The other night in culinary class we began the first of two days of lessons focusing on Italian cooking. It was also the second day in which I had to work solo in the class, as I was the last one to arrive, having spent some extra time at the career fair that took place at the school that afternoon. If there was any lesson where I didn’t exactly mind being left to cook on my own without a partner (usually, we work in teams of two), this one was it.
Among the things we prepared that evening were an Italian meat sauce (to be crystal clear, it was not a ragù alla bolognese) and a Wild Mushroom Risotto. After I had presented the latter dish to the chef instructor for his review and comment, he said it was fine, that he was happy with the results (whew, as I’ve only been making risotto for something like 20 years at this point).
He would, however, have liked to have seen it a little more fluid on the plate. I tend to make my risottos on the drier side, having been served some extra-soupy, gloopy versions in the past, which I find completely disgusting and almost inedible. There was plenty left for me to take home after the plating, but I added my batch to the collection that was being taken by the class of all of our risottos. Tonight, we’re going to use up the leftovers by making arancini, at least that’s the plan. [Note: We didn’t make arancini that next class night, which was kind of a shame, as I really love them.]
Well, guess what I ended up really, really craving yesterday for lunch? Yep, another dish of the Wild Mushroom Risotto that I had prepared on Wednesday night. So, I decided to whip up a batch at home, adding some thyme to it, which I thought it needed for a more Fall/Autumn fragrance. I also amped up the amount of mushrooms and opted, in the end, to leave out the goat cheese that I’d originally planned to use, as the risotto didn’t really seem to need it. It was plenty rich and creamy just the way it was, with the tastes and smells of the cool, crisper weather to come, bringing back childhood memories of kicking up piles of fallen leaves while walking home from school. This really is my favorite season.
Wild Mushroom Risotto
Prep Time: about an hour
Serving Size: 6 primi piatti (first course) portions or 4 adult dinner-sized portions
For the Wild Mushroom Mixture:
1 oz. dried Porcini Mushrooms, reconstituted in boiling water
2 tsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 tsp. Unsalted Butter
1 Tbsp. Shallot, minced
1 large clove Garlic, minced
2 c. mixed Mushrooms (cremini, portabello, shitake, button, or any other variety)
1 sprig fresh Thyme
1 tsp. Salt
1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground
For the Risotto:*
1 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 tsp. Unsalted Butter
1 small Onion, finely diced
1 1/2 c. Aborio or Carnaroli rice
1/2 c. dry White Wine
3 c. Chicken Stock, warmed
1 Tbsp. fresh Thyme leaves
1 tsp. Salt
1/4 tsp. Black Pepper, freshly ground
1 tsp. Unsalted Butter
1/3 c. Parmesan cheese, grated, plus more for serving
Steep dried porcini mushrooms in boiling water. In the time it takes to chop up the other mushrooms, the shallots, and the garlic, the porcini will have softened and be ready to cook. Heat a sauté pan with the olive oil and the butter. Once the butter has melted and is frothy, add the shallots to the pan. Cook for one minute, until they start to be come translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more, as the garlic releases its aroma. Make sure to that neither the shallots nor the garlic burn or take on any color by stirring the mixture every few seconds.
Add the chopped mushrooms, the reconstituted porcinis, and the sprig of thyme. Let the mushrooms cook until most of their moisture has been released. The mushrooms can take on a bit of color but should not get golden brown. Pour in a bit of the liquid from the porcinis (about 2 Tbsp.) and cook down the mixture until most the liquid has been absorbed into the mushrooms. This will add an extra layer of mushroom flavor to the finished dish. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
In a large, shallow saucepan or Dutch oven, melt the butter and heat the olive oil together over low heat. When the butter is frothy and add the onions. Cook them for several minutes until they become soft and translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat in the fat, making sure that each grain is covered. Let mixture cook for about one minute, taking care that the rice does not take on any color or burn by stirring it a few times while it is cooking. Pour in the wine, stir into the rice, and let the mixture cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.
Start to add chicken stock to the rice mixture 1/4 c. at a time, stirring with each addition and cooking the mixture until the liquid has mostly evaporated. Continue to ladle the stock into the rice mixture, stirring after each addition to make sure that the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pan. You will start to see the starch being released from the rice and its overall volume will begin to increase in size.
After putting about 1 1/2 c. of the stock into the rice mixture, taste it to see how the risotto is progressing. It is probably still a bit crunchy on the inside. Continue to add stock, 1/2 c. at a time, until the rice is mostly tender with a slight resistance when bitten or al dente in texture, probably after about another cup or so of stock. Add the mushroom mixture to the pan and fold in to incorporate everything. Add the thyme, salt, and pepper to the mixture and stir to combine so as not to break up the mushrooms too much.
Taste the risotto to make sure the seasoning works. If the mixture is a bit dry, add another 1/4 c. stock and stir it together. The risotto should be creamy but not soupy with the grains still maintaining their shape; it should flow on the plate without any excess liquid (all’onda – or “like a wave” in Italian). Remove the pan from the stove and add the cheese and the butter. The butter might seem like a bit of overkill, but it does contribute to the creamy mouthfeel of the dish.
Serve immediately with extra grated Parmesan cheese on the side and a bit of additional fresh thyme for garnish. To make this dish even a bit more luxurious, it could also be finished with a drizzle of truffle oil.
*Kitchen Witch Tip:
When our chef-instructor was demonstrating how to make this dish, he gave the class a general ratio of 3:1, liquid to rice as the proportion to keep in mind for making it. I almost emitted an audible squeak of dismay after he said that. Risotto, as anyone who has made it multiple times can tell you, is a fickle beast, which is why people find it daunting to make. I, however, love doing it and find it brings out an inner sense of culinary Zen for me. I enjoy the whole process of stirring, watching the starch coming out of the grains, seeing the rice expand and become creamy, and then, of course, getting to eat the end results.
In this recipe, including the wine, the ratio of liquid to rice that I used was closer to 2.25:1 (o.k., yes, math nerds in my family, I know it’s actually 2.33 repeating, geeze.). To bring it up to a higher level of creaminess, I could have gone as far as a ratio of 2.5:1. At 3:1, as the chef had advised, the risotto would have been come a soupy mess. When we were on a conference call yesterday, Chef Dennis Littley shared with me the advice that he was given as a young chef, “Feel the food. It will tell you what it takes to make it complete.” Risotto is definitely one of those dishes that does just that.