Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Day I Made the Best Risotto Ever

When I was twelve, I was completely obsessed with Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager (super-cool, I know). But she was so kick-ass with that kicky bun, bossing everyone around--a geeky Hillary Clinton. So in the pre-Internet days of celeb-stalking, my dad brought me home an Entertainment Weekly she had been interviewed in. I mean, that Kate Mulgrew had been interviewed in. I'm not sure I knew the difference at the time. ANYWAY. Apparently Kate liked cooking, and they included her recipe for penne with vodka sauce (which I made, and got completely ill on, but that's a different story that's not so great for a cooking blog). What stuck with me, much longer than that pasta dish, was her quote about cooking for so many years that she stopped cracking her cookbooks open and just made shit up. I thought that was cool, being able to just make things out of whatever was around. But I was nearly two decades away from getting close.

I still can't cook everything without a recipe to reference, but in the past couple of years I've definitely gotten better about mixing up established guidelines or figuring out my own. The act of simply cooking in a kitchen, of turning off the more exhausting parts of your mind and reaching for an ingredient on a whim, for playing and unwinding over simmering saucepans and whisked sauces. You reach a state of Zen when you're purely creating that gets interrupted when you've got to keep thumbing through and re-reading instructions. I love getting there. When I'm there, I forget about the workday. I forget that the world is a cruel place. It's creativity with almost-instant gratification (as opposed to the achingly slow process of writing)--yummy, savored, joy.

Last night I decided to make risotto to go along with pork chops. There were a few strips of exceptional bacon in the fridge, and a bag of mushrooms, so I went with a woodsier profile on the ingredients. Because I didn't know any Italians to greatly offend, I added a splash of Worcestershire sauce. I didn't actually taste it in the end, but it's those little subtle things that set off the bolder flavors. Also because why not, I skipped the traditional Parmigiano Reggiano for shredded mozzarella. A subtle, almost non-cheese that melts into background gooey deliciousness.

When I took a bite, I couldn't believe how rich, salty, buttery and delicious these ingredients had become. The mushroom's slow fry-cook in the bacon's treasured leftovers was a cold season delight. Unlike most risotto I make, which is good, this stuff was memorable. Ethereal. Unforgettable. And the result of simply taking a trip into the daze of cooking.

I would suggest you take a voyage to the final frontier, but that is TNG, so it's like totally the wrong thing.

Mushroom-Bacon Risotto
4 1/2 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
2 tbsp Olive oil
2 tbsp butter + 1 tbsp separated
4 strips bacon
2 cups sliced and de-stemmed baby portobello mushrooms
1 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste

Start the broth simmering in a small saucepan.

In a fry pan or cast iron skillet, fry the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Remove and pat the bacon dry, reserving fat in the pan. Crumble the bacon into 1/4" pieces when it has cooled. In the same pan, melt the 1 tbsp butter with the bacon fat, then add the mushrooms and cook over medium heat until browning and softened. Remove mushrooms from the pan and reserve.

In a fresh pan, melt the 2 tbsp butter and add olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes until onions begin to turn translucent. Keep stirring, and take care not to char the garlic. Add the Arborio rice and saute for one minute, until rice grains are thoroughly coated in oil. Add the wine and deglaze the pan for one minute, stirring constantly. While stirring, add one ladle scoop (about a cup's worth) of the warmed chicken broth. Stir risotto until the broth has fully incorporated into the rice, and when you run your spoon down the middle of the pan, the path remains dry. Keep adding broth by the spoonful until fully incorporated. This process will take 20-30 minutes. Stir in the reserved bacon, mushrooms with any accumulated juices, the cheese and Worcestershire. Allow cheese to melt and ingredients to warm through, salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

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