Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Risotto with Radicchio and Portobello Mushrooms

I've liked risotto for as long as I can remember. It must have something to do with my innate desire to order the heaviest, densest thing on any restaurant menu (chimichanga anyone?) After becoming vegan, risotto continued to catch my eye on many the restaurant menu - there seems to be a universal agreement between restaurants of all genres that the token vegetarian dish on the menu should be mushroom risotto. I never thought that vegans could eat it because of course we all know that the key ingredients in a good risotto are butter, cream and loads and loads of cheese, right? Wrong. Imagine my delight when I found out that many risottos can be made simply with broth and seasonings. No cream and cheese required. Who knew?

It was probably about a year ago that I made my first vegan risotto. I started out with the old standard: wild mushroom of course. Then I got a little fancy and made one with chunks of butternut squash. Both were decent, but nothing special. Maybe my palate has matured a little bit and eating something heavy, warm and mushy isn't quite as appealing as it used to be. I got a hankering for risotto a few days ago (actually it was more of a realization that I had somehow purchased 3 different boxes of arborio rice that needed some attention if I wanted to free up some desperately needed cabinet space) and started leafing through some cookbooks for a new idea.

The Complete Vegan Cookbook is the first vegan cookbook I ever bought and while "complete" is definitely an overstatement, the book has a few gems in it. It's a well loved cookbook which has been thought a lot with me...including a small gas burner fire which devoured a portion of the cardboard cover. Whoops. The CVC has a few risotto recipes in it, but this one really stood out to me. The idea is to make a light risotto with broth and parsley, and to top it with bitter radicchio and tangy portobello mushrooms cooked in vinegar and lemon juice. I thought it sounded like just the right way to jazz up the traditional mushroom risotto.

In order to have your hands free to stir (and stir and stir) while the risotto is cooking, round up and prepare all of the ingredients in advance.

4 large portobello mushroom caps, cleaned and sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 Tbsp. olive oil (divided)
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. lemon juice
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 1/2 cups radicchio, grated
1 tsp. brown sugar
1 cup uncooked arborio rice
1 Tbsp. cooking sherry
4 1/4 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup fresh parsley, minced
salt to taste

First, saute the garlic in 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil for about a minute. Add the mushrooms along with the balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and thyme and cook for about 20 minutes. When the mushrooms are good and tender, set them aside. Quickly saute the radicchio in a pan sprayed with nonstick spray (I often do this instead of using oil. It prevents the vegetable from sticking but doesn't add a bunch of calories). When the radicchio is tender - literally 1 or 2 minutes - stir in the brown sugar and set aside. *The original recipe called for the radicchio to be raw. I like bitter greens like radicchio or endive mixed into a salad now and again, but raw in this dish I wasn't feeling it. I let J taste it raw as well and he thought it was "weird...I wouldn't serve that to guests." I decided to saute it and to sweeten it a bit with a touch of brown sugar and loved the result. Don't overcook it though, you still want it to be crunchy, just with less of an edge.*

Now it's time to cook the risotto. This is boring. The only way to make a good risotto is to cook it very slowly, and to stir it nearly constantly. Ugh. There's really no way around it. So turn on some great music (Pandora Radio I heart you), grab a stool, and settle in for a good long while of stirring. First heat the vegetable broth on the stove until just boiling. The goal is to keep it right on the cusp of boiling for a long time, so I tend to turn it on and off a few times to keep it nice and hot. When the broth is ready, heat the remaining Tbsp. of olive oil along with the sherry in a medium stock pot. Add the arborio rice and stir to coat the rice for just about a minute. Now begin to incorporate the broth 1/2 cup at a time. Stir the rice frequently as it absorbs the broth, and add new broth every time the rice begins to get dry. Like I said, this takes a while but don't leave it. If you don't stir it, the starch will not be released from the grains and the risotto will not be thick and creamy. Add almost all of the parsley with the last 1/2 cup of broth and stir to mix thoroughly. When the risotto is done (just taste it to see), season with salt to taste, plate it and top with the radicchio mixture, remaining parsley, and mushrooms.

I give this recipe very high marks. The risotto is smooth and rich, while the parsley and radicchio are light and fresh. The mushrooms, instead of being mushy and bland, are firm and tangy - the perfect contrast to the rice. The only change I would make in the future is to possibly top the plate with a little lemon juice or zest. This was J's idea and a pretty good one. I make an asparagus and chickpea polenta (you'll just have to wait until I make that one to find out more) which is J's #1 favorite dish right now. It bears a lot of similarity to this one because the rich creamy polenta is topped with light, tangy vegetables. One of the keys to that one is a healthy dose of lemon juice and zest, which I think might work well on this as well. I'll make a note to try that next time.

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