One of the things that amuses me are foods that try so hard (and succeed so infrequently) at masquerading as a healthier version of another food. For a few years I was a vegetarian and I was always asked, “But don’t you miss meat?” Well, no. I didn’t until I was encouraged to try any number of things that are crafted to seem like meat without actually containing any. Once I had a store bought veggie burger which was essentially a hockey puck of beans, tofu, and mushrooms mixed with enough garlic salt to keep away the combined casts of Twilight and Dracula.
Its not that veggie burgers are bad. In fact, some are quite good. It’s just that foods can be quite similar to people. They’re not very satisfying when you ask them to be something other than themselves. Veggie burgers are great at being veggie burgers. They’re lousy at being hamburgers. By extension, there are a number of recipes that seek to re-imagine traditionally unhealthy dishes in a healthy way. I would suggest that these have great value if we view them in the proper perspective. They are variations and, indeed, something new. Maybe, just maybe, something will displace one of the unhealthier versions as a favorite.
One of the dishes I play around with is a more artery-friendly way to make risotto. “Way too many carbs!” you say. Well, perhaps there are a few in there. So have one serving – not six. This idea of risotto is not unhealthy in its simplest state. Essentially, we’re frying Arborio rice in a little olive oil and then slowly cooking it in a simmering liquid. The trouble comes in with the 5-8 tablespoons of butter and copious amounts of Parmesan cheese added later on. I’m not quite sure they’re necessary to make a good dish.
Let’s look at this: Basic risotto is simple enough and you can add anything you want as a flavor agent. More on those later, but let’s just make the basic risotto first.
A few glugs of olive oil
A couple of shallots
2 cloves garlic
Ground black pepper
Two glasses of dry white wine (the last time I will ever be so generic about wine)
4 cups of chicken stock or vegetable broth
1 ½ cups of Arborio rice
One heavy-bottomed pot (I use a 3 ½ qt cast iron Dutch oven…but that’s just me)
One 2 qt (or larger) stockpot
A wooden or silicon spoon
A soup ladle
Start with chopping the shallots (and do it carefully. Those little bastards are so damn OVAL). Remove the pulpy outer skin and discard
Peel the garlic and mince it… or break out your nifty garlic press.
Heat the chicken stock in the stockpot over medium heat
While the chicken stock is heating (not boiling), put the heavy-bottomed pot on medium-low heat
Add some olive oil, shallots and pressed garlic into the the heavy-bottomed pot (Dutch oven). Toss in a few pinches of sea salt and a few pinches of ground pepper. Keep the shallots and garlic moving and manage the heat so they sweat and become translucent. Do not let them burn. If they burn, throw them out, cool the pot, clean it and start over.
Add the rice to the shallots and garlic then ramp up the heat to medium. (Of course, we never raise the heat above medium since it could damage all but unenameled cast iron cookware).
Use the wooden spoon to turn the rice and ensure it’s all covered with oil. Keep turning the rice over the heat until it starts to smell ‘nutty’. Yes, you read that correctly…nutty.
Now things start getting exciting… Dump the two glasses of white wine in there. It is going to sizzle…that’s OK. Stir it around until it is somewhat absorbed. Then take the ladle, fill it with some of that hot stock and dump it over the rice and turn down the heat to low.
Start stirring the rice…and keep stirring…forever. OK, not that long, but the point is only slightly over stated. The idea is to keep the rice moving and allow the heat from the pan to distribute evenly throughout the rice mixture. At work, I would have to use the term thermal equilibrium. In the culinary broom closet…well, just stir the damn rice.
The rice will start to absorb the liquid and the carbohydrates in the rice will begin to leach out and thicken the liquid. When the rice has absorbed most of the liquid (keep stirring), grab that ladle and add another round of hot stock to the mix. This would be a time to add any flavorings. Try something simple at first like a pinch of saffron, or lemon zest. And…of course…keep stirring.
The more you make this dish, the better you’ll get at it. Heat management is important. If the pot is too warm, you’ll get rice with a soggy exterior and a hard inside. If it’s too cool, you’ll be serving it sometime in the middle of the night.
Continue this process while maintaining the heat at a level where the mixture simmers (kind of like a boil but without all the anger). You will notice that the rice increases in volume substantially as it takes on more of the liquid. Take a few grains of rice out and allow them to cool. Try them. If they’re soft, then you’re almost done. You can add a pat of butter, or some half and half, a bit of parmesan or nothing. It depends on how much you like that sort of thing. I would suggest trying it without them, though.
Portion control…use small bowls and treat it like ice cream. Two scoops are probably enough. Garnish it with some parsley or whatever you may have laying around (I would steer away from the M&M’s or jimmies/sprinkles for this dish).
Serve with some greens…because greens are really good. Or choose your fav veggies and ENJOY!
I am not a nutritionist. I’m not a chef. Only when the lights are low, and there is no one around, would I even proclaim myself a cook. Essentially, I’m a guy in a kitchen. At least I think it’s a kitchen. It feels much like a broom closet with two burners and a sink. Still, there’s heat, water and enough room for several kinds of salt.
If I believe the wisdom in philosopher Carl Friedrich von Rumohr’s 1822 writing, Geist der Kochkunst von Joseph Konig, then the control of heat, water and salt are the three things I need to be able to cook. Fantastic!
I live with a fitness professional. She also happens to be a good evangelist for health in general. Having long been bankrupt of rational excuses about why I couldn’t work out, I eventually started doing it as well. In that spirit, I try to put healthy things on our plate. She is not a disciple of fad diets… Thank God. Cooking is challenging enough without eclectic prohibitions. After working all day (and doing my partner-prescribed workouts), I don’t want to be making dinner in a minefield of disallowed ingredients or food groups.
I prefer to make something from raw ingredients than to buy it pre-made. If I’m the one making it, then I have a better idea of what went into it. To that end, I usually adhere to the following:
Someone could read that and say I’m foolish and incredibly inconsistent. Indeed, I am. I have not gone down the path of organic unpasteurized milk from grass fed cows, organic wines, or other similar persuasions. There are a number of exceptions around our kitchen. All I can say is that I’m working on it.
There is a staple that gets us through a few nights a week. It’s quick and it’s green. It’s spinach. Let’s have a look at a random weeknight:
She’s coming home at 8PM. After work, I stopped and bought some tomatoes, baby spinach and mozzarella. This has the makings of something light but satisfying for her after working out for 14 hours in a variety of places which are warm, humid and smell like feet. A quick scan of the kitchen reveals an avocado which has finally ripened, some fresh basil and a lemon which is a few days past its peak. No problem. I’ll upsell the avocado and basil while trivializing the lemon. She’ll never know.
We are minimalists when it comes to salad dressing. She will often be happy with a squirt of lemon while I’m an olive oil and balsamic vinegar kind of guy. Well, ok, I’m not really that simple. If my dinner is going to be greens, a tomato and avocado, then I’m not going cheap on the oil and vinegar.
Handful of romaine lettuce
Handful of baby spinach
About a 1/3 of an avocado diced into ½” cubes
Half a vine-ripened tomato sliced into strips or some organic Campari tomatoes, quartered
A pinch of Celtic sea salt (The really coarse stuff. If you don’t like the texture of it or if you just don’t like Celts, any number of varieties can work. Try Himalayan, French Sea Salt from Brittany or Angsley Sea Salt from the UK. The differing minerals in each region give them all a different character. Salt is a nasty word for most people but we’re not putting it on hamburgers here. It’s a leafy green. A small pinch is plenty)
A few leaves of basil – torn and spread amongst the lettuce
A few strips of mozzarella (Buy a ball and just cut it- skip the shredded version)
A squirt of lemon juice
If she’s feeling really squirrelly, we’ll add some canned tuna to the mix but that’s just personal preference. Yes, this violates the spirit of strategy three above. I said I was inconsistent.
Assemble these on a dinner plate with something to drink (in her case, milk. It goes equally well with salad, marinara sauce and cookies in her world. Run with it.)
Same as above except,
Two handfuls of baby spinach – no romaine
A whole tomato (and whatever is left of hers that she didn’t eat)
No lemon juice
A glug of good olive oil. (Unless you’ve been living on a beach, munching coconuts and having weekly therapy sessions with a soccer ball named Wilson, you are undoubtedly aware of the health benefits afforded by olive oil. Unlike Burgundy wines, there is often a price/quality relationship here. Indeed, you get what you pay for. I’ve had great success finding interesting regional olive oils from Maine-ly Drizzle in Kennebunkport Maine. Oil and vinegar are their business and you can sample anything before you buy. )
A glug of good balsamic vinegar (Again, I refer to Maine-ly Drizzle. Standard 18 year aged balsamic is great. So are the infused varieties with Mission Fig, Strawberry, Maple… just go up and let them lead you through the products. Leafy greens will become the canvass for the oil and vinegar artists and that makes your body happy.)
A few turns of Cubeb from the grinder. (Cubeb is a berry which is dried like a black peppercorn but retains its ‘tail’ from the plant. It was commonly used in the Middle Ages to season meats and a key ingredient in sauce saucernes which was made from Cubeb, almond milk, and other spices. Its use has nearly vanished in the West but that’s a shame. It has a character of both allspice and black pepper and gives plain dishes a lift.