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
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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.