I had friends coming over yesterday evening, and needed a few things – and the morning was so pretty that I decided to take a walk in the sun, do the shopping, and then come home and cook. Risotto ai funghi porcini was in the plans, but the plans were to use a bagful of last weekends’ prepared-and-frozen mushrooms. Plans change.
Plans change when you go out, walk through a nice park, and come home with not just your shopping, but a bagful of fresh porcini, clean and pretty and all ready to be eaten. Well, ok, not this clean – this is after I’ve prepped them, but clean in terms of not having wormholes and slug damage, which is the name of the game when you are picking them wild. Slugs, too, love these, and they happen to live closer to where the mushrooms grow than you do. While this says good things about slugs’ taste in food, it makes them no more likeable to me. But, slugs aside – I had fresh mushrooms yesterday, that’s what I used in the risotto.
Risotto is, for many good reasons, considered a special-occasion meal in Italy, rather than everyday fare. Some of those many good reasons have to do with ingredients (risotto rice is obviously pricier than plain pasta), and others with the fact that while simple to make risotto is somewhat labor, or at least attention-intensive. It’s not hard to make, but you can’t exactly leave it alone for longer than a couple of minutes while it’s cooking – which is why the traditional Italian way of cooking risotto involves doing so with a glass of wine in one hand. It’s also helpful since some of the wine needs to be splashed into risotto, both at the beginning of cooking, and later to taste, but more importantly, it allows the chef to feel like she’s doing something worth celebrating while standing and stirring the dish for 40 minutes at the stove.
Is it worth the effort? Millions of Italians and other risotto fans around the globe (and I!) will all agree that that’s a resounding YES! The rice cooks to a delicate, firm consistency, the creamy sauce materializes from seemingly nowhere, and for sheer comfort-food-and-luxury-dinner in one, risotto is very, very hard to beat. It doesn’t hurt that it is one of the best ways to showcase fresh wild mushrooms, either. The whole is both hearty and delicate, aromatic and full-flavored and entirely, entirely worth standing around a while and stirring it lazily while enjoying the glass of wine and the company of a good friend or five, the lot of them drooling all over themselves as they stare at the stove and sniff appreciatively the whole time.
I love it.
So yes, risotto isn’t at all difficult to make if you are willing to commit to 20-40 minutes of ladling and stirring, and is a fairly foolproof dish provided you do so and taste as you go (I am not always good about this, but in case of risotto it’s important). There are a few recipes around the internet which speak of ‘baked risotto’, and the resulting dish is, indeed, delicious and worthwhile in its own right – but, BUT – it isn’t risotto. It’s an entirely different dish called baked rice, and I should write about it at some point. Back to risotto –
What do you need for 4 portions of mushroomy heaven?
- ~300g arborio or carnaroli rice
- 300-400g mushrooms (porcini, or other fresh mushrooms), cleaned and sliced
- Small handful of dried black trumpet or funnel chanterelle or porcini, crumbled into small pieces (these mushrooms and following water can be substituted with 1.5L clear beef bone broth without loss of quality, but a flavor profile difference)
- ~1.5L boiling water for steeping the above mushrooms
- A glass of good dry white wine that you’d not mind drinking (for pouring into risotto)
- Another glass of white wine you don’t mind drinking (for drinking while cooking)
- 2-4 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
- 1 large onion or 2-4 shallots, chopped
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme (optional)
- A large knob of butter (for sauteing)
- Another large knob of butter (kept cold)
- Good olive oil, 2-3 tablespoons or more as necessary
- A good handful of shredded hard cheese (parmigiano, percorino, grada padano or gran moravia)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
What to do:
- Boil your water and turn heat to low to keep warm. Add the crumbled mushrooms, the dried thyme if you are using it, and 1/2 tsp of salt and allow to steep under lid. The liquid may turn rather dark brown depending on the type of mushrooms you are using. This is normal. Alternatively, heat stock until hot but not boiling and turn heat to low to keep warm.
- Heat a tablespoon of olive oil and a knob of butter on medium-high heat in a nonstick pan, and saute porcini gently until they have released the liquid, it has evaporated, and the mushrooms turn slightly golden with browned edges. Take mushrooms out of the pan and set aside.
- Add a bit of oil and more butter to the pan if necessary and lower heat to medium. Fry onions with a pinch of salt until golden, push aside and add garlic. Saute garlic until aromatic (a few seconds), but not yet coloring.
- Add rice to the pan and stir the onions and garlic in. Gently toast the rice still on medium heat until most grains have turned bright white with transparent edges (2-3 minutes).
- Pour in the glass of wine into the rice, and stir in until absorbed. Start sipping on your other glass of wine if so desired.
- When the liquid is absorbed enough that one can make a stripe through oozing rice to see the bottom of the pan for a few seconds, add a ladle of hot mushroom infusion or stock, and continue stirring until absorbed.
- Repeat the addition of liquid until the rice grains are swollen but still just a tiny bit chalky to the bite (you have to taste this as you go since different varieties or rice will take very different amounts of time to get to this point), mix in the mushrooms you have set aside earlier to reheat them.
- Add salt to taste, but be mindful of the addition of salty cheese towards the end of cooking process – it is better to add finishing salt later than to oversalt the risotto at this point.
- Repeat the addition of liquid and stirring gently (to not break up the mushrooms too much) until rice loses its chalkiness to bite, and is ‘al dente’ (firm but yielding to the bite). If you run out of steeped liquid or stock before this point, it is perfectly acceptable to start adding hot water (it won’t ‘dilute’ the flavor in any way at this point). It is also a great idea to splash in some of that wine you are drinking towards the end of cooking process.
- Once the rice is al dente, and surrounded by creamy sauce, turn the heat off, and toss in your handful of cheese and the cold knob of butter. Stir in gently and plate.
Serve with freshly ground black pepper in a mill and salt to taste. More white wine won’t go amiss here, either.