Food as art
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the kitchen is a world-class art gallery. The exhibits change with the seasons, but one thing remains the same – each dish is reminiscent of a work from one of history’s most influential artists. We could say that there are dishes that resemble the cubism of Picasso – those meticulously constructed fusions with ingredients whose union seems surprisingly controversial, yet somehow work together perfectly (think Kimchi Tacos). There are the Michelangelos – well thought out Renaissance masterpieces. They don’t overstep the boundaries of artistic license or realism, and their refined elements take time and a steady hand to prepare (Christmas dinner?). There are the Jackson Pollocks – abstract impressionist dishes that evoke all the feels (butternut mac & cheese?). And then there is Risotto. It’s like one of Monet’s gardens, each element seems to blend seamlessly into the next, while simultaneously remaining distinct and unique. A simple and cohesive dish when viewed from afar, yet as you step a bit closer to take a bite, you see a plethora of deceptively complex, individual brush strokes making up the whole. It’s a refined dish, both classic and current, and there are about as many different recipes as there are, say, paintings in the Louvre.
Risotto has the reputation of being fussy and complicated to prepare. I remember, once, a friend of mine exclaiming with joy that she had found a recipe for preparing mushroom risotto in the pressure cooker and was excited to make it at home. I thought, Why on Earth would you want to make it in the pressure cooker?! I didn’t say this out loud, of course, because risotto, like art, can be made in whatever way you find pleasing. But the truth is, it’s quite easy to make in the traditional way, especially when you have a simple formula to follow. It’s the process of stirring and waiting and watching it all come together that makes risotto such a pleasure to cook. I find it extremely relaxing after a long day, in the same way others might find painting. Start with a blank canvas (the rice), block in some colour (the wine and aromatics), fill in the details (the sautéed mushrooms), and finish with a signature (herbs and cheese, if desired). Et voilà, that’s it! Of course, it’s in the colours and the details where the painting really comes to life. No two mushroom risottos are ever exactly the same. There’s the rice: Italian Arborio is traditional, but any short grain white rice will do. I particularly like to use Japanese sticky rice because it’s slightly sweeter than Arborio. And of course the wine! A crisp white? A full-bodied red? A splash of cognac? It’s really up to you, but it’s a key element that will fundamentally influence the flavour of the risotto. I love to use a creamy, oaky Chardonnay because it brings out the woodsiness of mushrooms. And, of course, there are the herbs. A mushroom risotto made with sage is will be entirely different than one made with rosemary. The cheese is optional, altogether. I don’t use any in the recipe below because I find that the dish is rich enough without it. That’s the beauty of making risotto. The possibilities are endless.
A note on Chardonnay
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about Chardonnay, and no other wine seems to put people at odds with one another. It’s a love or hate relationship, it’s either hit or miss, there’s almost no middle ground. I’ve never met anyone who is indifferent toward Chardonnay. I guess that’s to be expected from the world’s most commonly planted grape variety. But there is an interesting quality to the Chardonnay grape that makes it such a polarizing wine. The flavour of Chardonnay is very heavily influenced by its terroir – the soil, the weather and the growing conditions of each individual vineyard. Therefore, a Chardonnay grape grown in Burgundy will taste entirely different than one grown in Sonoma. Likewise, a Sonoma Chardonnay will be quite unlike one made just down the road in Napa. Then there is the aging process. Chardonnay absorbs the flavour of oak more readily than other wines. It’s very easy to become so overly-oaked that the flavour of the grapes is lost altogether. There are so many variables, Chardonnay runs the gamut of light, fruity and crisp to deep, earthy and creamy. Consequently, finding one you like is a balancing act and there are a lot of “bad” ones out there. Often someone will tell me they don’t like any Chardonnay simply because they’ve had one bad experience. I am certainly not an expert, but I say, give it another chance and choose a Chardonnay from a different region. There is so much hidden possibility in this grape!
All that said, don’t let my prattle turn you off. Risotto should be made with any wine that you enjoy drinking on its own. For this recipe I use a “well-oaked” (not overly-oaked) Chardonnay. This one from Bread & Butter is one of my favourites. It has enough depth and complexity to stand up to the meatiness of the mushrooms. When choosing a Chardonnay I look for tasting notes with descriptions like “full-bodied,” “creamy,” “notes of vanilla” and “hints of smoke and spice.” Of course, if you prefer a light, crisp white wine, simply choose one that is unoaked. Serve the risotto with whichever wine you use to make it.
Contrary to popular belief, a risotto does not need to be stirred constantly. Stir well only after each addition of broth and then just keep an eye on the pan to make sure it doesn’t become too dry. Risottos, like many other recipes, are influenced by the weather. If it is humid and cool you will need less liquid than you will if it is hot and dry. Simply taste the risotto at the end of the cooking process and if you find the rice is a little chewy, add about 1/2 cup of water and cook for a minute or two longer.
3 TBSP butter, divided
1 shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
12 cremini mushrooms (sometimes called Baby Bella), divided
5 1/2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup well-oaked chardonnay or white bordeaux
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp dry thyme (or 1 tsp fresh)
1 tsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Chop 4 of the twelve mushrooms and set aside.
In a medium sauce pan, bring the broth to a boil and add the bay leaf. Turn to heat to low and keep at just a simmer.
In a large sauce pan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Gently cook the shallot and garlic until fragrant and softened. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice is toasted, about 3 minutes. Add the chopped mushrooms and thyme and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour the wine into the rice and stir quickly until all the wine has been absorbed. Turn the heat to low. Using a ladle, add approximately 1 cup of the hot broth to the rice and stir. Watch the pan carefully. As soon as the broth is almost completely absorbed, add another ladleful and stir. Continue until all the broth has been incorporated, stirring well after each addition. Taste for texture and seasoning. The risotto should have a very creamy, smooth texture with only a hint of resistance in the centre of the grains. If the rice is a little too chewy, add a ladleful of water and cook for a few more minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the remaining 8 mushrooms into quarters or halves, depending on size. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter together with the olive oil in a small skillet. When hot, but not smoking, add the mushrooms and quickly toss and stir until the mushrooms are golden and caramelized. Fold the mushrooms into the finished risotto and season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.