Monday, October 26, 2009

Windy City Cooking: Week 13

(Ed.'s Note- Every Monday, Chicago's risotto master Jason Hissong writes Windy City Cooking, a column whose title says it all. Enjoy! -Max)


by Jason Hissong
26 October 2009

       Yesterday I spent a few hours over at my friend Andy's house. He doesn't cook much, and so we spent part of our afternoon in the kitchen with me showing him how to cook a couple of dishes. Our main dish? Risotto.

       Risotto is an amazing dish for a variety of reasons. It's become a staple in my dinner parties, with slight variation each time. That's one of the reasons it's so great: variety. It's so great because it tastes good. It's savory. It's hearty. It's rice devoid of any bland rice-ness. It's an interesting dish to cook because it's not difficult to make, but it does take a lot of work. A contradiction? Perhaps. Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.

       So, yesterday's risotto dish, step by step:

       Risotto is two things, really, and I think this is where people are often confused. It is, first, a dish with a medium- or short-grained rice base. Second, it's a technique. It's all about the way in which you cook the thing. Why the medium and shorter grains for risotto? Because they are better at absorbing liquid and releasing starch as they do so, which makes them stick together better. Which is where that savory risotto creaminess comes from.

       I always use arborio rice, but there are other varieties available.

       Yesterday we wanted to incorporate bacon into the dish, so the first thing I did was cut the bacon into small chunks and render it in the skillet. When it was done I removed the bacon to a paper towel-covered plate to absorb some of the grease.

       At the same time, I made some chicken stock. Four cups for each cup of rice. I usually cheat and use buillon, but there have been occasions I've made stock from scratch. If you have the time, making stock from scratch is always better.

       I sweated my aromatics on high heat in the same skillet I used to render the bacon after wiping most of the bacon grease out. I only used onion and garlic for aromatics, but there are many other suitable ingredients- carrots, celery, ginger, star anise.

       After three or four minutes of sweating I added my cup or rice and stirred so the rice grains were all covered in the oil. About two minutes.

       This is where the real work and preparation comes into play: the stirring. Adding one cup of stock at a time I had a constant stir going in the pan until the rice absorbed all the liquid.

       When the pan was dry, I added another cup of stock and repeated the process.

       When adding the last cup of stock I also added the bacon back into the mixture. When the last of the stock was almost absorbed, I added about half a cup of shredded Asiago cheese and continued to stir until the cheese melted. After a dash of salt and pepper to taste, it was ready to go.

       And that's just one of many variations of risotto. That's why I love it so much: I can add almost anything to it.

       I've made it with chicken stock, vegetable stock and shrimp stock I made myself.

       I've made it with asparagus (it turns green!) and with squash.

       I've made it with chicken and mushrooms and shrimp and shredded pork tenderloin and tofu.

       I've made it with Asiago and Parmesano-Reggiano.

       I've made it just by itself, just the rice.

       I've made pasta in a risotto style, to a mediocre success.

       I've made it as a side dish and as a main course.

       I've made it for friends, and family, and lovers.

       I've made it for every reason I can think of, and will continue to make it for reasons I don't even know.

       It's a great dish. Savory and filling. A piece player or the star. It's a perfect example of a dish that has so much variety that one can make it how one wants. The key is this: medium- or short-grained rice. Stir. Risotto is always work, but always worth it.

What I've Cooked, What Others Have Cooked For Me, Where I Ate

       It's been a crazy on the go week for me. I did a not so great job with my Food Notebook in terms of keeping track of what I ate, and where and when. I know I ate at Corner Bakery Cafe, Potbelly, and Jimmy John's.

       I didn't cook much. I made a rice/braised sausage dish for myself. In the rice I added mushrooms and garbanzos. I also made the aforementioned risotto and with it we sauteed some asparagus and onions in a lemon/oil combination.

       Ashley and I cooked together, she directed, I did as I was told, an incredible spinach and ricotta lasagna. That was amazing. We had leftovers Sunday evening, and it was still great.

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