It’s Not That Hard: Risotto

Risotto was not a part of my vocabulary until maybe the mid 1980s, around the same time I learned about food processors and decent coffee. Suddenly these foods appeared in the mainstream American food supply without warning or explanation, as did kiwi, kumquats, and more recently, kale. Topic for a future post, I think.

The book that showed me that I need not fear risotto.
The book that showed me that I need not fear risotto.

By the time I tried risotto, it was pretty well established among the cognoscenti. I loved it, and had to learn how to make it. Word on the street held that it was tricky, fussy, and easy to ruin. Still, I needed to try.

The recipe is basic, and endlessly versatile. It’s true that this dish requires attention—it’s not a “set it and forget it” affair. But the attention is not fussy or difficult—add liquid a half-cup at a time and stir.

Vary the cheese, the vegetable, the broth; add meat at the end if you like; mix two or more cheeses; add different spices. It’s pretty difficult to make this inedible.

All you need to know about proportions and categories of ingredients for risotto.
All you need to know about proportions and categories of ingredients for risotto


Mark Bittman provided a further revelation—that pasta could be cooked à la risotto! His article in the New York Times in 2009, Allowing Pasta to Drink Its Fill, lays it all out, with his usual tips on how to vary the recipe to suit your taste and what you might have on hand in your fridge.



It’s Not That Hard: Rice

The July 22, 2014, New York Times Dining & Wine section rained down a lot of worry about the way to cook rice. I am a fan of Kim Severson, but this struck me as way much ado about not much: Fluffy. Tasty. Tricky. Learning to Cook a Good Pot of Rice. The money quote for me: “Sweetie, buy a rice cooker.”

Trusty rice cooker, circa 1989. Still going strong!
Trusty rice cooker, circa 1989. Still going strong!

Great advice. The rice cooker we received as a wedding gift 25 years ago is a one-trick kitchen pony well worth having. I had no idea what it was in 1989, but would not be without one now. It makes excellent rice (with the crunchy bits at the bottom) from all kinds of rice, and I use it for oatmeal, too.

It’s not that hard.

It’s Not That Hard: Pesto

A couple of recent articles renewed my interest in how people think about food and cooking. Some dishes hold the reputation of being difficult, complicated, and time-consuming. This series looks at three of these, and assures you that it’s not that hard.

Today, pesto!

Pesto (from Italian pestare, ‘to pound’), the sauce originating in Genoa, and classically made with basil, olive oil, parmagiano, and pine nuts, probably has as many variants as there are cooks. While I respect, revere, and relish the classic version, I have developed my own take on this sauce over the years. And isn’t that really what good cooking is about?

But when I saw this well-done, detailed post on Serious Eats last week, I had to jump into the fray. Well, there was no fray, but I had to say something.

Maybe it’s the technique more than the ingredients that makes people nervous. The “real” way to make pesto is to use a mortar and pestle and grind the ingredients into a paste. Nothing wrong with that. I’ve personally never been able to get the hang of the m&p, but then again probably didn’t give it enough time either. I am an impatient cook, and I use a food processor.

I am not alone. Lidia Bastianich, the doyenne of Italian cooking, and an owner of Eataly in New York, uses a food processor for pesto.

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The ingredients for anything you cook are the most important, hands down. If you start with anything sub-par, it won’t be good no matter how you slice it. Maybe the most experienced and creative chefs can save a dish from the lesser raw materials, but most of us cannot. My guess is that Lidia has easy access to sublime olive oil, the best parmigiano-reggiano, the freshest, most fragrant basil, good pine nuts, and flavorful, not sharp, garlic.

I do with what I’ve got and what’s available in the Boston area. I am lucky to live near excellent cheese shops, good farmer’s markets and fruit stands, and several Trader Joe’s.

Here’s what I use and how I do it (photos to come next time I make pesto). It may not be the most transcendent pesto you’ll ever have, but it’s pretty darn good and easy to make.

Amounts approximate and fluid; feel free to scale up or down. This recipe makes enough sauce to use on pasta for 4-5 meals for two. I mostly use the pesto on pasta, but its uses are wide and varied: on chicken, as a spread for a sandwich, etc. etc.


Feel free to substitute nuts of your choice–make it your own!

2 tightly packed cups fresh basil (washed, stemmed)

1/4 to 1/2 cup Trader Joe’s California estate olive oil (it’s good and it’s cheap)

1 cup shelled pistachios (yes, I’m a monster!)

1 cup grated parmagiano-reggiano

1 clove garlic, smashed then minced as finely as you can

Salt (I use kosher) and pepper to taste


Put basil and olive oil in the food processor. (Start with less olive oil and add as you add ingredients.) Pulse a few times.

Add everything else to the food processor. Start with a bit of salt and pepper; add more if needed.

Run for 15-20 seconds, adding a drizzle of oil as it runs.

Stop and check consistency and mix. You don’t want it too smooth.

At this point I pack it into single-meal containers and freeze! It lasts pretty well for several weeks.


Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday this month, still fighting the good fight.

I became aware of Steinem probably in the fall of 1978. I had just started my first semester at UMass Amherst, at the ripe old age of 23. Let’s just say I took the scenic route to college. I snagged a work-study job at what was then called the Everywoman’s Center, a five-year-old haven for women of all kinds, but especially the atypical UMass student, the single moms returning to their education, people like me who took the scenic route to college, and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In my Steinem phase. Northampton, Mass., 1979.
In my Steinem phase. Northampton, Mass., 1979.

And here I am, obviously influenced by her style, around the time I was working at the women’s center. A newly awakened, if self-conscious and inarticulate, feminist, I lived in one of the women’s movement’s Ground Zeroes: Northampton, Mass.

I wasn’t the most ardent of nascent feminists, falling somewhere between poser and bra-burner, but I did embrace some of the ideas sincerely. I helped organize Take Back the Night marches, hung banners in the student union, went to plenty of meetings. I met friends I have to this day, and still embrace those ideas. The lot of women globally is still abysmal, even with the progress we’ve seen in the industrialized world. But at a time when the Boston media crackles with talk about Jared Remy, the son of a popular Red Sox commentator, who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend, it’s apparent that attitudes die hard. More to come.