Risotto: the awkward deflowering.

Many food blogs publish breathtaking accounts of unique culinary creations featuring magnificent ingredients prepared with celestial perfection. Will my food blog do the same?

Nuh uh.

It’s not that I don’t have some instinct; most days I have enough knowledge to avoid boneheaded cooking mistakes. Then there are days when, like a repressed 21-year-old girl set loose at the docks after guzzling five screwdrivers on an empty stomach just seconds before the ships come in, I quickly find mistakes outnumbering dizzy spells on a hungover morning.

My first time with risotto was supposed to be special. Foodies practically write love sonnets for risotto dishes. Something about that romantic Italian spirit sneaks into the blood via the starch, I think. Bachelorettehood discouraged me from trying my hand at risotto because who makes risotto for one? Experience with leftover paella taught me that arborio rice dishes don’t reheat well. Google results for solo recipes gave me the impression that if you tried to order risotto for one at a restaurant, the kitchen would go bonkers, maybe even storm the dining room and take hostages. Nonetheless, I spent the last few months studying risotto recipes and working up the nerve to scale them down to use a mere half cup of rice. I even bought a little pot that I dubbed “Annie’s Wee Risotto Pot of Defiance.” Could it be done? Would my stove explode? Would Italy write me a polite but firm letter condemning me to death?

scallop risottoJust as I was about to take the plunge blind, coincidence dropped a used book order on my doorstep: Cooking For Yourself (Williams-Sonoma Lifestyles, Vol. 12, No. 20). Every page excited me more and more until–wouldn’t you know?–my hungry eyes landed on “Saffron Risotto with Scallops.” I immediately bought bay scallops and clam juice. Nothing would stop me from making risotto for one now! Then my mother told me that she loved scallops, so I made risotto for two. Irony has a gift for finding me that way.

I-shoulda-known-better #1. It was hot. I was sticky. My shorts, too big around my shrinking waist, kept sliding down, and a belt would only have added to the heat. Impatience made me sauté the scallops in a pan so small that they simmered instead of browning. Result: bland scallops.

I-shoulda-known-better #2. I accidentally let the scallion whites and minced garlic brown, not sweat. If only they had switched places with the scallops! A voice in my head told me to stay away from the large burner, but I couldn’t hear it because the other voice in my head was screaming at my shorts. Result: a slightly bitter caramelized flavor that overpowered the delicate scallops and saffron.

I-shoulda-known-better #3. Wanting vegetables, and too cranky to make a side dish, I added peas. Result: the strong green flavor worked to overpower the mild seafood flavor as well.

In retrospect, I should have stuck to the missionary position of risotto–stock and Parmesan–rather than clam juice and saffron. Cheese would have intensified the creaminess, and the whiteness of the risotto would have been more, well, risotto-ish. Instead I served a golden dish to my mother, who looked dubiously at the rice that I claimed was Italian yet looked suspiciously similar to a thick juk (a boiled Korean rice dish). Her instincts kicked in and . . . she grabbed a pair of chopsticks and pulled kimchi out of the fridge.

“What are you doing?” I asked, suddenly terrified. If anything can trigger the equivalent of a fatwa from northern Italy, eating risotto with kimchi is it.

“It’s rice,” she explained.

Fortunately, after the first bite she realized that the kimchi wouldn’t work with that taste. The texture seemed right. I had successfully produced a creamy al dente risotto. The flavors, on the other hand, didn’t wow either of us. It needed something. It didn’t need kimchi, stock, or even cheese. It needed care. The kind of care that only a non-sweaty cook wearing properly fitted short pants can provide.

Well the first time can’t always go well. Nerves always settle for round 2, right? I’ll appease Italy yet. I have my small pot, I know the approximate liquid to rice ratio, and I have the technique down. I’ll pull out the chicken stock and pay a pile of money for Parmigiana-Reggiano and do it right next time.

See? I do learn from my mistakes. And this time I learned that the secrets to good risotto are wearing tight pants, taking it slow, and flashin’ the cash. And hey, if I’m really good, northern Italy might send me flowers the day after.

4 thoughts on “Risotto: the awkward deflowering.

  1. I blogged on risotto too, but only AFTER I spent many hours stirring, stirring and going stirring crazy to perfect this awesome dish. Cooks Illustrated’s method works for me, but I have two hungry guys to feed so quantity is A-Ok in my house. Keep at it, it truly is one of those culinary delights that does need to be mastered. And keep that kimchi hidden!

  2. The risotto mnemonic that I’ve seen oft-repeated is 1, 3, 2: 1 cup dry rice with 3 cups hot stock/cooking liquid/what have you with yield 2 cups of cooked rice. It’s worked for me, and I use it a lot to adapt risotto recipes for 1/2 cup dry rice.

    Risotto does have to be babied and fussed over, and I’ve found that when I’m making extra-small amounts I need to have the heat lower and not over-whelm the rice at any point with the stock. There are a couple of methods, including Alton Brown’s, I think, that have you add a bunch of stock at once and then let it simmer, rather than the “add, stir stir stir, add” that’s traditional. I tried that once, but the rice cooked to al dente before all of the stock had absorbed and by the time the excess cooked off the dish was mushy and disappointing. When you’re cooking a whole cauldron of risotto I bet it works a treat, but I’ve had little luck with it on solo-portions.

    Best of luck! Risotto is one my all-time favorite dishes to cook; I hope you get to have as much fun with it as I do.

  3. different Kate: Thanks for the advice! I was just about to try again after I bought some dried porcinis. I will definitely keep all your advice in mind. I personally like the fussing and stirring—it makes me feel accomplished, lol.

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