Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Beast: Mastering Risotto

Ah, fall is here! Even if it isn't technically autumn by the calendar, the chilly nights here in New England say otherwise. I am so happy to be back living in Massachusetts, especially as the new season approaches. And fall means a whole new batch of recipes.

As it gets colder, everyone on earth wants things that are warm, hearty, and, well, "fall-y." Risotto fits that bill in more ways than one, especially because you can design it with whatever fall ingredients you like. Today, I'll be talking about how to make Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto -- but more generally, how to make risotto. It took me many months to learn how to make it well, and at least a few of those months were wasted on discovering basic risotto tricks that aren't in any recipes for risotto. If you've ever tried to make risotto, you know that though the cooking time on a recipe says "40 minutes" it often takes, oh, 3 hours. Or the rice scorches. Or it never swells up. Well I am here to show you a fool-proof way to make risotto, with delicious fall touches.

Butternut Squash and Sage Risotto
4-6 starter portions

1 Tbsp of olive oil
1 1/2 cups of arborio rice (must have, don't use another kind)
1/2 cup of white wine
6 cups of chicken broth (you can use vegetable broth if you want, too)
1 small onion, chopped small
1 butternut squash, peeled, and chopped into 1/2 inch pieces 
2 Tbsp of brown sugar
6 leaves of sage (about) chopped very small
3/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and Pepper to your taste

The first thing you want to do is roast the butternut squash, because it takes a while, and it can be a pain in the butt to peel. But it's worth it. Whenever I buy the precut stuff, it tastes grainy. Maybe you can find one that doesn't, but I would say just buy a whole squash and when you pick one, try to get one that is as "log" looking as possible -- the smaller the bottom bump the better. This will help you when peeling it, since peelers have a hard time negotiating a big curve. Here, on the right, is what the squash should look like after being peeled and chopped.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the squash with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, and put it onto a cookie sheet that has been sprayed with non-stick spray. Keep the squash in one layer, and pop into the oven.

Next, put all the chicken broth in a pot on a stove, and put it on low heat, so it just simmers there. Have a ladle handy because you will need to ladle this broth into the rice in a minute. 

Next, heat the 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a large sauce pan on medium-low heat. What kind of pan you ask? Yes, a sauce pan. Does this matter? YES. It turns out that cooking risotto in a deep skillet or any other shape of pot will not work. It doesn't allow the rice to absorb the moisture from the broth the right way. Use a pot like this one to the left.

Once the oil is hot, add in the onion and a bit of salt. Cook for about 2 minutes until you can start to smell it tasting delicious. Then add the rice, and stir it around. Toast it up for another two minutes, and then add the wine. Stir the rice and wine around. The rice will quickly absorb the wine in about a minute. When it does, add two ladles full of chicken broth to the rice. Stir it. Wait a minute or two. Stir again.  I know everyone says risotto is so labor-intensive because you have to keep stirring. Well guess what - if you stir it constantly, it never gets done! So stir every 2 minutes or so, keeping an eye on it. Whenever the broth you put in is absorbed, add some more, 1-2 ladlefuls at a time. You will need to keep doing this for about 30-40 minutes.
I promise it won't be more than an hour!

In the meantime, you can chop up the sage, shred the cheese, and flip the butternut squash that's roasting in the oven. When the butternut squash is cooked through and soft (try a piece, should be around 25 minutes), take it out and just let it sit until the risotto is done. It's ok if it cools off a bit.

After your risotto has gotten to be noticeably bigger in the pot than when you started, try tasting a small spoonful. The texture of rice you want is: not crunchy, but tender, so you can tell you are eating rice and not oatmeal (not super squishy). Keep trying spoonfuls until you get the right texture (don't worry about the taste yet).

Once you have the right texture, let the rest of the liquid absorb (if the risotto is still watery when you taste it), so it looks nice and creamy. Turn the heat down as low as possible. Add the butternut squash to the rice along with some salt and pepper. Stir that around so that the butternut squash breaks up a little and tinges the rice orange. Then add the sage and the cheese (a handful at a time), and the brown sugar, and stir until well combined. Taste it, and add salt and pepper (and brown sugar if it needs to be a little sweeter) until it gets to the taste you like.

And there you have it, a perfect risotto for fall - in an hour or less! Risotto might seem like a beast, but after a few tries at this, you will be making it on a whim!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fancy fish for the not-so-fancy

Cooking fish was not one of my favorite things to do. It never came out how I wanted it to. So I avoided it. I would always order fish at restaurants instead. I could never get my own fish to taste like it did at those places. I figured they had some special chef secrets about fish that I would never know -- and I was partially right-- there are secrets! And my lovely husband got me a ticket to a cooking class all about fish, so that I (and/or he) could finally enjoy fish at home, and now that I have tried and tested what I learned, I am going to share those secrets with you! Today, I'm going to talk about Fish "En Papillote." Oooo, sounds fancy right? It looks fancy and tastes fancy, but it's so easy to do! It literally means "in a package," which is made out of foil or parchment paper in this case (I use the paper in the pictures, but no worries if you only have foil, it will actually be easier to fold).

This is all about the prep work; the fish cooks in 12 minutes flat, so all the work is on the front end. There are three pieces to the dish: 1) the fish 2) the vegetables and 3) the pesto. You have a lot of flexibility to what you put in the recipe, so you can make lots of different variations and not get bored. I'll give you a sample of what I made, and you can feel free to change it up.

Cod (or haddock, or halibut, or even salmon) En Papillote

4 5-oz pieces of fish
a few small potatoes, sliced thinly (about 1/8 of an inch)
half an onion, also cut 1/8 of an inch
a dozen brussels sprouts (or zucchini, or asparagus), cut in quarters
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper to your taste

and for the pesto
1 bunch of parsley (take all the stems out if you can)
1 clove of garlic
1 handful of any kind of nuts you like (i used walnuts)
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper to your taste

For the pesto, just whirr all those ingredients, except the oil, together in a food processor until they are all mixed and chopped up a bit (I suggest chopping the garlic clove into a few pieces first or you'll get big chunks.) A few pulses will to the trick. Then put the switch to on (so it automatically goes without you having to hold it), and add a little olive oil drizzle into the top while the machine is running. Once the mixture holds together like a paste, stop the whirring! And taste it, to make sure it tastes good. The garlic will be a little strong at this point because it is raw, but after it is cooked on the fish it will taste great. Set this aside.

And now for the fish - and the tricks! The first thing you want to do is make sure your fish pieces are all about the same size, because that way they will cook at the same rate. I know what you are thinking, one part of the fish is way skinnier because it has the tail end, which is always small. Not to worry! Just fold this part under the rest of a piece of fish to mimic the thickness of the other pieces. It definitely works (I was skeptical too). Put salt and pepper on your fish filets, and let them rest for a few minutes while you prepare the veggies.

The vegetables can simply be whatever you like to eat and whatever you think will go with your fish. However, there are a few rules: 1. they must be thinly sliced and 2. they must be something that is not too easy to overcook (ie, snow peas) because they will be steaming for 12 minutes or so. Snap peas might be ok, but the thin snow ones will get soggy. I have used: cherry tomatoes sliced in half, zucchini, onions, potatoes, brussels sprouts, and broccoli and all have been successful, so if you like any of those, go for it.

Once you cut the veggies, toss them in a bowl with a few tablespoons (2-3) of olive oil and salt and pepper to your taste.

Now you are ready for the assembly!

Step 1: Cut your parchment paper or foil into the shape of a very big heart. Do this by the "valentine method" of folding the paper over in half, and cutting a half heart into it (a moon will work too). You will want to err on the side of BIG, because too small of a heart and you won't be able to fit the fish in there.

Step 2: open the heart with the folded side facing away from you, and lay a few vegetables on the half of the heart that is on the countertop (toward the big end, not the pointy end). Place one fish fillet on top of the veggies, and then top that with some of your pesto (1 tbsp or so). Like so...

Step 3: Now comes the crafty part. Fold the heart back over so it is in half like it was when you cut it (or just let it drop back down on top of the fish if you've been holding that half up while you were assembling it) and begin crimping the paper from the pointy bottom end of the heart. Fold the parchment over itself a little, then fold that part a little over the next piece, creasing with your finger as you go. You want to make sure you create a seal, so as long as you are able to join the two sides together, you don't have to worry about it being too big or wonky looking. That is the fun of it. See below:

Step 4: Put all the "papillotes" onto a baking sheet and bake at 400 degrees for exactly 12 minutes. Make sure you put a timer on.

Step 5: Take out of the oven and serve, exactly as is, in the pouch. It is really fun to open and eat out of, and makes clean up a lot easier.

Go now into the world of well-cooked fish; you will be so excited once you try this and realize how easy and delicious it is. Restaurant quality at home -- finally!