peel and garlic. She demonstrated a classic gremolata for us and I found it a wonderfully healthy flavor booster.

In the end, I was convinced that lovingly standing over the stove and stirring the risotto made it creamy, but in the end I didn't think the final taste and texture together was really worth the fat and calories in the dish. I tentatively asked Mary about possibilities for lightening risotto and she politely but firmly shot me down. Her first quote was that in the professional kitchen, the wisdom is that "fat equals flavor." Fats certainly contribute to flavor, but in the interest of health I am always more interested in finding things that contribute lots of flavor relative to their fat content. Because in the end, it isn't exactly shocking if something full of butter and cheese is at least a bit tasty, but for that much butter and cheese I pretty much want to be speechless. The second comment was that she would rather eat a little amount of something very delicious than gorge herself on something less tasty. If you've read my philosophy, you know I totally agree with her. I just wasn't convinced that risotto was the sort of thing that was a smart indulgence.

So I ate the risotto, and now I can comfortably say it just isn't worth it for me. From now on I will pass on risotto whenever I see it on a menu without being haunted by the thought that I am somehow less of a foodie for it.


16 comments:

Katerina said...

Although I respect your opinion of course, I happily disagree... I love standing by a stove on a winter evening with a book open on the counter a glass of wine in one hand and the other stirring the risotto.

philip said...

No one can know what lies around the river bend with out going to look.

Erin, this was a wonderfully written post. I've had people ask me about why I read or watch certain things which they feel that I might not like, and it is for this exact reason. How can you know unless you try.

Erin said...

Katerina, I definitely recognize that I may be in the minority here on my dislike for risotto. And truthfully it isnt that risotto isnt tasty, it just isnt a worthy indulgence to me. But I love your poetic description of the process of making risotto in the winter. Truthfully I totally enjoy making it, I could just skip out on eating it.

Philip, thanks for the compliment. It sounds like you and I would get along well. For my part, I have never particularly understood people who are never willing to venture out of their comfort zone. There is so much life out there that you will never encounter unless you try.

The first time I ever went abroad my grandma took me to England and France during the summer. When school started and we were all saying what we did over break I said I had traveled. A boy sitting near me commented, "Ugh. Why would you even want to go there [France]. I mean, they don't even speak the same language?" I was flummoxed. For him it was a reason to stay home, and for me that was precisely the reason to go.

Peter M said...

Different strokes for different folks. Risotto is not hard to make, just takes long. I would never order it in a restaurant and pay $15 for a bowl of rice. I'll make it myself at home.

Laura (Pinot and Prose) said...

I agree with Katerina. Half the enjoyment (if not more) of risotto is in making it - I believe it was Ina Garten who said it was "meditative."

But I completely respect your opinion, particuarly since it is an educated one. You certainly didn't give up easy!

And thanks for the parmesan gellato recipe - that's a must-try!

Astra Libris said...

Your post is fantastic! Your dedication to exploring a topic, dish, or theory fully is truly admirable. I also confess that I too agree with you - I don't think risotto is worth the copious amounts of cream and butter either... *sending you a high five over the web and ducking in case risotto fans are throwing something at me* :-) I do like "modified risotto," though - I actually prefer a light risotto made with veggie or chicken broth, plenty of vidalia onions, and just a splash of balsamic! Nice and creamy without the cream! :-)

Thank you for a fantastic post!

Erin said...

Astra, thanks for the support. I was a little concerned that I would rise the ire of dedicated risotto fans. Nice to know I have some fellow abstainers out there.

Peter, I love the humor behind your comment about paying $15 for a bowl of rice. We have some arborio rice at home, so doubtless we will be making risotto to use it up sometime soon. I may even experiment with some Ghanaian version to see if I can find a more flavorful take on risotto that suits me.

Laura, I love the idea of it being contemplative or meditative. Hope you enjoy the parm gellato!

StickyGooeyCreamyChewy said...

I really enjoy a good risotto, but to be honest, I'm not willing to put in the work. I love pasta a whole lot better.

Bridget said...

I'm not always a risotto fan either. I'm very picky about it to say the least. I love your "academic" quest to solidify your opinion and think it's an excellent way to explore food!

Erin said...

Sticky-I too love pasta. I particularly like making it from scratch, although I confess I dont do that all the time.

Bridget-Thanks for the support.

katiez said...

I firmly maintain that:
a. stirring constantly is totally unnecessary
and
b. butter is totally unnecessary if the rest of your ingredients are good.
I never put more than 1 tsp of butter in my risottos and they are always lovely and creamy, full of flavor and not that caloric.
(I love risotto - I just make it to suit me)

Laura said...

Oh my gosh did this make me laugh:

"Because in the end, it isn't exactly shocking if something full of butter and cheese is at least a bit tasty, but for that much butter and cheese I pretty much want to be speechless."

Catching up on your blog (where do my days go?) and really enjoyed this post. I do like risotto, but I refuse to make it--isn't really worth my time, especially with 2 toddlers, but you have neatly summed up how I feel about alfredo sauce!

Deb said...

I love risotto, but I've successfully made it without cream and just a bit of butter and cheese - it's the starchiness of the rice that gives it a creamy finish, not added cream and cheese. Although your post is beautifully written and I love to read other points of view! =)

Deb said...

Oh, and I just read katiez's comment - and I agree that constantly stirring is not necessary for a delicious risotto.

LisaRene said...

My two cents regarding risotto - I never order it out because most chefs do "finish it" with cheese and butter at the end. Some chefs "cheat" and add heavy cream as well.

However, I do prepare it at home using only 1 T. olive oil to saute the onion/shallot/garlic, you simply don't need anymore fat. I don't "finish it" with anything, enjoying the natural creaminess that comes from the starch in the arborio rice.

I do believe it is a totally overrated dish that gets too much hype. After all, it is about the easiest, most foolproof dish you can make.

Grumpy Misanthrope said...

I generally make my risotto using hints I got from Good Eats...which means I don't stir constantly, and, while it has about 1/2 cup of parmesian, it only has 2 tbl of butter. Okay, I might cheat a little bit from time to time and add 2 tbl of cream too, but that still doesn't impart a dish that is hugely high in fat.

Now if I could just get my risotto to be a little less al dente...

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