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risotto with prosciutto, peas and mushrooms

That was yesterday evening!  OK, so there are a huge number of foods that I have never made in my life, which in each case means that I am waiting patiently until the right time, a special occasion or inspiration arrives–or I am possibly intimidated by trying to make a familiar/famous dish (you know, like osso bucco, Cherokee bean bread, paella, souffle, tamales in banana leaf, creme caramel, etc).

I have cooked lots of things over the years that I have been pleased with- bunches of recipes from Julia’s cookbooks, reproducing a correct, authentic red chili the way the Tohono O’odam ladies taught me one summer in California.  Cooking greens, making authentic old Moravian recipes (Christmas cakes, lovefeast buns, sugar cake) and even making homemade tofu from scratch with dry soybeans.

So Risotto, a simple seafood risotto, was what I finally worked up the nerve to cook last night.  It was mostly about 45 minutes of constant stirring of arborio rice in chicken broth, which is what all the recipes say, and it’s what you see on TV if you happen to catch someone on a cooking show making risotto.  It was very exciting to see the risotto take shape on top of my stove, and even though it was almost an hour of careful, nonstop stirring and cooking, it is worth the effort.

I got the inspiration because I was at the grocery store and I picked up a packet of arborio rice , which I have done dozens and dozens of times in the past.  But I looked at the price, realized it wouldn’t put a bad dent in my food budget after all, and then I got a small packet of frozen, mixed seafood for about three or four dollars.  All reasonably affordable.

Here’s how I made it:

4 cups stock (I used chicken)- heat it and keep it simmering the whole time.

12 oz by weight of arborio rice

2 Tbsp good olive oil

2 Tbsp butter

1 onion chopped

1 clove garlic minced into atoms

2 bay leaves

grating of the zest of 1/2 a fresh lemon

a grating of nutmeg

salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup of a white wine, or you can substitute a little apple or white grape juice with a  spoonful or 2  of cider-, or white-wine, vinegar if you don’t use alcohol.

big handful of chopped fresh parsley (probably 1/4 to 1/2 cup)

2 cups fresh or frozen peas

1/3 cup heavy cream (you can use half and half, or even milk if you want)

small bag (1 pound) frozen, previously uncooked, ready to stir-fry mixed seafood).  This will probably be a mixture of scallops, shrimp and calamari.

-a couple of good handfuls of grated or shredded good Parmesan cheese

Chop your onion (I used a medium onion) and let it sweat over medium heat in a very large heavy skillet with a couple of Tbsp of olive oil, along with the bay laurel, and a pinch of salt (that helps the onion cook) and quite a few grinds of black pepper, the lemon zest and the nutmeg.  Begin adding liquid, beginning with your wine or apple juice/vinegar, after you have added the garlic a few minutes into the process.  Add the 2 Tbsp of butter.

Stir everything well together and begin adding your hot stock to the rice.  You will now start stirring this dish almost without stopping for nearly the next 1/2 hour.  Maybe not quite that long.  But basically, you add the hot stock by the cupful or ladleful, and keep stirring gently over medium-low heat for a good 20-24 minutes.  Just turn on some good music, clear your thoughts and focus on making this gorgeous rice.  Why did I ever wait this long to make it??  Meanwhile heat another good heavy skillet to stir fry your seafood- the frozen product I had said that you can stir fry it in 3 minutes or under, right from the freezer.

During the last 4-5 minutes, add a couple cups of shelled green peas- tiny spring peas would be best, but any frozen pea will do the trick.  Now stirfry your seafood as you continue to stir the risotto.  Congratulations, you have now run out of hands to stir things with.  The only important thing to keep in mind with your seafood, above all, is not to overcook it- everything will turn to rubber and you will spend more time chewing your risotto than it took to cook.

After a few minutes, you can add the cooked seafood directly to the rice (there will be some cooking liquid that comes from the seafood- simply add the whole thing, along with a handful of Parmesan (maybe 1/4 cup to start) and a 1/3 cup of cream or milk.  Keep stirring, and finally when everything seems to be a big creamy, bubbling mass, throw in the parsley.  Correct seasoning, maybe add a little more Parmesan and you have made a simple, proper risotto.

Here is a fairly authentic preparation of Wild Rice.  I’ve been very fortunate to have some good teachers here for the past 20-30 years, around the Great Lakes region, and the old way of preparing manomiin (true wild rice) is very consistent.  I have just adjusted downward the amount of liquid indicated, on the advice of an elder.

Manomiin is an aquatic grass, and it has been harvested faithfully and carefully for probably many times more than a thousand years in what is now Minnesota.  It continues to be gathered in the new millennium in small canoes, with both an Oarsperson and a a Rice Knocker, using traditional carved wooden sticks.  The seeds are then parched, threshed and winnowed to ensure a fine product.

This delicacy- which continues to attract increasing worldwide appreciation- commands the attention of food-lovers and nutritionists alike.  It is a valuable heritage food, and an ancient mainstay of Sovereign Indigenous economies.  Real manomiin packs a whopping 14 grams of completely balanced amino acids, versus the 2-3 grams of incomplete protein that is found in commercial white rice.  In addition to the distinctive, nutty flavor real manomiin also possesses high values of vitamins and fiber- there is absolutely no comparison between the two.

Many Native people can identify a specific lake or region where the rice originates, just as an oenophile can detect and identify the base notes of certain soils in a wine, or alpine summer flowers and grasses in a unique cheese, etc:  “Terroir (/tεʀwaʀ/ in French) was originally a French term in wine and coffee used to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon them. It can be very loosely translated as “a sense of place” which is embodied in certain qualities, and the sum of the effects that the local environment has had on the manufacture of the product. Terroir is often italicized in English writing to show that it is a French loanword, although many now regard it as a word naturalized into English.”  (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=25529610592)

(photo courtesy of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WildRice23.jpg )

For my favorite preparation of wild rice I use:

2 cups of water (or chicken or vegetable broth)

-1/2# true wild rice (not the commercial paddy grown product)

-a small handful of dried wild mushrooms (preferably morels), crushed or powdered, is best

-pinch of salt

Wash the wild rice in a bowl in three changes of water, allowing any small grit to settle to the bottom, being careful to strain it off.  Add the water or broth over the washed rice in the cooking pot and set over high heat until it threatens to boil; then turn the heat down immediately.  You may cover, or half-cover,  the pot and allow it to simmer for up to 20 minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed.  True wild rice cooks quicker and better than its ersatz, genetically modified commercially grown paddy ‘wild’ rice counterpart, which takes up to twice as long to cook, and yields a product with less than half the flavor.  You can tell when authentic rice is fully cooked, however, because it will fill out and burst slightly, and many of the outer ends of begin to curl elegantly inward.

Meanwhile, you have now toasted or roasted a a big handful- a generous half-cup of hazelnuts in the oven or on the stove top for several minutes until they are fragrant.  Rub them between your hands after they have cooled, until they are bare to your satisfaction.  I like to leave them with a good deal of the skins on, because of course it is better for you, and it also imparts a deeper flavor.

When the hazelnuts are cool, chop them roughly, as you heat a heavy 10-inch skillet over medium heat with a generous tablespoonful of vegetable oil.  Any good fat will do in fact.  Sometimes I use rendered bacon grease, which gives everything a nice smokey flavor- although you could alternatively add a pinch of smoked paprika, which will accomplish almost the same thing.

To this grease, add a medium chopped onion, or a cup of chopped scallions (or a combination of the two) and allow everything to sweat with a sprinkling of salt until translucent- about 6-10 minutes.  I often throw in a clove of finely minced garlic as well.  Wild onion and wild garlic are frequent players in Native American traditional cooking across the continent.  I also like to add a bay leaf, as well as ground black pepper (think:  Christopher Columbus), since it completes a recognizable modern flavor profile.  It would be good at this point to include a strong pinch of crumbled dried mint or thyme, if you have it.  (Fresh is equally good, but you will have to use twice as much, of course, finely chopped.)

Now, for the fruit.  Fruit?  Yes.  Have in your hand a generous 1/2 cup of some kind of dried fruit.  If you don’t have dried blueberries (an ancient and revered ingredient, full of modern and highly worshiped anti-oxidants), use an equal amount of dried cranberries, or even raisins.  Don’t be afraid to use dried apricots if that’s all you have.  It’s all good, and you will be happy with the result.  Chop up some dried figs or apples, if that’s what you have in your cupboard.

Combine the cooked manoomin and the other ingredients into a serving bowl, and stir everything together with conviction.  You now have a very respectable preparation of wild rice in front of you, and I think you and your friends should begin eating it while it is hot.  In the unlikely event that there are leftovers, chill them in the refrigerator, and scatter what you have the following day over salad greens and anoint everything with a simple dressing.  This will be a completely new dish, and you can serve it with impertinence to any visiting dignitary to impress them.  Doesn’t matter which side of the ocean you happen to be.  Don’t be afraid to add chopped parsley- or any other bright greens- that will make the dish pop in front of your family, friends or peripatetic plenipotentiaries.

*in honor of a very pleasurable evening of cooking with Sabina and Citty