Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cajun Risotto

My last post was not wrong - the risotto bug has bitten and is apparently here to stay. Not two days after I finished up the last of the arugula risotto did I go brainstorming for another excuse to make more creamy rice comfort food. However, I wanted something a little more savory than the last time around.

In addition to being just plain delicious, red beans and rice has quite a nostalgia factor for me. Growing up, the one time every year we could count on getting Popeye's Chicken (and a giant tub of red beans and rice on the side) was the annual summer visit to my grandparents house in southern Illinois. There is a water park right on the IL/MO border that we'd take a day trip to and on the way back to their house after a day full of sun and water slides, we'd pick up dinner at Popeyes. The food was always great, but the most memorable part was watching my (depression-baby) grandfather clean chicken bones like they were the last thing he'd eat. It's turned into a little bit of a sport over the years between my sisters and I - who can clean their chicken bones like Pa? This annual summer feast was my first introduction to Cajun food. 

Of all the Cajun dishes I've tried, both as a diner and as a cook, red beans and rice is one of my favorites. The only catch? To really do it well so that the beans are cooked perfectly but the rice isn't soggy, it takes a slow pace and a lot of pots. Think of this as red beans and rice in a hurry. It's a bit more melded than the original version tends to be and it ends up being a bit soupier, which I happened to absolutely love. It also has more veggies than you'll find in many red beans and rice interpretations (especailly Popeye's... though love, guys). Best of all, this dish is very, very easy to make as a vegetarian dish and add meat in separately for anyone who wants it. If keeping the dish vegetarian is no concern, feel free to add in the sausage at the beginning and substitute chicken broth for vegetable broth.

One batch of this will serve four generously and works especially well even it's the only thing you're serving for dinner. That doesn't mean you can't include some fried chicken if you're so inclined... 

Cajun Risotto
35 minutes
Serves 4 generously
Spoonful of Something Original

  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ large onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 ribs celery, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 1 can red beans, drained
  • 1 ½ cups Arborio rice
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 4-5 cups vegetable broth
  • 1-2 Tbsp. Cajun seasoning
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. black pepper
  • 8 oz. Andouille sausage (optional – see tips and tricks)

1.   In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat.
2.   Sautee onion and garlic for about 3 minutes, or until the onion starts to become translucent.
3.   Add in the celery and allow to cook for an additional 5 minutes.
4.   Stir in the red pepper and beans and allow to cook for an additional 2 minutes.
5.    Add in the rice and stir to combine all the ingredients. Allow the rice to cook without liquid for 2 minutes.
6.   Add in the white wine, stir to combine and continue stirring occasionally until most of the liquid has been absorbed.
7.   Add ½ cup vegetable broth, stirring occasionally. Stir in the Cajun seasoning and salt and pepper.
8.   Continue to add the broth each time the moisture is mostly absorbed, but before the rice dries out, ½ cup at a time. Repeat this step until the rice is tender.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. You may not use all 5 cups of vegetable broth and that’s ok! Adding the liquid ½ cup at a time ensures you won’t dry out your rice (provided you’re stirring and paying attention) and you won’t overcook your dish (provided you occasionally stop to taste and check for doneness).
  2. Depending on what kind of Cajun seasoning you use, you may want more or less added salt in your version. To make sure you don’t oversalt, start with less than the recipe calls for, taste and continue to add until it tastes right to you.
  3. If you want to add meat, you can add uncooked Andouille sausage at step 2. Cook it for a few minutes by itself before adding in the onion and garlic. If you’re working with pre-cooked sausage, you can add it to the entire pot as you add the last 2 cups of broth, or top individual services with meat to keep the main dish vegetarian.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Arugula and Walnut Risotto

It will become clear over the next few posts that my love for risotto has recently turned into a mild obsession with the gooey, creamy carbilicious dish. I've made it with butter, with cheese, with walnut oil and spinach, with shrimp and andouille. Even as I write this I think "wow, the only meal you haven't really touched is dessert. ...Dessert risotto? Wait! Breakfast risotto?" See? I've crossed a line.

Any other February I'd swear up and down the trend is attributed to the chilly winter temperatures, but anyone living in south central Indiana knows that excuse is entirely invalid. We've been enjoying what I now refer to as "fake winter" where days are in the 30s or 40s and you barely have to scrape ice from your windshield. And let me tell you. I find it blissful.

Regardless, the month on the calendar has been putting me in the mood for comfort foods of sorts. As far as comfort foods go, risotto is topped by only a few in my book (because, let's get real, macaroni and cheese is second to none). It truly is a simple dish to make, even if it does require a bit of an attentive eye. It manages to still be creamy even when additional fats are few and far between. It can be made as a heavy, hearty meal or a light, but filling one.

Risotto recipes can be a little daunting with the obligatory "don't walk away or you food will burn to ashes!" disclaimer I find in so many of them. While you need to keep an eye on your stove to make sure your rice still has enough liquid, I find occasionally stirring the rice or pouring on stock/water/broth does the trick every time. Most standard sized recipes (1 cup rice with 3-4 cups broth) will take 25-30 minutes to cook the rice through, give or take depending on what else the recipe calls for.

Here are the three most important things to keep in mind when you're cooking risotto:

  • Lay out all your ingredients before hand - it makes it much easier to be quick on your feet when the rice is cooking!
  • Keep an eye on it while it's cooking - if it begins to dry out, stir in more liquid.
  • When it's done, it's done - taste the rice from time to time to check for doneness. If you need more liquid than the recipe calls for, add it. If you don't use it all before the rice is ready, leave it.

If you want, you can always cook it low and slow, or at a lower temperature and for more time than the recipe calls for - medium-low instead of medium and 40 minutes instead of 30. It'll take more time to finish, but start there if that's where you're comfortable.

Here's a recipe for a great dead-of-winter risotto, especially because arugula is found fairly easily this time of year. It works very well as a side dish for roasted chicken but will also stand alone as a meal on its own.

Arugula and Walnut Risotto
40 minutes
Serves 4 Generously

  • 6-8 cups arugula, loosely packed
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3 Tbsp. olive oil
  • ½ yellow onion, finely chopped
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 6-8 cups vegetable stock
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • ¼ cup parmesan, grated
  • ½ cup walnuts, chopped

1.   Place 3 cups of water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Place the arugula in the water for 30 seconds, then transfer to an ice bath.
2.   Remove the arugula from the ice bath and blend it in a food processor or chop finely.
3.   In the same saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the rice for one minute or until the rice begins to look toasted.
4.   Add the onion and cook for an additional minute.
5.   Add the wine and stir occasionally until most of the liquid is absorbed.
6.   Add the vegetable stock ½ - 1 cup at a time until the rice is cooked through.
7.   When the rice is done, remove from the heat and stir in butter, parmesan and walnuts.
8.   Add salt and pepper to taste.

Tips and Tricks:
  1. Cooking and cooling the arugula will allow it to soften and keep the bright green color in tact. The easiest way to prepare an ice bath is to fill a large bowl with ice water and place a small strainer within the larger bowl.
  2. You may not need all of the vegetable stock. Taste occasionally to make sure the rice does not get overcooked. If the rice is done and there is stock leftover, save it for later. If you run out of stock and need more liquid, add water.