Stir Crazy: “Rice is born in water and must die in wine.” – Italian proverb
The first time I had risotto was in Rome, Italy, June 1995, and it was a life-altering experience. Adam took me to Il Buco (“the hole”), a small restaurant he frequented while living in the Eternal City in the 80′s. It was a tiny place, with maybe ten or twelve tables, all cloaked in crisp white cloths and perfectly folded matching napkins. We were shown to our table – a discreet two-top in the corner by the window. After ordering a carafe of vino rosso, we settled into our chairs and I took in the view. There were a few locals reading newspapers and drinking wine, a couple sitting precariously close to one another, and hazy, blue puffs of smoke lazily climbing to the ceiling from every table but ours. It oozed romance and charm and I was enraptured.
The waiter casually stepped over and Adam ordered our meal in flawless Italian as I sat there grinning a doughy American “I’m with him!” smile. I think the Italian language is the most seductively beautiful language in the entire world and at that moment, I am even more in love with my husband for speaking it.
After a while, the waiter returned with our first course – risotto ai funghi (risotto with mushrooms). He presented it with great pride and placed the tureens delicately, almost reverently, on the table. “Grazie mille!” I said proudly in my best Italian accent, muddled with a little high school French. “Prego,” he replied with a provocative smile as our eyes met. He spoke rapidly in Italian, nodded his head to the bowl and waited. Confused, I shot my husband a “Help! What did he say?” look who whispered the English translation, “He wants to know how you like the risotto!”
Oh! Okay! Of course! I dutifully leaned down to the steaming bowl of rice for which this country is so famous and inhaled deeply. Holy of all Holies! The scent hit me like a freight train – it was potent and intoxicating, sweet and musty, savory and mysterious, earthy, salty and cheesy at the same time. I thought I might lose my mind over this strange, lusty, intoxicating aroma. I had never seen, smelled or tasted truffles that were not made out of chocolate.
I cautiously took a lady-like spoonful and tasted…and tasted… and tasted. I felt like I had been transported to a magical fairyland of food. That one bite was an erotic, eclectic dance on every taste bud on my tongue. The firm texture of the rice with the creaminess of the complex, yet simple, broth was maddening. And the truffles! I had never sampled anything remotely close to that amazing flavor. I wanted to pick up my bowl and gulp it down in long, loud slurps, allowing it to passionately spill down my chin and throat and not caring at all. It was hard to keep my composure. I felt a bit naughty (I think I may have blushed!) because right there, in front of God and these Roman strangers, I was having a torrid love affair with my food. I cannot for the life of me recall the rest of our meal, for I was so awe-struck by a dish so alluring, so luscious, that I would be hard-pressed to ever find something that moved me the way that risotto did.
Only in Italy could this happen.
Risotto is as famous for the way it’s prepared as it is for the prized results of creamy, yet separate, grains of rice. My version starts on the stove for a brief sauté, then finishes in a slow cooker. I enjoy the traditional, somewhat labor-intensive technique of slowly adding stock to the rice until it’s absorbed – after a long, hectic day, I pour myself a glass of wine and stir, stir, stir away. I think it’s relaxing and therapeutic. But, if you’d rather skip the stove-top therapy and still look like a rock star to your dinner guests, this is your new method for perfect risotto every time.
Easy Wild Mushroom Risotto
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 yellow onion, finely diced
- 4 ounces mixed gourmet mushrooms, coarsely chopped
- 1 tablespoon finely minced garlic
- ¼ teaspoon dried thyme leaves
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¾ cup dry white wine
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 5-1/2 cups chicken stock
- ½ cup grated Parmesan, plus more for the table
- 1 tablespoon truffle butter, optional
- 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- minced fresh parsley
- In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onions, mushrooms, garlic and thyme, season with salt and pepper, and cook until the mushrooms begin to brown, stirring occasionally, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the wine, raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has reduced, about 8 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Transfer the rice mixture to a slow cooker; add the stock, stir well then cover.
- Cook on high for about 2 hours, checking for texture after 1 hour and forty-five minutes: the rice should be tender, but still firm. Stir in the Parmesan, truffle butter, if using, and cream. Taste for seasonings. Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil, extra cheese and some parsley. Serve immediately.
…from the Picture-Perfect kitchen:
Planning: Serve risotto right away and avoid reheating (it will still be delicious but you’ll lose that signature firm texture and it will become dense and mushy).
Product Purity: My grocer carries Phillips Gourmet Mushrooms, a blend of baby bellas, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. I use all-natural Kitchen Basics chicken stock with no added MSG. Tartuflanghe Butter with Truffle is available at Williams-Sonoma stores.
Presentation: A shallow bowl, like the Italian “Grazia” line in the photograph, (beautifully handmade in Deruta, Italy), is the best vessel for risotto. Garnish with extra freshly-grated Parmesan and a light sprinkling of minced parsley for color and texture.