Risotto is one of those simple, humble meals that can elevate a few good ingredients to mythical heights. It’s my definition of comfort food. Usually comfort food is heart-attack food, but not the No Meat Athlete kind!
Risotto is made from a special rice grain (Arborio or Carnaroli) which is simmered in the cooking liquid long enough to release a lot of its starch. The result, when done right, is a creamy, chewy but just al dente pasta-like rice, with a heavenly consistency somewhere well between mashed potatoes and soup. When done wrong and at one of these extremes or the other, it’s pretty much awful. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to make; if you a follow a few simple directions and are willing to stand at the stove for 25 or 30 minutes, then it’s pretty easy to make a great risotto.
I know the picture isn’t the most appetizing thing in the world. Besides the fact that I need to get on Picasa to start brightening photos, this risotto just isn’t a looker. But the funny thing is, I think the fact that it tasted so great is the reason it looks just ok. Why? The vegetable stock! I used a brand called Kitchen Basics, something I’ve seen before but never used. A little more expensive than the Swanson, but the color is much darker and the aroma reminded me of the great smell that comes out of barley steeping in water that eventually becomes beer. I believe that the dark color is a by-product of great taste, and that color is what makes the finished risotto look pretty dull.
When people make bad risotto, it’s usually for one of two reasons. Either they add the liquid to the rice all at once and make rice soup, or they stir the whole time and make ricey mashed potatoes. The trick is to add the liquid a little bit at a time and let it absorb, and to only do a lot of stirring at the beginning to start releasing the starch. Do those two things and it will be good. I’ll even slap the No Meat Athlete guarantee on that.
The ingredient list I used is similar to that from a recipe I found in a Vegetarian Times cookbook. But I didn’t like their cooking method, so I used my own. I’ve specified imported Arborio; if you can only find domestic it’s ok, but try to find imported at an Italian foods store for the best results. I know white rice isn’t the greatest carbohydrate you can have, so this isn’t an everyday meal, but it does use a lot of vegetables and some healthy fats. And if you’re exercising a lot then some simple carbs won’t kill you; in fact, if you eat them immediately post-workout, they’re the best! I did a little research and found out that there is such a thing as brown arborio rice though, and supposedly the finished product is a little chewier, better for more rustic, pumpkiny-type dishes. My guess is you’d have to order it online if you wanted to use it.
So here you go! I really encourage you to give it a try. A lot of people are intimidated by risotto, but it’s pretty easy, and if you make it for someone, they will love you forever (they’ll really love you if you stir in some butter at the end, but I can’t put my stamp on that one). And if you want to try something a little different, look for a butternut squash risotta recipe and prepare to be blown away. And I almost forgot: 4 cows out of 5. The butternut squash version with butter would be a “5”!
Vegetarian Risotto Recipe
- 1 Tbsp canola oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1 large leek, halved, cleaned, and thinly sliced
- 1 Tbsp finely minced garlic
- 2 cups imported Arborio rice
- 8 cups vegetable stock
- 12 sun dried tomatoes, thinly sliced
- 1 cup thinly sliced asparagus
- 1.5 cups sliced cremini mushrooms
- ½ cup torn or chopped fresh basil
- ¼ cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Salt and pepper
- Heat the vegetable stock in a saucepan over medium heat. Once it's boiling, reduce to a simmer and keep it there.
- Heat the oil in a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onion, leek, and garlic; stir frequently for about 3 minutes until just softened. Add the rice and a pinch of pepper, and stir frequently to toast the rice without letting it get brown. After about 5 minutes, you should hear the rice quietly squeek or whistle, your signal to begin adding liquid. Add about 1.5-2 cups of the stock and stir constantly for a few minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed. You know it's time to add more when you can run your spoon through the rice and see the bottom of the pan for a few seconds before the rice covers it again. Add 1 cup of the stock, stir for about 30 seconds, then only often enough to prevent the rice from sticking to the pan. Once the liquid is absorbed, add another cup, stir for 30 seconds, and repeat the process until there's only about 1 cup of stock left or the rice is nearly al dente.
- After the rice has been cooking for about 5 minutes (say, after the initial amount of liquid is absorbed), steam the asparagus, mushrooms, and basil until crisp-tender (about 5 minutes) in a saucepan or microwave (I actually steamed them over the simmering vegetable stock). When the rice seems almost done or there's only a cup of stock left, add all the vegetables to the rice mixture with a cup of the stock (if the stock isn't all used up, it's ok). Stir the rice and vegetables together for just a few minutes until the rice is al dente. Stir in the Parmesan, if using, and enjoy!