I'll admit… I used to walk by packages of dried Porcini mushrooms in the grocery store and think to myself, “WHY would anyone want to eat a nasty, crunchy, dried mushroom”? They looked like little satchels of bark mulch that I used to stomp around in at recess.
Then one day in culinary school, I actually learned how to prepare them the right way. From that day on, I realized that it is virtually impossible to get as much mushroom flavor and essence out of a fresh mushroom than it is from a dried one. The intensity of woodsy, earthy, fungus-y deliciousness is multiplied and compact into a gnarly little dried root looking thing that comes alive in hot water. It reminds me of the little 25 cent toys I used to beg my mother for on the way out of the supermarket that you dropped into hot water and they “magically” transformed into a dinosaur or a washcloth.
The onset of Spring jam-packed our calendar this week so once we were able to finally take a deep breath, we sat down for a simple, yet comforting dinner.
For most people, risotto is a long, grueling task that quickly turns into an afterthought in the 7 minutes it takes to make rice pilaf. For us, it's a slow paced, relaxing dinner that requires essentially no prep work and minimal clean up. On the way home from work, I picked up some fresh and dried mushrooms, and a few sea scallops to combine the fruits of the land and the sea into one nourishing dish. Everything else I needed was already a staple in my kitchen, including my loving risotto stirrer.
I always have a jar of risotto rice on hand in my pantry for times like these. Risotto rice is a very specific type of rice called either Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano.
The name risotto translates to “little rice” because it is short-grained and extremely high in starch. These rices have the ability to absorb liquids and release starches so that they are stickier than other long-grain varieties. Unlike other freelance Italian cooking techniques, perfect risotto requires extreme precision and care.
While Siobhan started the sofrito (sauteing finely chopped onions in butter), I quickly sauteed a variety of wild mushrooms in a separate pan with some freshly snipped thyme from my rooftop herb garden. I also soaked a handful of the dried Porcini mushrooms in hot water and let them rejuvinate. This technique not only produces rehydrated mushrooms, it leaves you with a rich mushroom broth, that's dark as night.
Once the Porcinis have come back to life, I remove them from the broth with a slotted spoon and transfer them to the food processor for my secret trick. I pulse the dried mushrooms into a thick, dark, mushroom paste that gets stirred into the risotto about halfway through the cooking process to intensif
y the mushroom flavor. This extra burst of flavor is what turns great mushroom risotto into incredible mushroom risotto. After the onions become translucent, Siobhan added the Carnaroli rice straight to the pot and stirred it around so that each and every grain gets coated with the butter.
This step in the process is called tostatura, because you're essentially toasting the short, chubby grains before the liquid is added. Next, you want to hit the pot with some type of liquid, typically white wine because it adds flavor, and acidity.
We added some dry white wine, along with a splash of nice Cognac because we wanted to infuse some of its rich, caramel, vanilla undertones into the earthy dish. This is when you crank up the heat a bit and let the liquid reduce before slowly adding the broth, ladle by ladle. Siobhan used the leftover broth from the dried mushrooms, along with some canned mushroom broth that we had in the back of the pantry. This is the part of the process where you literally have to glue your feet to the floor below the stove and never walk away.
Gently adding hot stock to the pot and constantly stirring, loosens up the starch molecules on the outside of the rice grains and ships them into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth, creamy texture. During Siobhan's forearm workout, I added the homemade, dried mushroom paste to the pot, which instantly gave the risotto to a dark, mocha hue to it. After about twenty minutes, and constant seasoning and taste-testing, the risotto was almost al dente. At this point, I added the fresh mushrooms and removed the pot from the heat to prepare it for the mantecatura stage.
This consists of the addition of butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, along with vigorous whipping to make the texture as smooth and creamy as possible. While my stirrer was whipping away, I seared a few fresh sea scallops in a skillet until one side caramelized and sweet. We plated the wavy risotto in a tiny bowl and topped it with a perfectly seared scallop and a tiny drizzle of the ever so aromatic, White Truffle oil. This earth meets sea comfort delight was steaming and begging me to dig right in. The truffle awoke all of my senses, and the first bite seemed to magically dissolve on my tongue like a thin piece of edible silk.
The mushroom flavor was predominant, but the nutty Parmigiano and rich Cognac were not far in the background. I popped a bottle of 2004 Cascina Roera Vigna San Martino Barbera d'Asti from the Piedmont region of Italy, where risotto is most abundant. From the second the cork slipped out of the neck, the Nebbiolo smell was permeating the room. This is one of those wines that is so proud of its roots that one whiff of the glass, and you just know where it came from. Aromas of black cherry and herbs, with a brick red color to the wine are pleasantly inviting. The alcohol percentage on this wine is surprisingly high, but after it's open for a while, the boozy taste blows off, leaving you with soft tannins and gorgeous fruit. There is a decent amount of acidity, and the flavors are a combination of cherries and cranberry, with a gutsy, mocha finish.
This wine was excellent with the risotto because of its natural flavors and because some bottle age added to the earthiness of the dish. The risotto was so lavish and rich that I wanted more but couldn't possibly take another bite. It was probably a good thing that this risotto sent us both into a food coma on the couch because we missed all of the Boston sports teams get their asses handed to them.