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Monday, December 22, 2008

Truffles, please

There's a colorful insult I learned in my high school French class that goes something like vous avez les truffes en place de cerveaux. Roughly translated, "you have truffles for brains." If this was literally the case, I can see how it would be pretty cool to be a zombie amongst the insulted.

Now that we've covered zombies, lets move on to talking about food. Truffles are a member of the fungus family. Trained truffle hogs (or dogs) sniff them out and dig them up out of the ground. They make pretty much anything taste magnificent - from scrambled eggs to cheeses. But a great way to allow the little tuber to really sing is to shave it over the top of a basic risotto. We cooked such an accompaniment last night for dinner, and it was a symphony to behold.

Risotto, of course, is the traditional, creamy rice dish from northern Italy. My roommate, who is originally from the north of Italy and is referred to as "risotto monster" in our house, seems to be genetically predisposed to poor self-control when around the creamy dish, much like the Cookie Monster is around cookies. Any risotto leftovers that miraculously find their way to the fridge after dinner mysteriously disappear not long after. In any case, let's look at what ingredients make up a risotto.

Basic Risotto

2 cups carnaroli rice (arborio will work too)
6 cups chicken stock
1/3 of a yellow onion
1 glass dry white wine
3 tbsp butter

To finish
2 tbsp butter
1/2 cup Parmesan-Reggiano cheese, grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
black truffles or good truffle oil, to taste

A few notes on the ingredients. Carnaroli is the type of rice I like to use. It's a plump, starchy rice, medium-grain, that cooks up to a creamy consistency. I get it at 17th Street Market here in Tucson. Arborio rice will work too, and it is much more common here in the US, though I find the quality varies quite a bit. Stay away from the bulk stuff at Sunflower Market. Sunflower does have nice bouillon for the broth though. As for the finishing ingredients, only imported Parmesan-Reggiano will do - no substitutes - and the truffles can be either fresh black truffles, or a truffle oil that doesn't have "aroma" as an ingredient. That's usually an indicator that is has synthetic truffle flavor added, which is not good. If there's a chunk of truffle in the bottom of your oil, then you're in business. Either black or white truffle oil will do the trick.

Technique: Pour a glass of white wine, and have a sip. This is the very important first step to making risotto.

Make up stock in a sauce pan and bring to a gentle simmer. I use the vegetarian bouillon from Sunflower Market that tastes like chicken. It works really nicely. I make it a bit stronger than suggested, though not too strong as it will get concentrated during the cooking of the rice.

In a separate heavy sauce pan, saute the onion in the butter over medium heat until softened and translucent, around 4-5 minutes. Add the rice, coating all the grains, stirring frequently for a few minutes. The rice will become translucent around the edges and will start to smell nutty. When the nutty smell is very strong, toss in the remaining glass of wine to deglaze. It will make a beautiful noise and it will smell delicious! If you've drunk a good amount of the glass of wine, fill it back up to a normal level before adding it to the rice.

Once the wine has been absorbed by the rice, start adding your heated stock a couple ladles at a time. You want to stir it continuously, but not over-stir it. If you over-stir, you end up with mush, if you under-stir, you end up with a not-very-creamy risotto. I usually stir every 15 seconds or so and make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Keep adding stock 2 ladles at a time, allowing it to be absorbed (but not completely dried out) before adding the next amount, and stirring until the rice is al dente, approx 20 minutes. Most of the stock should be used up by then.

When rice is almost tender but still has a bit of a bite, remove from heat and add the finishing butter, 1/4 cup of stock stock and cheese. Stir thoroughly and salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to only add salt at the very end here, as the Parmesan-Reggiano is very salty. You may not need to add much of any salt depending on the salt level of your broth.

When you serve it on the plate, shave some black truffles over the top. Or drizzle some white truffle oil over the top. Or do both!

The above recipes is a basic risotto with cheese and truffles as the finishing ingredient. But you can pretty much add anything to a risotto as a finishing ingredient. You can even replace the broth and wine with other types of wine or vinegar and broth. Here's some ideas that I've tried.

Risotto Milanese Same as above, but add 1/2 tsp rehydrated saffron threads mid-way through cooking. Finish with butter, Parmesan-Reggiano, and garnish with chopped parsley. This is a classic risotto usually served with braised veal shanks.

Beet risotto Boil 3 quartered beats in 3 cups of water until fork tender. Reserve liquid and use with bouillon and the rest of the water to make broth. Remove skin from beets, chop smaller and roast in oven for 20 minutes tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper. Make the risotto in the normal way, using the reserved beat juice fortified with bouillon. To finish, add the roasted beats, butter and steamed beet greens.

Risotto with pesto and fava beans This one is lots of work! Make pesto (more on that in a future post). Shuck fresh favas - pinch and twist, repeat. Blanche fava beans. Peel fava beans. Cook the risotto in the normal way. Add favas in final 10 minutes of cooking, and add the pesto at the very end as the only finishing ingredient.

Risotto with peas and shrimp Peel uncooked shrimp, reserving the shells. Make the broth by simmering the discarded shells and your favorite herbs for an hour. Make risotto in usual way, tossing in the shrimps for the last 10 minutes of cooking. To finish, mix in butter and frozen peas.

Risotto with balsamic roasted chicken Replace the white wine with 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar. Cook in usual way, adding chicken for the last 5 minutes to heat through. I usually get one of those piping-hot roasted chickens that many grocery stores carry these days, and pull the meat off the bones. To finish, add butter and more balsamic vingar to taste.

Mushroom risotto Rehydrate about 1 oz of dried porcinis in a cup of hot water. Strain, reserving the delicious liquid. Cook the risotto in the usual way, adding the reserved liquid and the porcinis half way through. To finish, add butter, Parmesan-Reggiano and parsley. You can also add sauted cultivated mushrooms such as cremini. Saute these up in butter first and set them aside, before you start cooking up your risotto, and add them towards the end.

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