Hunger Management

Recipe: Mushroom and leek risotto for rainy days

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 11, 2012

If I could charge, say, $10 every time someone asks me where to go for this or that food, I might be able to make some good money on the side.

But sometimes, I have to admit, I am stumped.

This happened last week when a friend, E, sent me a text message asking which restaurant served the best risotto.

Hmm, I thought, and rattled off a couple of places where, sometime in the past, I had had good risotto.

The thing is, I don't often order it in restaurants unless it is white truffle season and the Italian rice dish is a blank canvas for the fungi.

Most of the time, I'd go with pasta or grilled fish or meat.

Plus, the dish is dead easy to make at home and the variations are endless.

"Make it yourself," I texted back.

"Lazy," was the reply.

Well, there is no polite way to respond to messages like that but I thought it was kismet that this whole risotto thing came up.

We are in the midst of wet weather and a bowl of creamy, dreamy Italian rice is very comforting on rainy days or nights.

Cooking the dish isn't as daunting as it sounds either.

I used to think that making risotto involved stirring the rice until my hand fell off, whereupon I would re-attach it and carry on.

But food writer Mark Bittman set me straight in one of his columns about risotto: Stir frequently, not constantly.

Liberated like that, I began to think of risotto as a quick fix meal on a week night. It takes about 30 minutes from start to finish, depending on how complicated the toppings are.

I tend towards simple ones since I, too, am prone to occasional bouts of slothfulness.

Think fat spears of asparagus, quickly sauteed in a pan. Frozen peas and chunks of ham. Spinach and Parmesan cheese.

My favourite, however, is mushroom.

Earthy portobellos and Swiss browns, more delicate shimeji, thick king oyster mushrooms and shiitake are great in risotto. I slice them thickly, cook them in olive oil first, then set aside to be stirred into or to top the risotto.

I find the life leaches out of fresh mushrooms when they are cooked with the rice.

Leeks are great in risotto too, and Japanese negi are sweet and flavourful. Larger leeks are good too, if a bit more pungent. If they are too troublesome to find, a large onion works perfectly.

It takes about 20 minutes to let the short-grained Arborio or Carnaroli rice soak up the flavourful stock and to become creamy. These types of Italian rice are best for risotto, although a friend of mine once used Japanese short grained rice when she could not find Arborio in the supermarket.

Asians are used to washing rice before cooking, to get rid of extra starch, but there is no need to do that with this dish. The rice grains soak up stock and release starch to create a creamy dish.

I find that with all this richness, a little wine in the risotto adds some much-needed acidity. However, for those who cannot have alcohol, stock will do just as well.

With the wet weather showing no signs of letting up, I daresay I will be making a lot of risotto in the coming weeks.

For that, I must thank E. I'll waive the $10 consultation fee. This time.

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