Sun 3 Dec 2006
This has happened to me twice this year at high-end, white-tablecloth restaurants.
I order an entree that comes with cauliflower risotto, thinking, “Hmm, that sounds pretty good.” Waiter brings the plate, there’s a white, slightly lumpy, slightly liquidy substance, I dig in, there’s no rice; it’s not risotto; it’s creamed cauliflower. And when I say to the waiter, “Uh, that’s not risotto,” he replies, “Oh, no, sir, that’s cauliflower chopped to look like risotto.”
I’m the victim of menu wit.
Now is when I want to grab my plate, burst through the metal swinging doors into the kitchen, confront the chef, perhaps grabbing him by the collar and knocking the tocque (or Red Man cap) from his head, and shout, “Risotto means rice, got that, Jack?”
It was bad enough in the 1990s and a bit into the 21st Century when ingredients or elements of a dish described on a menu were placed inside quotation marks to indicate coyly that a little joke was being played on the diner, that chef was exercising culinary cleverness. So a salmon “chop” isn’t like a lamb chop — salmon don’t have chops or “chops” — but a fillet rolled up and sauteed, and a lobster “sandwich” isn’t a sandwich at all but a piece of lobster and other stuff balanced atop a large crouton, and mushroom “marmalade” isn’t marmalade, of course, but mushrooms cooked down with white wine, butter and truffles and lightly caramelized, and so on. Ha-ha.
Apparently, however, chefs are abandoning the tendency to hint at their whimsy, leaving diners to guess why their cauliflower risotto seems, oddly, like the creamed cauliflower their mothers made at home, sans Velveeta.
These matters run about the country’s restaurants in waves, and we will soon see “cauliflower risotto” disappear from menus as surely as the kiwi, the ostrich (thank god) and Parmesan foam. I’m not saying that chefs shouldn’t be creative and work their ways and wills upon ingredients, but it would be nice if they didn’t think they had to be magicians and wave their wands and capes to mystify us with outrageous daring, yoking disparate foods in unholy alliance or manifesting ponderous jollity that falls flat at the table. Just good, authentic, tasty food is enough for most of us.
So, what is risotto? Let’s allow Marcella ‘May Her Name Be Goddess’ Hazan to tell us, from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992):
“The risotto technique exploits the uncommon properties of certain Italian rice varieties whose kernel is enveloped by a soft starch known as amylopectin. When it is subjected to the appropriate cooking method, that starch dissolves, creamily binding the kernels together and fusing them, at the same time, with the vegetables, meat, fish, or other ingredients in the flavor base. The resulting dish is a risotto.”
The “appropriate cooking method” is the time-honored procedure of standing at the stove and gradually adding warm stock to the mixture of sauteed rice and onions, stirring constantly, a process that usually takes 25 or 30 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all the broth and is cooked al dente. There’s no other way to do it. The rice varieties that work best are arborio and carnaroli.
Notice that Hazan says “creamily binding.” I have never understood why chefs, after cooking, add cream or butter to risotto, which, by its nature, is already plentifully rich and creamy. Additional cream or butter makes risotto, to this palate and stomach anyway, beyond the pale with richness.
The risotto we prepare at home mainly is a shrimp risotto from that funny and poignant restaurant-and-eating movie, The Big Night — The New York Times ran a series of recipes from the movie back then — and the hardest part of this dish is peeling the shrimp. The actual time spent standing there slowly stirring the broth into the rice I find sort of meditative. Think of it as Zen through cooking.