Posted By bbinns on February 15, 2011When I was writing Joachim Splichal’s cookbook (Patina: Spuds, Truffles, and Wild Gnocchi), that highly-respected chef gave me a short, one-sentence piece of advice that permanently removed any fear of stirring. However, I know that, for home cooks, risotto ranks right up there with souffle in the “I can’t do it!” realm.
Here’s what Splichal told me, back when I was testing every incredibly-complex, restaurant-style recipe for his book in a home kitchen (with home-style skills and ingredients, natch): “Brigie, risotto must take eighteen minutes, from start to finish.” Period. End class, end fear of risotto. (For the full effect, imagine this being uttered in a deep and guttural German accent.)
To clarify, the eighteen minutes in question begins when you add the rice and ends when you remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the enrichment (butter, cheese), if any. So, when I decided to include a seafood-and-cured pork risotto in my upcoming book about cooking in California’s Central Coast wine country, the timing was never in question. Whenever I set out to develop a recipe (twenty-four cookbooks published, and counting), my first question is: How is this different, better, more finely focussed, than anything I’ve done before? What job do I want this dish to perform, what role will it take—value will it add—to the menu, or the recipe collection, of the buyer of this book?I must have been channeling travels and tables in Italy when I came up with this combo: Scallop, Smoky Bacon, and Red Wine Risotto. (I’ve discovered that starches—whether it’s pasta, rice, or even farro—ratchet up several orders of magnitude in flavor when simmered with some red wine, instead of just broth or water.)
No need for big, pricey, diver-caught scallops here—I want them bite sized and happily mingling with the plump, wine-swollen grains of Arborio—so little bay scallops are fine. For my cured-pork content, I wanted more than just any old bacon, so I sourced dark and smoky slices from the excellent New Frontiers market in SLO (San Luis Obispo). With all ingredients measured and assembled, I was ready to begin.
A little olive oil in the pan—about a tablespoon—helped begin the rendering process for the bacon, and smoothed the arrival of the next party-goer: red onion. Then came the scallops—but only for a minute or two—then I scooped everything out with a slotted spoon, leaving behind the smoky fat. In went the rice and on went my mental timer: 1:36 on a sunny Paso Robles Sunday afternoon.I stir to coat the grains with smoky fat and begin a slight caramelization; when the rice starts to sizzle, in goes 2 cups of ’08 Zuma Vista, an earthy Syrah/Grenche blend made in Malibu by good friends. When most of the wine is absorbed, I commence adding my warm chicken broth. All the while, I regulate the heat so the liquid simmers excitedly but not explosively, keeping my eye on the clock and gauging my progress so that, when 1:54 pops up, I’m ready to return the scallop/bacon mixture to the pan, then pull it off the heat and stir in my enrichment (1 1/4 cups of grated Grana Padana) and my bright note (3/4 cup chopped baby arugula).
The reward for my efforts? A rich-bright-savory-smoky mound of seafood-flecked, wine-purple goodness. Happy faces, empty plates, and a truly estimable wine for quaffing with our wine-country lunch. Not to mention, another recipe for my next book that will enrich cook’s lives from Seattle to Sasketchewan. A recipe I can be proud of. I’d offer nothing less.