It's winter. Well, it's winterish. We had our last fleetingly beautiful day this past Monday, when the too early sunset arrived it was still nearly 70 degrees, but we are all set for a hard freeze tonight, which will probably mean the death of all that remains of flora in my back yard. Even the autumnal mums on the front porch are drooping their previously cheery heads. I bought myself a new green scarf and I'll be be sporting it to dinner tonight. It's also time for some comfort food. We have to have new scarves and comfort food in the winter or we'll go crazy from the short days!
The subject of comfort food reminds me of last night's Top Chef. I had to laugh at all of the snobby hotel and casino chefs who said things likes "I don't do this king of food," and were at a total loss. As much as I love (and I really love) Nob Hill, I thought that Emily girl deserved to go. What do you mean you don't do that sort of food? What do you cook at home? Can you honestly tell me you never go home and cook a pound of spaghetti and throw in only butter and maybe a little cheese? You've never mashed a potato? Made a roast chicken? Short ribs? These are mainstays of the American diet, and there is nothing wrong with them. Now, if they all come from a box and are full of unpronounceable ingredients, we have a problem, but I can't believe the idiocy and self-righteousness of these so-called chefs. As I write this, suddenly I remember one of the courses Husband and I had from Nob Hill's tasting menu was truffled mac 'n cheese. That was a few years ago, but there were numerous things on the menu which recalled one's childhood. Thomas Keller, too, states he likes to invoke childhood memories in his cooking - everyone wants to be comforted. These chefs have a lot to learn about how to make their guests happy; dining is not all about insane "creativity" and presentation and eating food from wires. I think most diners want at least some amount of comfort in their food, and by that I don't mean everything should be overcooked and mushy and covered in gravy, but sometimes, after a hard day at work, when sitting down in a restaurant to dine alone or with a loved one, what you really want is someone to take care of you - to pour your wine and bring you hot soup - you want to feel as though someone cares. It might be the Midwesterner in me, but so be it - no matter what the cuisine, if there's no comfort in it, I'd like to think it's a passing fad.
I have just checked out Nob Hill's menu, and I have decided this girl was just an idiot: their first four menu items include: butternut squash risotto, Kobe short ribs, sage gnocchi and shallot potato cakes. Not to mention, the tetrazzini truffled mac 'n cheese is still on the menu. If those aren't comfort foods, then I don't know what is. She could have made any of these recipes (which she should know by heart; I can still recite the recipes and processes of my baking days, a year later) with great success, but she let her incredulity at being asked to do something so clearly below her get in the way. Something is wrong with today's "up and coming" chefs, or someone is not teaching this girl properly; she's cooking comfort food and doesn't even know it because the people in her restaurant are paying $100 a person for it, so she thinks she's too good for mac 'n cheese, even when she's probably made thousands of orders of it. But!! I have digressed!
Hmm. That whole diatribe, just to talk about some simple risotto. Ah, well, I have a tendency to be long-winded on occasion. . .
So, let's just get down to the risotto, shall we? While bored at work the other night, I began perusing Marcella Cucina (and, because we're about to get a new Cameron Mitchell restaurant in the Short North called Marcella's, let's just get the pronunciation out of the way: it's mar-Chell-uh) and wandered across a recipe for risotto and cranberry beans. Being that I had purchased some cranberry beans at Saturday's market, and had just cooked them that day, I decided it would be lunch the following day. The recipe is easy, although it does, as all risotto does, take a good deal of time. Don't be intimidated by risotto; I know all the books say it takes skill and practice, etc. and while that might be true somewhat, you'll never know unless you try. What it definitely does take is patience and a strong stirring arm.
To make risotto, you absolutely must use a specific type of rice called Arborio rice (Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are also used, some say superior, but are more difficult to find). These types of rice release starch when stirred in a liquid; it is this process which makes risotto, otherwise you just have a starchy mess of mush. These types of rice are identified by their fat round grains and pearly appearance. They can be used to make other sorts of rice dishes, such as pilaf, but other types of rice cannot be used for risotto. Arborio is no longer that much of a specialty product; it can be found in most large, well-stocked grocery stores in the Italian section. Or sometimes, misguidedly, in the Asian section.
Okay, so now we have the rice. You will also need some good, low-salt stock or broth - it should be low-salt not for health reasons, but because a good deal of it will evaporate, leaving its salt behind, and I like to have more control over the salt in a dish. It can be homemade, but I'm not going to be a snob about it because, in truth, we go through gallons of store-bought stock in this household and I don't see that changing anytime soon. Furthermore, risotto is actually a dish which can be whipped up out of thin air when it seems as though you have nothing to eat, as long as you have butter, rice, stock, maybe a few herbs, and some leftover Parmesan. I like the kind of stock purchased in tetrapak cartons, because they are resealable and can be put in the fridge and used as needed. If you really want to use homemade but you don't have time to make stock or don't like the aroma of roasting bones in your house (I don't blame you), you can buy really great stock at North Market Poultry and Game - it is expensive, but can be diluted with a 2- or 3-to-1 ratio of water to stock, so it stretches. My general guideline is to plan on 1/4 cup dry rice per person, and about 4 cups of stock to 1 cup of rice. Of course, this isn't exact and will vary depending on your elevation and the phases of the moon, but it's a good place to start. I usually just use 4 cups of stock and then dilute with water or wine (or sometimes beer, if that's all I have) if I feel I'm going to run out.
Well, we have rice and stock covered, now we just need our setup: place the stock in a saucepan on your rear burner, bring to a simmer, and leave it there with a 6-8 ounce ladle in, and place a large, wide saute pan (must be really large, plan that your rice will at least quadruple in size) or Dutch oven on the burner in front. Get out your favorite wooden spoon and flex your stirring arm.
The nice thing about using sausage is it's so full of flavor you can leave out the usual onion/garlic/shallot/celery nonsense if you're tired and don't feel like chopping. Furthermore, sausage goes from the freezer to the pan without suffering too much. Okay, let's go!
Risotto with Sausage and Cranberry Beans - serves 4
2 links Italian sausage, or 1 pound bulk (or hot, or a combination - definitely with some fennel), casings removed
2 cups cooked cranberry beans or one can white beans, drained
1 cup Arborio rice
4-5 cups beef, chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp butter
3/4 cup freshly, finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
1 package (an ounce) flat-leaf parsley, chopped finely
1/2 tbsp lemon juice, or juice from 1/2 lemon
salt and black pepper to taste
red pepper flakes to taste, optional
Good balsamic vinegar, optional
Your stock is simmering, right? Heat your large saute pan over medium-medium high heat and crumble in your sausage. Brown the sausage thoroughly, breaking it into very small bits, then add the beans - if there is a lot of fat (more than a tablespoon) in the pan, carefully drain it off first. Add the rice to the pan and stir it all around for a minute or two; the rice should begin to transluce, looking very pearly with a white center. Add a ladleful of stock and stir until the stock is absorbed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Continue to repeat for about 20 minutes, adding a pinch of salt after 10, and then begin to taste the rice; it should be soft with a slightly chewy center, without being powdery or hard. The entire mixture should be soft and creamy above all, with no broth sitting in pools. Turn the heat off and add the butter, parsley, Parmesan and lemon juice, stirring vigorously to incorporate and melt everything. Taste for salt and add a few good grinds of black pepper and a few pinches of red pepper flakes, if desired. Place in bowls and top with a few shreds of Parmesan and a tiny drizzle of balsamic vinegar, if desired. Preferably eaten while in pajamas in front of fireplace with loved on, or other cozy location.
To read about other times I've made risotto, click here and here for the vegan option. To read about what to do with leftover risotto, click here. To read about the worst risotto I've eaten in a restaurant which the Columbus Dispatch gave 5 stars, click here. To read about the best risotto I've eaten in a restaurant which the Columbus Dispatch gave 3 stars, click here.