Saturday, December 5, 2009

Chicago, Restaurant Musing, Cousin Elsie's Ghost, and Risotto redux

As I write, I am flying back from Chicago, having attended a hoity toity conference of really smart people.  Me…I’m just over-educated as the banner above says.  I came to talk about food and what we’re doing with it these days (Do you know some people are taking pictures of their dinner and posting them on the web?  What’s up with that?)
The really smart people let me in anyway, saying something about the holiday spirit and just try not to talk to anyone.  Strangely enough, I was reminded of my Cousin Elsie the other night, someone who was neither hoity nor toity and never took a single picture of her dinner despite being a great cook.
Living and cooking in the South, I am often reminded of Elsie.  She lived with my Grandma Helen in Georgia, having come to comfort Helen after my grandfather died in the ‘60s and she just never left.  Elsie was my mother’s cousin by marriage, I guess, or something like that (I could never keep track of the many nooks and crannies of the extended family, no Facebook back in the day).  Anyway, Elsie was a great cook.  As we used to say, when you went to see them in Atlanta, you ate one meal a day…it began at 10 am and continued until 10 pm.
Elsie did not often go out to dinner.  She was never fully satisfied because she knew she could do better.  Being a southern belle, she would always find something about the meal she could compliment.  “That sure was a nice fresh salad,” she would tell the waitress, ignoring the fact that she thought her steak was overdone and her beer not quite cold enough.  Elsie always remembered her southern manners unless someone else forgot theirs.
But, I was talking about Chicago before I detoured to Atlanta.  After having to be smart all day, I was hungry and went out to dinner with an old friend.  The concierge got us in at a local bistro specializing in northern Italian cuisine.  The place had all the right signs and symbols of a trendy Italian restaurant: brick ovens and wait staff dressed in black (and what’s up with that BTW; don’t understand how dressing like an emaciated wraith became trendy in restaurants).  And there was a risotto special.  Northern Italy here I come. 
I’m sure you know where this is going.  “Sure was a nice fresh salad,” I told the waiter when he asked about the meal.  The risotto…not so much.  Just not enough THERE there.  But, in such moments I often feel Elsie's presence and cannot tell them what I really think.
Risotto is a food of love.  A food of love is like a dance of many veils and this serving was naked by comparison.  Yes, mine is better.  As it happens, I had just made risotto a few days before heading to Chicago.  So here it is.

Mushroom Risotto Etc. Etc.
1 medium onion chopped into medium dice
~1 pound shitake mushrooms, stems discarded and sliced fairly thin
A few cloves of garlic
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1 cup of white wine
1 quart (give or take) of chicken stock (you made it yourself, right?)
1 tbsp butter, plus a splash of olive oil (raises the smoke point of the butter and adds some flavor)
~ 1/3 of a cup of half and half
1/2 cup or so of grated fresh parmigiano reggiano
Some fresh herbs to finish it (whatever you have)

Whip it, whip it good
Bring your stock to a boil for a minute, then turn it down to a low simmer.
Heat your butter and oil until the butter foam subsides.  Add the onion and saute until the onion is translucent, then add the mushrooms.  Stir that from time to time.  Depending on the pan you're using, the whole thing might produce enough liquid that it starts to stew.  Don't panic.  Shitakes do not have as much moisture in them as basic white mushrooms so that will subside fairly quickly.  You'll know things are working when you hear it start to sizzle again.  Get a little color on your onions and shrooms.
Add the rice and stir it to coat the rice with all the juices.  Stir it until the rice is becoming translucent (it'll work from the outside edge of the grain inward).  Add the wine, stir and then let the rice absorb the wine.  When it's close to dry, start adding the broth, about a half cup at a time and letting it absorb.  Most recipes will tell you to stir the rice constantly and that's just a bit of an exaggeration.  They tell you that because they don't want you to forget about your rice because you're yelling at the Chicago Bears quarterback after he threw yet another interception for the season (guy couldn't catch a break on the morning news shows around here, but apparently he can't throw one either).  As long as you are paying attention, stirring faithfully and don't let it go dry, you'll be fine even if you stop stirring now and then.
Somewhere in here you want to season it with salt and pepper, but remember that the cheese will bear some salt as well.  Taste from time to time until the rice is the texture you want (Al Dente is what most recipes call for but Al's softer brother Luigi might be more to your liking).  Add the half and half a bit at a time until it gets as creamy as you like.  Then toss in your herbs and once they're incorporated, add the cheese a small handful at a time until it all comes together to taste.  Adjust any seasoning at the end.
This is a great dish on its own.  On this particular night, I grilled some halibut (yes, yes, just for the "halibut" if you will) to put on top of all this.  If you're adding a whitefish, you probably want to add some flavor to it that will give you just a little contrast to the risotto, maybe paint it with a vinaigrette or something.

Elsie would approve.

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