winter risotto - fast easy dinner ideas Meat

The One Cooking Shortcut I’ll Never Take

It’s easy to get sucked into Tasty cooking videos. You know the ones that create something over the top and crazy to eat in about 30 seconds flat?  Like everyone else, I want picture perfect Food & Wine meals in a microsecond. Yet every time I see a recipe for slow cooker risotto, pressure cooker risotto, or no-stir risotto I feel a twinge of regret, because that means someone has decided that the precious minutes it takes to cook risotto are a waste of time. But for me, those minutes standing over my stovetop slowly adding broth and stirring, saves my sanity.

All my life I’ve been told I was intense. I even thought being a stress-head was normal. But it turns out my intensity, over-thinking, and worry was an anxiety disorder. I might never have known it had it not been for a series of unfortunate events that occurred this past year—a job loss, my husband’s prolonged stay in the hospital for what was a relatively simple procedure, my own emergency room visits and subsequent heart surgery. Add in multiple daily phone calls from my mother-in-law with Alzheimer’s and my worry over my father’s chronic health issues and suddenly I was on the brink of a meltdown. For the first time in my life, I clung to a bottle of Xanax like a security blanket. About now you’re probably wondering what does any of this have to do with risotto? A lot actually.

Risotto is not only a comfort food for me, but also a practice in mindfulness and presence. I was first introduced to risotto when I was 25 and lived in Italy. I got a job as a household assistant for a wealthy family in Florence. They quickly discovered I had no talent for ironing, but that I could open bottles of wine, set and clear the table, fetch groceries, and do the washing up. Dining with the family often meant eating risotto as a first course – it was always creamy and soothing.  Risotto was not something I grew up eating, but it was a newfound comfort food that I absolutely loved, and I learned to make it myself by watching my Italian boss.

I’ve seen tons of recipes for risotto and in general, and they get it all wrong. People add cream or way too many ingredients that compete with the rice. Mainly they overcook it, turning it into a dry, mushy sludge. And worst of all, they try to speed up and simplify the process. I’ve timed it and risotto takes just about 18 minutes to cook if you use carnaroli, vialone nano, or, in a pinch, Arborio rice. Risotto starts with finely diced onions cooked gently before the rice is added. The rice must be toasted in the butter or oil. When the grains of rice start turning opaque, it’s time to add the wine to deglaze the pan and moisten the rice. When the liquid evaporates with a whoosh of steam, you add in the warm broth, a little bit at a time and stir. And watch. And stir. As the broth is slowly and gently absorbed into the rice, you add a ladleful more. And so it goes, for 18 minutes. Those 18 minutes at the stove aren’t just for making superior risotto, they are for me: they’re 18 minutes of concentration and paying attention to detail, slowing down, and letting go of my anxiety.

Cooking is like meditation –  a time to block out all extraneous thoughts, focus on the tasks at hand,  and be in the moment. If I were to use a pressure cooker, a slow cooker, or a microwave oven I would lose on two fronts: my risotto won’t taste as good and I would miss out on an opportunity to slow down and get in touch with my true self.

Amy's Roasted Beet Winter Risotto

(not pictured) Serves 2 as a main course or 3-4 as a starter

Ingredients

2 beets
2 Tablespoons butter, divided
1 Tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1/4 cups white wine
3 or more cups of chicken stock or broth, heated but not boiling (canned chicken broth is fine)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Black pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Begin by washing the beets, wrapping them in foil and baking at 450 degrees until done, about an hour, but check them after 45 minutes. Let them cool then cut them into small cubes.
  2. In a large saucepan heat a tablespoon of butter with the olive oil. Slowly cook the onion until it softens but does not brown. Toast the rice in it over low heat until the grains become opaque, about 2-3 minutes.
  3. Add the wine and let it cook, when the wine is completely absorbed add the beets. Begin adding the warm chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring frequently. When it begins to completely absorb, but before the pan dries out, add more broth. Risotto takes almost exactly 18 minutes to cook, and you really should stir and watch and listen for the sound of the rice as the stock absorbs and evaporates.
  4. When the rice is tender yet firm, neither mushy nor chewy, remove from the heat and add a splash more stock. Let it sit covered for just a minute, it should not be too dry. Risotto makes its own “sauce”. Add the last bit of butter and the grated parmesan, mix and serve seasoning with just a touch of black pepper at the table.

Join the conversation

  • Amy, I am so grateful you’ve shared this. I know 2016 was a hell of a year for you. I’m glad you’re finding some relief in treatment and in the meditative nature of cooking. I’d happily meditate over a pot of risotto with you any day. BIG hugs.

    • Thanks! It was cathartic to even write this.

  • Enjoyed this, and your message so much. I am a devout fan of unrushed food and found it very cathartic after a long day of work (and hours of papers to edit ahead) to dig into a complicated recipe. It calmed me, and my family appreciated our meals more. I didn’t realize your year has been so full of unexpected challenges. I hope the new year brings you peace.

    • Thanks! Cooking has always been enjoyable for me, but lately it’s become a real life saver.

  • Judith Fertig

    Making risotto is truly a mind/body experience, which you have so wonderfully captured! There’s a reason why repetitive motion–stirring risotto, kneading dough–is soothing. It’s not only the flavors that can comfort. My best to you!

    • Thanks! Maybe there is science behind it.

  • Valentina Kenney

    As someone who suffers from anxiety also, I really appreciate this, Amy. Thank you for sharing. I love the process of making risotto and don’t want even the slightest interruption when I do so. It is a meditation. A beautiful one, as are so many other cooking techniques. We shouldn’t hurry if we don’t have to. I hope this coming year is a better one for you and your family. xo

    • Thanks! Glad to know risotto has the same effect on you too. I have yet to master meditation but risotto is the next best thing.

  • Sophia Del Gigante

    I love this because you are so exposed, real and vulnerable. We all have our issues and where everyone finds solace is different. It may be outdoors, the gym, yoga, meditation, art or cooking.

    We need to find our thing and set aside the time for it to recharge our batteries.

    Thanks for your honesty and this recipe!

    • Thanks, it is definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever written, but it feels good to get it out there.

    • Thank you! It is definitely the most personal thing I’ve ever written.

  • This is so beautiful, Amy. I am sorry about the year you have had but I totally understand and have been trying to minimize stress while overcoming multiple health challenges. Thank you for a lovely story and encouragement to make risotto mindfully.

    • Thanks! I hope we can all appreciate taking time for ourselves (and our risotto).

    • Thanks! I hope it offers some insight into what it’s like to deal with anxiety.

  • Susan Pridmore

    Brava! What a wonderful piece of writing this is, and what an equally delicious recipe. This is exactly why I love to bake bread. I’m so sorry this year has been such a challenge. To deal with just one of the situations you describe is stressful, and the combination would an emotional train wreck for anyone. It’s such a healthy thing, and statement of surviving, to find those things that allow us to calm the waters and re-connect to our deepest selves.

    • Thanks Susan! The end result is almost as comforting as making it.

  • Heather HAL

    A lovely recipe and a love song to risotto, as well as loving yourself. I am also a highly anxious person, I don’t let people see that side of me easily, and this is why I enjoy cooking, making bread, knitting, fiber arts, it keeps my hands and mind busy to focus on something (anything) else, to let go, and to breathe. I hope 2017 is a much simpler and more relaxed year and that we can enjoy a cocktail together sometime.

  • What a beautiful post. I feel the same way about cooking comfort food and know that the process is just as important as the result. I hope your new year is more peaceful, joyful & easier than the one that is drawing to a close.

    • Thanks, I feel like I’m on the right path.

  • Amy – so glad to get to know you at IFBC. Though my particulars are different – I am waiting for John Oliver’s explosive demolition of 2016 as well. I appreciate your honesty and love for 18 minutes of comfort food cooking. Some days I can’t even look at a pot at the end of the day but most times, that 1/2 hour of creativity in the kitchen keeps me grounded. Cheers to a better 2017!

    • I’ll drink to that! Hoping our paths cross even more in 2017.

  • Jane Bonacci

    We’ll be celebrating the end of 2016 too – there’s been too much to handle in a single year for many of us. I am so sorry you had to deal with so many challenges this year Amy, but I am so proud of your bravery in writing and publishing this article. You have found ways to cope with your life stressors and like many of us, the 18 minutes spent stirring at the stove is pure heaven. Hopefully 2017 will be a brighter, easier year … <3