The longer I pursue cooking as a serious avocation, the more I find I know nothing about it. I shouldn't be surprised, I guess, since that's often the way learning goes. The whole process is inevitably fractal, each explored avenue opens into a dozen throughways with a thousand offshoots branching from each. I know that that's why formal education works the way it does: you start off mild and generalized with your crayons and block letters and as you invest the years, the process becomes increasingly specialized and intensive and you seem to get progressively worse at sussing it all out. By the time you're in grad school you're either grading stacks of papers four feet tall or so intently focused on ten words in an ancient manuscript that you can barely even make your eyes focus. Is this just me? Maybe.
Anyway, I was saying that just to get here: the more I cook, the more I realize I haven't eaten. At least not thoroughly enough. I've mentioned my first forays into certain foods on the blog before, I know, but it strikes me as peculiar every time. Yesterday, I'd cooked all the way through my first risotto--stirring until my forearms were screaming from clenching the spoon--and eaten half my serving of the resulting slurry before Dana asked "is this what you wanted?" and I realized that I had no idea of what I wanted, that I'd never actually had risotto before, and that any judgment I had on this was uninformed. That said, I guess it kind of was what I was expecting.
I cooked this from our newest cookbook: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, an early Christmas present from Dana's lovely aunt and, from my limited experience a thoroughly engrossing primer on a cuisine thats familiarity has been so thoroughly Americanized I hardly know where to start my exploration. Should I go with pasta, a subject that takes up probably a third of the considerable volume, or maybe the appetizer section which boasts proto-favorites like tomatoes stuffed with shrimp or salmon foam (SALMON FOAM???). Even the basic pasta sauce seems like a wonderful adventure. I've made so many tomato sauces out of crap gathered from our cupboard that I fear I may have to unlearn everything I've ever done just to pick up a new skill or two. Totally totally worth it.
Back to the risotto, the texture was spot on--creamy and rich without being sticky--and the taste, while not terribly deep, was good. I did specifically violate the instructions by using a chicken stock I'd made "in the french fashion" which was said to make the risotto bitter but I wasn't going to cook up another pot of stock just for an experimental side dish. If you have italian meat stock around with its requisite veal bones or want to make some give it a go, but you'd probably be fine just doing what I did: making obscene gestures at the recipe and using whatever. I thought the final dish could have benefited from a bit more earthiness, something that a few well-chosen mushrooms or a dollop of truffle oil (or, as the recipe suggests for the millionaires among us, shaved white truffles) could have remedied but I thought it worked out well overall. Not mind-blowing but decent. A platform from which to work. Here's the recipe:
Risotto with Parmesan Cheese
from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
5 cups meat broth
3 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp onion chopped very fine
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 heaping cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese
salt to taste
Bring the broth to a low simmer on a burner near where you'll be cooking the risotto. In a broad sturdy pot on medium high heat, put 1 Tbsp butter, the vegetable oil, and the chopped onion. Cook stirring until the onion becomes translucent then stir in the rice. Stir until the grains are coated well.
Add 1/2 cup of simmering broth and cook the rice stirring constantly until the liquid is gone. Make sure you wipe the bottom and sides of the pot free of any grains that are threatening to stick. Fifteen minutes in they will stick and they will burn and you will hate yourself. Proceed like this, adding 1/2 cup of broth whenever there is no more liquid in the pot continuously stirring the ever-expanding mass until you can imagine no other job but this in all of the world, until the spoon becomes part of your hand and your arm puffs up and looks like Popeye's. Come to think of it, maybe switch hands before that happens.
After about twenty minutes, when the rice is tender but still kind of toothsome, gradually reduce the amount of liquid so that when it is fully cooked it is slightly moist but not runny. This would probably be a good time to stir in all the cheese and the remaining butter so that it's all melty and thoroughly coats the rice grains. Also taste and adjust for salt.
Transfer to a platter and serve promptly. Later, wake yourself from a deep dreamless sleep with the motion of your arm stirring, still stirring.