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Monday, May 20

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The Italian language has significantly fewer words than the English language, which helps explain why there are so many colorful idioms in Italian. For example: "Che aveva mangiato la minestra di riso." Which literally translates to mean "He had eaten rice soup." But "riso/a" also means laughter, so the sentence becomes: "He had eaten laughter soup." Interesting way to describe someone who laughs easily, no?

When people think of Italian cooking, pasta comes to mind. But rice is more of a staple in Northern areas than pasta. Which brings us to the crowd-pleasing dish called risotto.

Yum. A gooey, fragrant plate of risotto holds its heat much better than pasta, making it a great for cold weather meal, and it contains considerably less fat than most of the traditional American comfort foods. It's a perfect way to use up the last of the frozen meat and broth from the chicken we roasted two weeks ago.

Most people only encounter risotto in restaurants -- the little they know about the dish is that it's labor intensive. Which it is, but don't let that keep you from trying it yourself. Your hard work will be rewarded, and if you do it often enough your upper body strength will improve to such a degree that it won't matter anyway. The following recipe makes enough risotto for four to six servings as a main course or around eight side-dish servings. Halve the amounts for a generous dinner for two.

What you'll need:
8 cups chicken stock
1 medium onion, minced
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups medium grain rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
2/3 to 1 cup grated parmesan cheese
Salt and black pepper

The key to risotto is, of course, the rice, so you're going to have to be choosy about the rice you use. Picking up the cheapest bag of white rice is going to get you a pile of mush. That's because nine times out of ten, that bag will contain long grain rice, which is far too small and thin to soak up all that chicken stock. You want a medium grain rice, which is shorter but more plump, ready to take on an incredible amount of liquid without disintegrating. Short- to medium-grain rices are high in starch and this is exactly what you want. The starch binds the grains together and contributes to the creamy consistency risotto is known for.

If you want to create authentic Italian risotto, you're going to want Italian rice. Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, and Arborio are the three most commonly exported from Italy. Arborio is the most common and the most affordable. Vialone Nano cooks a little bit quicker than Carnaroli, but is slightly bland and most commonly used in soups. If none of these is available, go with whatever short- or medium-grain rice you can find. In a pinch we've even used sushi rice, which will work but is easy to overcook, and barley, which takes much longer to cook and has a chewier texture.

A word about the tools for this recipe. This is a two-pot meal: one for the risotto, one for the stock. You'll also need a ladle to move stock from one pot to the other in one cup increments (my ladle's bowl holds half a cup; you might want to figure out how big yours is before you start) and a wooden spoon. You're going to be stirring with that spoon for the next 30-45 minutes, so make sure it fits comfortably in your hand.

Get your chicken stock simmering on a back burner -- you want it to be hot when you start work on the rice -- and put another pot on the front burner on low heat, and add two of the three tablespoons of butter to melt. Mince the "medium onion" -- don't you love vague descriptions like that? You want about a cup to a cup-and-a-half of onion, chopped finely so it disappears in the finished risotto. Increase the heat on the front pot to medium-high, add the onions to the butter and stir.

Once the onions are translucent, turn the heat up to high and add the rice, stirring constantly. When the rice has all become clear-ish except for a little white dot in the center of each grain, pour in the white wine (anything dry: chardonnay, champagne -- sake and dry vermouth work, too) and stir even more vigorously until the rice has soaked it up completely.

Now start adding stock. Ladle in approximately one cup of stock at a time into the rice and stir constantly. Wait until all the stock is absorbed before adding the next cup -- when the rice no longer flows like a liquid behind your spoon and it's starting to stick to the bottom, it's time for more stock. Be careful when you start stirring again after adding stock; the resistance of the mixture will have gone from tough to very, very easy, and too aggressive a stir could slosh risotto out of the pot and onto you.

When you've stirred in about six cups of stock, start taste-testing the risotto for doneness and add stock in half-cup increments. When the rice reaches a nice al dente, take the pot off the burner and fold in the last tablespoon of butter and the parmesan cheese. Since we used homemade chicken stock, you'll also want to add two teaspoons to one tablespoon of salt at this time, depending on your taste; if you used store-bought stock you'll probably want to skip it.

You could serve the risotto as-is with a little fresh-ground black pepper, or you could embellish it with just about anything you'd like. Since you've got that leftover chicken, why not sauté it in some olive oil with some fresh herbs and mix it in with the risotto? Or toss in some shrimp sautéed with garlic and diced asparagus, or cooked broccoli, or bacon and peas, or... The list goes on and on.

Chances are the finished product will be nothing like what you've had in a restaurant. Unless the menu asks you to allow half an hour for preparation, what you're getting is something more closely resembling porridge than risotto. Yours will instead be rich and creamy, filling and satisfying while also very healthy -- the only fat in the whole dish is three tablespoons of butter and some cheese, and you could always replace the butter with olive oil (there's no substitute for the cheese).

~*~

All this great food from a single chicken.

It's a common misconception that a lot of money has to be spent, and a lot of knowledge must be had, in order to make a healthy and tasty meal. "Gourmet" carries an elite connotation. But considering the word comes from an Old French word that means servant or a person who carries wine, it doesn't deserve to have a difficult, expensive, unattainable sense about it. My personal dictionary defines it as someone who enjoys good food and wine. So, if you're willing to learn a few things and then expand on them, you'll be a gourmet chef at Chez You with friends asking for dinner invitations. And you don't have to tell them that their delicious risotto dinner started out as last week's leftovers.

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