Once upon a time, I lived with a movie star. I’m not making this up, but I’m also not linking to his picture. We’ll just have to leave it as a mystery at the moment—you can email me if you want more details. Oh, and I wasn’t “living” with him, the way you’re probably thinking. Instead, I was living with him and his girlfriend, their two-year-old son, and the Irish nanny. For six months.
The house the CFP were renting from Sting had an enormous kitchen, the most beautiful kitchen I’ve ever been in. Enormous but homey. Warm flagstone tiles on the floor. A thick wooden table, sturdy and large enough to seat ten people for dinner. A couch and tv nook on one end of the room, tall French doors out to the garden overlooking Hampstead Heath on the other. And in the middle, a huge block with cutting boards, a rinsing sink, a built-in colander. Copper pans hanging from the ceiling. A walk-in pantry larger than most apartments in New York City. And a lovely, wonderful Aga stove. My dream kitchen, really. (Except for the rock-star photos of Sting with his children. He seemed to be sucking in his cheeks in all of them.) I never wanted to leave.
The CFP loved to eat risotto. In fact, I think they could have eaten it every night. And they nearly did. That meant that I ate risotto with a wonderful regularity. I had always associated creamy, densely flavored risotto with luxury, that special treat you have at an expensive restaurant once a year. But for these people, luxury was mundane. After all, we drank our morning orange juice out of gold-rimmed glasses. And if they liked risotto, we were going to eat risotto. Of course, they didn’t cook it. Instead, they hired a personal chef, who would arrive at the house about 4, chop and boil and roast and prepare for the dinner we invariably ate around 8. I found that I wanted to spend more time with the chefs than the CFP in the end. Shame that they went through so many chefs, then. There was always something infinitesimally wrong with the food, or the service, or the dishes not put away properly. And then, there would be the inevitable trial of nervous chefs eager to enter into the world of celebrity. Always, the CFP asked them to make risotto on their one-night trial.
I watched so many chefs screw it up, and a few get it heavenly, wonderfully right, that I was always intimidated by risotto. And to be honest, once I fled the CFP house and London, I couldn’t eat any more for awhile.
But since I found I must eat gluten-free, all kinds of foods have been arriving in my life. Or in the case of risotto, coming back.
This is one fact I know about writing: impose just a little bit of structure and wild creativity comes bounding forth. Happily, and not surprisingly, the same seems to be true of food.
I’ve discovered all kinds of foods that I never would have eaten before the celiac diagnosis. Ume plum vinegar, edamame, popped amaranth, soy yogurt, tamari—I’ll write about them all, eventually. But some, like risotto, come floating to the surface of my consciousness and inspire me to try them, finally.
I made my first risotto tonight. Inspired by this cookbook that Meri gave me for my birthday, I gathered all the materials spontaneously after class today. “I don’t like rice,” some people like to tell me, when I explain that it will be my main grain for awhile. But I think I know why. Most Americans eat their rice overcooked, gummy, and bleached white. Or, if they’re on a health kick, they’ll eat dry brown rice. Blech to both. Instead, there are a dozen great ways to eat rice, filled with nutrition and taste both. Arborio rice is, for me, the finest. Plump when cooked, with just a bit of al dente bite, it soaks up the flavors of what you cook it in better than any grain I know. Italians started making risotto as early as the 15th century, and they show no signs of stopping. And after tonight’s gorgeous, heady treat, I’m not going to be able to stop for awhile either.
When I returned home, late in the afternoon, I thought of throwing together leftovers. But instead, the spirit of discovery infused me again. I stood in the cluttered kitchen and chopped, sauteed, smelled, and stirred. It took me much less time than I had anticipated. It’s much easier to make than it seems. All you need is a good recipe, a patience with the process, a joy of the meditative qualities of chopping and stirring, and great music to dance to while you cook. And eating it? Glorious. I sat in my little kitchen, free from the trappings of luxury, alone with my thoughts, spinach and smoky bacon on my tongue, and closed my eyes with the joy. And no crazy famous people.
BACON SPINACH RISOTTO
5 cups of vegetable or chicken stock (out of homemade stock, I used Pacific organic chicken stock)
1/4 cup of butter
1 red onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced (honestly, I used three or four, but I’m a garlic girl)
1 1/2 cups of bacon, shredded (I don’t get the cup measurement. I used about six pieces)
2 cups of arborio rice
large pinch of nutmeg
2 tomatoes, chopped (I used heirloom tomatoes from the farmers’ market)
6 ounce of spinach (I used an entire bunch, because I love spinach)
1/2 cup of freshly grated Romano cheese
1. Pour the stock into a large saucepan and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat until the stock is gently simmering.
2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in large skillet and gently fry the onion, garlic, and bacon for 2 to 3 minutes until the onion has softened but not browned and the bacon is sealed. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring all the while, for two minutes until the rice is well cooked and starting to toast.
3. Add a ladleful of the stock to the pan and cook gently until the stock is absorbed. STIR CONTINUOUSLY. Continue to add the stock in small quantities until half of it has been used and the rice is creamy. Season well and add the nutmeg and tomatoes.
4. Continue to add the stock until the risotto becomes thick but not sticky. This should be about 25 minutes.
5. Stir the spinach into the risotto for two to three minutes, then add the cheese at the last moment. Serve and eat immediately.
° Do not wash the rice before you cook it. This eliminates half the starch, and thus half the creaminess.
° Choose a wide-mouthed, large pan to cook the risotto. Don’t make the mistake of using a pan just slightly larger than the recipe, or else you’re going to have rice stuck to your stove and your pants.
° Find an even heat and keep it there the entire time you are cooking. I cooked mine on medium high, and it turned out beautifully. But you know your stove better than any cookbook (or blog author) could. Go by your instinct.
° Stir and stir and stir some more. Slowly. Don’t leave. Don’t wish for it to be over. Don’t complain that your biceps are aching. Throw yourself into it fully. You never know—you just might reach enlightenment by stirring.
° Enjoy with some lovely red wine. Try Woop Woop, for the pure pleasure of the name alone.