Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Creamy Shrimp & Asparagus Risotto

See what deliciousness pancetta can bring? Just look at those crispy nuggets of gastronomic joy! As I mentioned in yesterday's post, cooking up diced pancetta is how I always start my risotto. 
I think nearly everyone loves a well executed risotto. Unfortunately, it can go terribly wrong if it is under or overcooked. I find that ordering it in restaurants is a little risky because it can so often fall into one of those two categories. The crunch and grit of an underdone risotto or the glutenous mush of an overcooked risotto is so disappointing. 

Ideally, you want a creamy plate of food where the grains of rice are distinguishable from one another and the flavors of the other ingredients marry well. To attain the creamy texture, many recipes and chefs call for cream itself. I never use cream in my risotto, instead, manipulating the grain to release just enough starch to create a smooth and comforting texture.

Most of my friends make risotto, and make it well, but I have had a few people ask me to give them a demonstration on the process. So here goes...

Per the food porn picture above, I always start with pancetta because it brings great flavor and natural salt into the dish. After the pancetta is cooked until crispy, I remove it from the pan and drain off about 50% of the rendered fat. I use the other 50% to sauté my onions.  Layer the flavors!

The basic outline of cooking risotto goes like this:
1. Sauté onions in fat
2. When translucent, add risotto grains to pan and cook/toast until you hear them crackle a bit.
3. Add wine and cook until fully absorbed.
4. Start adding your stock. (which should be warming in a sauce pot nearby.) 
Add enough stock to cover the rice and simmer until it is mostly absorbed. Then add more stock.
5. Follow this pattern until the rice is almost al dente. It has more of a crunch than you'd want to eat but seems to be close (maybe 5 minutes away) to being done.
6. Turn off heat, add a handful of parmesan, a knob of butter, a few grinds of the pepper mill and the cooked pancetta. Stir to combine and put the lid on the pot for 5 minutes.
Seriously, 5 minutes off the heat with the lid on. Go set the table or send a few emails and then come back to it.

Steps 2 and 3 are critical points in the process for creating a creamy texture in your final dish. By toasting the rice before liquid is added and then adding a wine before the stock, you are breaking down the outer shell of the grain to release the starch.

Risotto is like a blank canvas upon which you can add so many other flavors and ingredients. Depending on your dish, you will want to add those items at different times during the cooking process. For fast cooking things like shrimp or delicate vegetables, I add those during the last five minutes so they don't over cook. If you have something with herbs, you'll want to add those as you are toasting the rice so they can impart flavor as the rice cooks. If you've got something that really needs to cook, you may want to sauté that with the onions or add just before the stock so it cooks along with the risotto. Just keep in mind that large pieces of ingredients that take a while to cook may not be ideal for risotto. The rice really should only take about 18 minutes of cooking plus the 5 minutes of resting at the end. 

Pancetta getting crispy and the fat rendering off. As you can see on the right side of this photo, a layer of flavor has formed on the bottom of the pan that I scrape up with my wooden spoon when I add the wine. When the pancetta is done to your liking, remove from pan and drain on a paper towel.

1 medium Onion, diced, sautéing in the rendered fat of the pancetta. The color comes from the pork bits left on the bottom of the pot not because I have cooked them until they are browned. 

Above is about how much wine I add to 1 1/4 cups of risotto. Well, I guess not all of it. To the left is what I get to drink while cooking!

After you have added stock twice and cooked it until it has been absorbed, taste your risotto. You need to take a bite to figure out where you are in the cooking process!

When you think you are ready to turn off the heat and cover the risotto, add things that will over cook fast like asparagus, shrimp, or peas. Don't forget to season with some pepper. If you've used pancetta you likely won't need additional salt.

Sorry for the poor lighting and messy composition of the photo above. It is here just to show you that I've added the pancetta, parmesan, butter, asparagus, and if you can see it the shrimp are nestled snugly into the risotto to cook. Lid when on fast and I left the room with my glass of wine to watch 5-minutes of whatever news program was on.

Five minutes later we had this. A creamy, buttery, shrimp and asparagus risotto.