Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

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There are stacks of books on my nightstand. Books for reference, books I’m halfway through, and books that I want to read next. Our dining room table is used less for, you know, dining, and more as a makeshift desk. It’s piled at this moment with fifteen books (actual truth. Not an exaggeration). That’s not counting the heaps of books in the living room, some in front of bookshelves where there’s no space left, some set apart so I remember they belong to a friend.

The internet is marvelous but books are magical. I know I’ve met a kindred soul when we both enthuse over the scent of books. Ink and paper and age make an enchanting perfume, one that I would bottle and spray on myself if I could. The best thing about books is what’s contained inside of them. There are lives not my own that I can dip into. There are daring stories. There are Opinions and Facts and Personalities that I get to linger with. And there’s knowledge.

Because of this marvel I can never stick to only one book at a time. There are too many things to read and learn. Some days I want to read novels, others memoirs, others poetry. And always cookbooks. One fascinating thing about choosing what to read is that when you’re reading multiple things they bleed into each other. There are connections to be found that would otherwise be undiscovered.

I recently found a deeply discounted copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food at my local bookshop, and found I could not ignore its call to take it home. If you ever have the opportunity to read Waters’ work I would recommend that you take it. She speaks with efficiency about the dignity and grace of simple cooking. And I love anyone, especially as esteemed a chef and restauranteur as she is, who confesses that she’s a luddite in the kitchen, preferring a sharp knife and a mortar and pestle to anything with a plug.

At the same time I’ve been steadily working through Near and Far by Heidi Swanson, a book I’ve cooked from here before. Swanson is just as gracious as Waters, and with the same emphasis on good ingredients and good eating, but where Waters is classic Swanson is contemporary. She tops a dish of soba noodles and radishes with paprika, suggests substituting yuba skins

in for pasta, and adds nori to her granola. When I came across her recipe for grilled porcinis I remembered the chapter on rice I had just read in Waters’ book, and the quart of mushroom stock languishing in the freezer. Thus this risotto was born.

Risotto has a recipe for being finicky. It’s considered date night food, not something you’d make on a weeknight. Risotto does require attention, and it will make a killer date night. But risotto can also come together in half an hour without difficultly. While making this risotto I also purged my refrigerator of old food. That’s not something you can say about a fearsome beast of a dish.

Risotto is, at its core, comfort food. It’s creamy and tender and a perfect vehicle for toppings. Risotto will happily take leftovers and turn them into something divine. However, I will argue that these mushrooms in salsa verde are a perfect pairing for risotto. They’re concentrated in flavor from grilling and topped with a tangy, herbaceous dressing. The portobellos I used in lie of porcinis echo the taste of the mushroom stock, rich and savory without becoming heavy. It tastes of early spring- both the fresh bite and the richness not yet faded from winter, and the plate looks like spring- the brown of the earth with the greens and the purples that are always the first to arrive.

Happy Friday. Happy Spring. And to those who celebrate, Happy Easter and Happy Passover.

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Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

If you don’t have mushroom stock then you can easily substitute whatever sort of broth you have on hand. Risotto is adaptable in this way. If you have a little less than 5 cups of stock, feel free to lengthen it with hot water. I have not tried this trick myself, but Waters swears that if you have no white wine (and no red wine or beer to stand in for it) then adding a tablespoon or two of white wine vinegar in with the first addition of stock gives the risotto the acidity it needs.

serves 4

adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters and Near and Far by Heidi Swanson

For the risotto

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
5 cups mushroom stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper
1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese

For the mushrooms

2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing mushrooms
salt and pepper

To make the risotto, melt two tablespoons of butter in a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and stir. Let the onion cook until it’s become soft and translucent but hasn’t taken on any color. Add the rice and stir well. Cook until the rice is becoming clear and is coated with the butter, but is not taking on any color.

While softening the onion and toasting the rice bring the stock to a boil in another pot. Once the stock is boiling turn off the heat. It will stay warm enough without any heat underneath it.

Once the rice is turning translucent add the wine. Stir well and let the wine simmer away. It should not take long for the wine to be absorbed. Once the wine has all cooked off add one cup of the stock, reduce the heat to low, and stir well.

Watch the risotto and stir often but not constantly. When almost all the stock has been absorbed add another 1/2 cup of stock and stir. Continue this way, watching the risotto and adding the stock as necessary. Your additions of stock should slow as the risotto cooks. Start tasting the risotto about 12 minutes into cooking the rice. The rice should be perfectly tender but not mushy. In my kitchen this took about 25 minutes. Once the rice is fully cooked add just enough broth to make it creamy but not soupy. You may not need all the stock. If for whatever reason you find you need more, feel free to stretch your stock with hot water. Stir in the final tablespoon of butter and the Pecorino cheese and season as necessary with salt and pepper.

While the risotto is cooking, make the salsa verde and mushrooms. Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with the white wine vinegar. Let the shallots hang out in the vinegar while preparing the mushrooms.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat, and brush the mushrooms on both sides with olive oil. Once the grill pan is hot place the mushrooms on the pan to sear and cook on each side for about 3 minutes, or until the mushrooms start to shrink just a bit and have definite grill marks. Place to the side.

In a small bowl, combine the shallots, vinegar, thyme, parsley, and olive oil. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Toss the mushrooms in the salsa verde.

To serve, create a bed of the risotto on a plate and top with the mushrooms and salsa verde. Serve hot.

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Mujadara

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I first made mujadara in college. I spent senior year living with friends in a run down house half a mile from campus. When my dad came to help me move into the house he just looked at me and shook his head. It was dirty, but more than that it was rickety. It felt vaguely illegal to live there, even with paying rent and electricity. The landlord had no interest in maintaining something that he felt that college students would just ruin. Our roof was damaged by hail the year before. When my friend Hannah signed the lease he promised, on his word, that he would fix it. Conveniently written into the lease was that he was under no obligation make any repairs that were not written into the lease. It was a disappointingly adult lesson in the perils of promises.

But I loved that house. I loved the small yard where we strung a laundry line between two trees and our neighbors who allowed us to use their compost pile. I loved the front porch where we’d sit on summer nights and eat dinner, drinking wine out of mason jars. I loved my room, the first and only space I’ve ever had to myself with its mint green walls, sloping ceilings, and countertop where I kept my very own electric kettle. I didn’t love the creepy cellar underneath the house, but I loved the night when we invited all our friends over, got drunk, and painted the walls of the cellar.

We had one small kitchen between six girls. There were always fights about dishes and who used up the milk and didn’t replace it. But it was also a place where we’d study and catch up and share meals. Meals like mujarada were always on the stove- easy and cheap and delicious, and ideal to prepared while studying.

Mujadara. It’s a musical name for such a simple dish. Mujadara is made up essentially of four ingredients- olive oil, onions, lentils, and rice. It’s cheap and easy and mad delicious. I first heard of mujadara during that magical year of college from Orangette by Molly Wizenburg, whose elegant and clever writing paved the way for the abundance of food blogs we have today.

When I was in college I made mujadara much the way Molly describes. Now that I’m an adult and share my space with one person, not five and have a slightly larger grocery budget I add spices to the mix. Cumin, cardamamom, and cinnamon all accentuate the rich sweetness of caramelized onions. Bay leaves layer the earthy taste of lentils. Kept the same are the deeply caramelized onions, soft lentils, and tender rice. It’s comfort food in a deep way- you keep watch over a pot on the stove and just let it work its magic. I still use the same two and a half quart dutch oven and the same burnt wooden spoon. Across the years mujadara still is a celebration of things good and simple.

Mujadara

The base of this dish is the deeply caramelized onions. Don’t be afraid here- just keep an eye on the onions and stir occasionally. The color is where all the flavor lies. Ideally you’ll take these just to the teetering edge of burnt.

adapted from Orangette

serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, picked through for rocks
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
salt

In a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid warm the olive oil over medium low. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook, stirring as often as necessary, until the onions are deeply caramelized. If they start to brown on the bottom of the pot make sure to scrape the brown bits up- that’s where all the flavor is. Depending on a whole gauntlet of features from your onions to your pot to your medium low heat, this could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

While the onions are cooking add the lentils and the bay leaves to a pot and cover generously with water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then cook for twenty minutes. They should be tender by this point. Drain, remove the bay leaves, and set aside.

Once the onions are dark amber and soft stir in the cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Add the lentils and rice and a half teaspoon of rice. Stir well, then add in 2 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with the lid and reduce the heat to a simmer.

At twenty minutes, check the mujadara- you’re looking for the water to be absorbed without the pot being dry and the rice to be tender. If it isn’t there yet, return the cover and and continue cooking. If the water is absorbed and the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and continue cooking and checking periodically.

Once the rice is tender and the water absorbed, taste your mujadara and add salt as necessary. Serve warm.

 

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Cabbage and Rice Soup with Paprika and Sherry

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In the interest of economizing lately I’ve been turning to my pantry. Pantries are a magical thing- stuffed with dried beans, grains, cans of soup and coconut milk, pasta, lentils, vinegars, olive oil, nutella, and six types of sugar. At least, my pantry is. And that’s not counting the fresh staples that I always have on hand. There may not be an infinite variation of meals from these ingredients, but I haven’t hit the limit yet. It feels good to have a well-stocked larder. It feels like I could cook for months- as long as I can buy vegetables once a week.

Part of the efficiency of a pantry relies on actually using the things that I’ve collected, and that’s where I tend to fail. Dried beans? I’ve got ten types. And I even use them once in a while. But as fall truly arrives I’m interested in turning more towards pulses and grains.

I made this soup because I was curious if I could turn cabbage and rice soup- a drab sounding name if I’ve ever heard one- into something blog-worthy. As it turns out, the secret is in the spices.

Spices are another part of a well-stocked pantry that don’t get the attention they deserve. Too often spice cabinets are stocked with relics of decades past, the spices having lost their vibrancy a long time ago. I think that’s a reason Americans don’t cook much with spices- we are used to dusty old things, and don’t know how delicious spices can be.

Ground spices keep in good shape for a year, tops, before it’s time to toss them. Aaron and I buy most of our spices in bulk by the tablespoon, and buy actual jars of the ones that we go through quickly- mostly cumin, cinnamon, and paprika.

This soup relies on a mixture of smoked paprika, cayenne, mustard seed, fennel, allspice, and nutmeg. The taste twists and turns on your tongue- here pungent, here smokey, here spicy, here sweet. It’s hearty, but also sultry. Leeks and onions, cooking low and slow with butter, bring in a delicate sweetness. There’s a serious dose of sherry that comes in to elevating the nutty, earthy combination of brown rice and cabbage. And a flurry of Parmesan cheese brings out the nutty, salty, sweet notes of the rest of the soup.

It’s the kind of soup that makes me grateful fall is here. I hope you feel the same.

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Cabbage and Rice Soup with Paprika and Sherry

If you don’t have sherry on hand, a fruity wine, either red or white, will do just fine.

Serves 6

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 an onion, diced
2 large leeks, halved, thinly sliced, and washed well
salt
1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground fennel
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup brown rice
1/2 a small cabbage, ribs removed and thinly sliced
1 cup sherry
6 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar

Parmesan cheese for serving

In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the onions, leeks, and a pinch of salt. Stir well, and let cook down until the onions and leeks have softened, and the liquid that the leeks give off is mostly evaporated, between ten and fifteen minutes.

Add the mustard seeds, paprika, cayenne, nutmeg, allspice, fennel, and black pepper and stir well. Let cook for a minute or two, until the spices are fragrant. Stir in the tomato paste and let cook until it too is fragrant.

Stir in the rice and the cabbage. Let them cook, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is starting to break down just a little bit. This should take about ten minutes.

Add in the sherry and broth, and stir well. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Allow to simmer, uncovered, for about 35 minutes, until the rice is tender. If the soup gets too thick while cooking then add enough water to bring it back to a soup-like consistancy. Add the vinegar, and taste for seasoning- you may need more salt.

Serve hot, topped with grated Parmesan cheese.

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Horchata de Arroz

Horchata de Arroz

For the first nine months of my blog I shot all the pictures on my iPhone. That runs contrary to a lot of professional advice, but I didn’t anticipate any traffic in the beginning. An iPhone was the tool that I had, and I wanted to be able to test things out and get into the habit of blogging before dropping any serious money on this space. I’m not going to claim that I became a brilliant photographer in those nine months. I would say that I improved a lot between my first blog post (eek) and my last one shot with an iPhone (not great by any means, but better). And I think anyone would argue there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Around six months into blogging I decided that I wanted to take it seriously.In order to blog seriously there’s a lot of different ways you can spend a lot of money. It’s not really polite to talk about money, but I’m a line cook. If you have an awareness about restaurants in America you probably know that cooks of any kind, especially line cooks, aren’t exactly in the top 1 percent. And everything in blogging seems to have a cost, from premium subscriptions to owning your own domain to creative licenses. It was enough to make me consider taking on a third job to pay for all the blogging costs. But after thinking over some opportunities and blissfully ignoring others, I decided that before dealing with abstracts I should learn to take pretty pictures. I started putting away a small amount of every paycheck into a designated account, did some research, and went to a camera store and asked an annoying amount of questions. After three months of saving I walked away with a new camera. A Nikon D5300, to be exact.

It was a learning curve, and a fun one, to figure out how to shoot pictures on this new camera. The photos got better quickly, until they weren’t getting better anymore. It took googling “food photography” and “learn to take better pictures” that I figured out I was using this carefully saved for camera as an expensive point and shoot. Oops.

So here’s the first picture for this blog not shot in manual mode. It’s the first with changes to the white balance and exposure, and the first where I staged the photo before bringing in the food. I still have a lot to learn, but luckily it’s a fun thing to study. It’s also fun to try styling different foods, and some are tougher than others. So naturally I’ll start with a drink. Drinks are easy to photograph, right?

Horchata’s a treat that I don’t drink enough. I see it occasionally at the menu at certain Mexican restaurants, but in my experience it’s a revolving menu item. It’s there one week, gone the next, and may pop back up in a month or two. I’ve always loved the creamy sweetness of horchata, and I got tired of waiting to encounter it. It was high time that I made it myself.

We were hit with a heat wave here last week, and our apartment doesn’t have air conditioning. This is usually not a problem- we live in the coldest major city in the US, where the mean temperature is in the 40s. But when the heat index soars above a hundred it’s painful. For a few consecutive days I gulped down this horchata on ice, which was both a special treat and a cooling tonic. If you’re in a heat wave, this is a treat that will help fix what ails you. If you’re not, it’s a tasty not-dessert dessert, a treat with breakfast, and, as per Aaron, an excellent addition to coffee.

It’s an easy drink, but one that requires both time and some equipment. You need a blender to make horchata. You’ll also need a fine mesh strainer, some cheesecloth, and patience. If you have all those things, and you’re willing to plan ahead, you’ll be rewarded with a sweet, creamy drink that reminds me of the milk left behind after eating cinnamon toast crunch in all the best ways.

Horchata de Arroz

adapted from Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice & Aguas Frescas by Fany Gerson

Be patient while the horchata is straining. Strain carefully, otherwise you’ll be left with rice pulp in your glass.

Makes about 6 cups

2/3 cup brown rice
3 cups warm water
1 cinnamon stick
2 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
ground cinnamon for serving

In a blender, food processor, or spice grinder, grind the rice into a fine powder. Transfer to a jar with the warm water and cinnamon stick. Refrigerate overnight.

In a blender combine the rice water with the whole milk, sugar, and salt. Blend on high speed for a minute, until everything is well combined and the cinnamon stick has been completely distributed into the rice milk mixture.

Strain into a clean container, using a strainer lined with cheesecloth. If the horchata has some difficulty straining use a spoon to gently stir the horchata as it strains. Refrigerate again until completely cool.

Serve over ice, dusted with cinnamon.

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