After about fifteen years of living in Cincinnati, I am finally to the point where I can behave myself at Jungle Jims.
I no longer feel an urge to buy durian fruit ‘just to see what it smells like,” or try to convince myself that I really really will use two big stalks of fresh lemongrass. I’m honest with myself about the honey I need (tupelo or orange blossom, please) and am no longer tempted by the salsa bar, chocolate covered insects, or Indian TV dinners.
But sometimes I do see something extrordinary, and immediately feel the need to plan the entire week’s menu around it. In this case, it was fresh morels.
Morels are difficult to find, even at farmers’ markets. I do occasionally see them at Madison’s in the springtime, but never more than one or two Saturdays. And at anywhere from $40-$60/lb, it’s not something I want to buy every day. The price, obviously, has to do with how difficult they are to cultivate, and similarly how tricky they are to find in the wild. The winter cannot be too warm or too severe – there has to be just enough but not too much rain, and the right trees in the right light have to be dead for just the right amount of time.
But WOW, they are worth it. Bold, meaty, without overly gamey or “vegetal” flavors, they taste like, well, mushroom: rich and intense and deep. Not so much like truffle, which is sweeter and more garlicky, morels taste simultaneously familiar and exotic, and are worth buying fresh.
The trick is finding something to do with them. Sauteeing them and serving over pasta is a classic step. Unfortunately, the only other common option is to pair them with asparagus – another delicate early-season guest.
Unfortunately, I can’t stand asparagus.
So Laura of the Nomerati, foodie and all around smarty-pants that she is, suggested a risotto. Hmm.
I try not to get too involved with my cooking during the week. I’ll do a stir fry, or sautee some veggies over pasta, or roast some potatoes with a salad, nothing remarkable or complicated. But given that I HAD to use the morels quickly, I plunged in. I did have homemade broth, onions, garlic, and the right kind of rice, and picked up a bottle of THIS (well balanced, dry but enough melony-fruity “notes” to stand up to the morels).
One other thing about risotto: the Italian rice market is, evidently, some sort of kleptocratic argri-culinary combat zone where deceit, treachery and anarchy reign. Italian law only provides for grading the length of the grain itself, from semifino to fino to superfino, (superfino being the longest grain, which is still a lot shorter than American varieties but considered the best for risotto), and specifically allows any variety of superfino rice to be labelled as, well, anything, including the two best varieties for risotto, arborio and carnaroli.
If you’ve never made risotto with real carnaroli, try it once. It’s a longer and thirstier grain than arborio, but has a beautiful alabaster sheen and gives off the perfect quantity of starch to lightly bind a risotto. There is a private consortium in Italy called, uhh, the Consorzio, and their seal (a stork standing in a rice field) graces approved varieties of rices.
The bottom line, though, is that even though you may end up buying a totally bootleg batch of rice, you can tell just by looking at the grain if the rice is good for risotto – the more transparent the outer hull is in comparison to the inner “pearl,” the more loose starch there will be in the final dish.
Anyway, I was out of carnaroli anyway, so i did the following:
1 1/4 Cups of arborio rice
2 ounces fresh morels, whole. (about a pint)
4 cups chicken broth, Warm (if you are using homemade then be sure it’s salty enough for your liking)
5 strands good saffron steeped in 1/4 cup hot water (optional but in my opinion important)
1 cup of white wine that isn’t Riesling.
3 T butter, plus a small pat for the morels.
2 cloves or more of garlic, minced
1/2 Cup onion, diced
salt, pepper and parm-reg to taste
minced parsley for a fancy garnish.
First, in a small sautee pan, sautee the morels in a pat of butter until they reduce by about half. Set aside.
Place 1 T of butter and 1T of olive oil in your large, heavy bottomed saucepan. Sweat the onions and garlic until translucent (add a pinch of salt). Stir in the rice, making sure that every grain is coated with a bit of fat. Stir thoroughly until the mixture begins to smell “nutty.”
Turn the heat up to medium high, and add a cup of chicken broth and the wine. Stir, and simmer. When the mixture has almost absorbed all of the liquid (test by running your spoon along the bottom of the pan and looking at how much loose liquid there is)
Turn the heat to medium, and continue to add the warm broth in 1/2 cup installments. You may need most of it, you may need all of it. It just depends.
Again, go slowly and keep stirring. This should take you about 30 minutes.
Also, taste once in a while for doneness and salinity. Broths vary greatly in sodium content.
Eventually the rice will release its starch, and the risotto will begin to flow like lava. Add the saffron water here. This should turn the color from an offputting grey to an earthy yellow, and you should be able to taste it in the final product.
As the rice reaches completion, stir in the 2T of butter. This is a luxurious step that Laura recommended. Don’t skip.
Fold in the morels, garnish with parsley and parm.
Serves two as a main course or four as a side.