Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Risotto di Amore

Oh so good... tonight Chef Victor went over polenta and risotto and he demonstrated several dishes. We explored polenta for its simplicity and absolute diversity and we studied risotto for its complexity and absolute decadence. They are both truly great things with room for so much creativity, but of course we took special interest in the risotto, known to be one of the great hallmarks of highly skilled cooks.

We started with polenta. It can be cooked two different ways and served two different ways, creating four basic dishes that provide a foundation for endless variations. The cooking methods are: plain polenta (cooked with water, maybe a bit of cream or milk, and salt) and flavored polenta (cooked with stock, ingredients like mushrooms, onions, jalapenos, and so on). The serving methods are: warm and cold (polenta becomes quite firm when cooled, creating more potential for serving alternatives). So - plain, flavored, warm, and cold. Sounds so simple, and it really is. But the posibilities within these are literally without end. For example, the chef made a creamy, buttery, porridge-like warm polenta, a cooled, cornbread-like polenta with onions, garlic, and jalapeno, and a rich parmesan polenta. They all took just a couple of minutes to make and were delicious, easy, and simple. It was just a peek, a small window into the opportunity for creativity with polenta.

Then we moved on to risotto, polentas polar opposite. Risotto is made one way and one way only (proper risotto, anyway). There certainly is plenty of room for creativity with flavoring, but it must be cooked correctly and served immediately to be considered a legitimate risotto. Chef started with a classic risotto (I'd say basic but even with just four or five ingredients it's anything but). He began with finely diced onion, sauted in oil. He added the arborio rice and cooked it with the sweated onion until it was opaque, signifying that the rice was well coated with the oil and flavored by the onion. Then he added acid (white wine) to perforate the rice. He explained that this gets the rice to a point that the high content of starch in arborio will be released slowly and evenly. Arborio is extremely high in starch and a properly made risotto will be rich and creamy without any actual cream added (that would be cheating and people who know risotto will know the difference). After the wine was cooked out he began adding a reduced chicken stock (which was made in my Foundations class and was rock solid) one ladel at a time, keeping the heat high, allowing the stock to reduce further and be absorbed by the rice as it released its starches into the liquid. This process was repeated several times until a nice al dente was achieved with the rice and the liquid was thick and creamy. Just a touch of seasoning at the end and a bit of shaved parmesan and parsley for garnish. That's it. It was amazing. Just rice, right? Right...

Then he got crazy. We had some time left and he got to work on a second batch: curry risotto. This stuff was nuts. It had onion, carrots, jalapeno, red pepper flakes, curry powder (a really great spice mixture), fresh cilantro, and just a dab of tomato paste. It was spicy, rich, a bit more firm (which is how Indian people like it, according to the chef), and just incredible. I can honestly say I've never had anything like it before in my life. And he made it look all too easy!

Thursday will be a practice day where we can work on anything we want from what we've studied out of Italy - fresh pasta, sauces, pizza, polenta, and/or risotto. I figure I've got a good enough handle on most things because I have some experience with them and they can be winged, more or less. I am going to work on risotto. I've never attempted it before and I want to make sure I at least have some understanding of its preperation. Next week on Tuesday we will relax with a night discussing and sampling Italian wines, then on Thursday night we will have our Italian practical exam. Apparently we will draw a dish at random out of a basket and prepare it from scratch to present to the chef for grading. Good times, I am looooving this class!


Wendy said...

I tried making risotto once. I felt like I was at the stove FOREVER!! And the rice was still crunchy in the middle, and the flavor was blah... so yeah, pretty much a failure. I'd like to try it sometime so I know what it's supposed to taste like.

Cara said...

tarin and i made a pretty mean wild mushroom risotto once.

mmmmm... now i'm craving.