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: 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.

INGREDIENTS 

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

STEPS

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.

Five Easy Places


Watertown, Massachusetts, has been my hometown for 25+ years. It’s not the kind of place where you would go for a night on the town, it’s a bit gritty and not uniformly scenic, but it’s also right on the banks of the Charles River and is home to the historic and beautiful Mount Auburn Cemetery, the final resting place of Buckminster Fuller, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But if I had to quickly say what I love about Watertown, I’d have to go with the food.

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Watertown has a large Armenian community, and also sizable Greek and Italian populations, which, combined with the local custom of independent retailers, makes for some delicious food choices. And one good thing about being a densely populated town, you don’t have far to go to enjoy a variety of cuisines.

To get you started, here are five reasons to spend an afternoon in Watertown: Iggy’s Bread of the World (Iggy is from Siberia), Sevan Bakery (Armenian and Middle Eastern), Fastachi (sublime roasted nuts and chocolates), Sofra (Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece), and Sophia’s Greek Pantry (Yogurt!). And even though Iggy’s is now in Cambridge, it all started in Watertown, so we can lay some claim there.

This short video features noted Boston chef Ana Sortun, talking about how her love of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern spices led to her celebrated restaurants, Oleana and Sofra.

You could make a nice walking tour of four of the five places I mention here. I had to include Iggy’s, which is a short drive away, because I am loyal to my first local love. Iggy’s breads are available in many supermarkets and grocers, but going to the source is worth a trip. For a quick bit of background, check out this short article I wrote for the food blog Eat With Me, A Short Love Letter: Iggy’s Pecan Raisin Rolls.

 


A Mid Winter’s Nor’easter


 
The storm I won’t call NEMO crushed the Boston area about 10 days ago. It was a worthy storm, windy and snowy enough for the hardiest New Englander.

I was lucky enough to be well stocked with food, drink, and electricity, and unlucky enough to have to ride it out alone. I’m pretty sure I frittered away most of the weekend, but I was productive enough to have made a potato leek soup, cream biscuits, and salted cashew oat cookies.