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!