There aren't too many dishes I remember eating for the first time, other than raw oysters, lamb vindaloo, and risotto. Growing up in New Orleans and Louisiana, I enjoyed some of the best food this country produces, and I'm pretty sure I took it all for granted.
But the summer I turned 19, I spent my summer break in Northern California, being exposed to an entirely new culinary experience. Up until that point, my version of Italian was limited to basic standards and stuffed artichokes. But tucked away in the hills of Marin County, I had the experience of dinner in a tiny Italian restaurant where everything on the menu was foreign to me. And despite the parade of dishes that passed across our table, it's the risotto I remember the most.
It's such a simple dish to make, even in a busy world, and I can think of few things more satisfying. This particular recipe is popular in our household over the fall and winter months and the simmering cream sauce is, to quote my son, "one of the most delicious things I've ever smelled."
Risotto with Fresh Mushrooms, Cognac, & Cream
from Risotto by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman
(Serves 3-4 as a main course)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Cognac or brandy
1/2 cup light cream (what's referred to as whipping cream, not heavy cream)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
5 cups basic broth (see note below)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup finely minced shallots
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1. Condimenti: Heat the butter in a skillet over moderate heat. When it starts to foam, add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for 3 to 5 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat to high, add the Cognac, and cook until it is reduced by half. Lower the heat, add the cream, and continue cooking until the cream has reduced slightly and thickened (about 5 minutes). Turn off the heat and set aside.
2. Brodo: Bring the broth to a steady simmer in a saucepan on the top of the stove.
3. Soffritto: Heat the butter and oil in a heavy 4-quart casserole over moderate heat. Add the onion and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, until it begins to soften, being careful not to brown it.
4. Riso: Add the rice to the soffritto; using a wooden spoon, stir for 1 minute, making sure all the grains are well coated. Begin to add the simmering broth, 1/2 cup at a time. Wait until each addition is almost completely absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup. Stir frequently to prevent sticking.
5. After approximately 18-20 minutes, when the rice is tender but still firm, add the condimenti (mushroom, Cognac, cream mixture), Parmesan, and parsley - and stir vigorously to combine with the rice. Serve immediately.
Note about Broth: Our cookbook offers a recipe for an instant broth which we use regularly and have had good results with. The authors specifically recommend Knorr bouillon. The basic recipe is 1 Knorr beef bouillon cube and 1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube, diluted with 5-6 cups of water.
Tip: If you don't serve this risotto immediately, it will begin to lose its creaminess and firm up. If this happens to you, stir in a little warm broth to the finished risotto.
Serving: We usually serve this as a main course, with a side of asparagus. But the book suggests serving it as a first course before an entree of pan-broiled fillet of beef (for that particularly festive occasion).
(Risotto by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman is a great book to have in your library if you're a fan of risotto. There are more than a hundred recipes and it's one of the most well-thumbed books in my kitchen.)