Thursday, July 2, 2009

Rice to Riches

I have a problem with risotto. Nothing against, in fact, quite the opposite...I can't get enough. I love cooking with fresh ingredients and altering them as little as possible and risotto is the perfect foil. Some veggies, like greens, can be slowly folded in, gently wilting in the heat of warm broth and lending their flavor to the rice, instead of losing it to blanching water, or being masked by onions and garlic. But it's not just vegetables that make me love this rice dish, it's risotto's ability to absorb any flavor you send its way. As the rice cooks, it gently releases starch granules, giving it the signature creaminess risotto is known for. That creamy liquid then easily takes on the flavor of whatever you choose to put in your risotto, be it fresh vegetables, saffron, herbs, or a purée (like mushroom or butternut squash). That means you get significantly more flavor bang for your buck, and with minimal effort, to boot. Twenty minutes of stirring and a little chopping (or not, if you're using a purée) and you're well on your way to a flavorful and elegant dish. It's no surprise then, that risotto is one of the first things great seasonal restaurants add to their menu when they want to showcase a special ingredient. Be it morels, fiddlehead ferns, ramps or summer squash, there's no better way to spotlight great ingredients and rich flavors than with a risotto.

And so, a flavor junkie like myself needs to learn a little self control in order to avoid exponential waistline growth (all that starch is no good for a slim tummy). Gone are the days when I made risotto once or twice a week, relying on the short 22-minute cooking time and knowing I'd have a chic meal in roughly the time it took to make a tuna fish sandwich. Now I treat risottos as good restaurants do: as a platform for particularly lovely ingredients to shine. It's with that in mind that the latest incarnation of risotto primavera came to mind. With more rainbow swiss chard, turnips and garlic scapes than I knew what to do with thanks to my CSA, I figured, what better way to get the most flavor out of these organic guys, than to toss them all into a risotto and let them sing? And sing they did, in perfect harmony with each other, every ingredient adding its own layer of flavor and resulting in a creamy dish so delicious I didn't even add the parmesan cheese at the end.
Each veggie went in at a different stage in the cooking process, with the garlic scapes going first so they'd have enough time to soften and also so they could sauté with the onion and rice and release some subtle garlic flavor. Then came the turnips, which were small and tender, so although they needed a little bit more time to cook, it wasn't as bad as if they'd been large. And last came the swiss chard, which I folded in along with the last ladleful of broth to keep them bright green and with a little bit of bite.

Altogether the dish had an earthy, full flavor, a little sweetness from the turnips, some deep vegetable flavor from the swiss chard, and the slightest hint of garlic flavor from the scapes. Overall it was very impressive, not to mention beautiful. I made sure to utilize those swiss chard stems, which can be tough if left whole, but that easily soften in the broth and add so much beautiful color and flavor when diced. The turnips turned a lovely yellow, having absorbed the color of the broth, and the chard remained bright green with striking yellow and red stripes down the center. I promise you, one taste of this dish and you'll be craving not only risotto, but fresh spring veggies. Here's the final recipe:

Spring Risotto

(serves 2)

1 1/2 cups arborio rice

1 large or 2 small green onions (whites only), chopped

1/2 lb rainbow or green swiss chard, leaves julienned, stems diced

5 small turnips or 3 large, diced

4 garlic scapes, cut into 2 inch batons
4-5 cups chicken or vegetable broth, warmed

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)

extra virgin olive oil salt

1. In a large, non-stick skillet, saute spring onions and swiss chard stems in olive oil until fragrant, about a minute. Add rice and cook until white and opaque.

2. Add a ladleful of broth and turnips. Lower heat to a simmer, and stir until broth is absorbed. Add more broth, stirring frequently until absorbed. Repeat until rice is cooked through and only slightly al dente.

3. Add swiss chard before the last ladleful of broth. Stir until swiss chard is wilted and risotto is creamy. Add parmesan cheese if desired, and serve. Enjoy!


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