The Bear makes some of the best risotto I've ever tasted - and I've tasted a LOT of risotto. Of course, anything jammed with butter, cream and cheese is usually pretty heavenly, artery-blockages notwithstanding. So how the hell I was ever going to get away with a butterless, creamless, cheeseless risotto that wouldn't end in divorce...
The answer was sitting quietly on my kitchen counter: leeks.
I grabbed my Italian cooking bible and frantically searched for a recipe. Found one, yay! Risotto con porri e panna: starts with butter, ends with cream and is finished with cheese. Boo. This is now a personal vision quest...
Though excited at first, the Bear quickly turned skeptical when he scanned the fridge and found no butter, cream or cheese in the house. He let me amuse myself anyway, secretly planning to rectify the situation with an emergency pizza. I don't know if it was because he had such low expectations to begin with, but he was blown away - seriously blown away - by how good this was - especially because there was virtually nothing in it!
The actual recipe is ridiculously simple: slice up some leeks, cook 'em down, add rice and stir, add broth and stir (repeat this move about 10 times), throw in peas at the end, garnish and serve. However, there are a few secrets to making a truly transcendent risotto. I'm eternally grateful that they were passed on to me, so if you're interested, here they are:
1) First and foremost, take your time. Grab your iPod, open a bottle of wine, phone a friend and get comfortable in front of the stove. Plan to be there for at least 40-45 minutes, adding one cup of liquid at a time and stirring constantly. Con-stant-ly. Leaving rice to soak in an unattended steambath yields nothing but...well, cooked rice.
2) You don't have to make it yourself, but whether it comes from a can, a box, or a boullion, use broth. Never water. I cannot emphasize this enough, in conjunction with the previous point. Rice cooks itself in water. Risotto is prepared by constantly adding and cooking down broth.
3) Use good risotto rice and the best quality ingredients you can find. Cooking is nothing but chemistry. Compensating for the lack of butter, cream and cheese is easy when you use fresh ingredients and give their flavors time to develop and marinate.
4) If by some bizarre chance you've forgotten about an open bottle of Prosecco - or any sparkling or white wine - and allowed it to go flat in the back of your fridge (gasp!), this is an excellent way to rectify the situation. Use that last cup (surely you don't have more than that left over) for the first absorption before continuing to add the broth...one cup at a time.
Leek Risotto with Spring Peas
adapted from the Silver Spoon's "risotto con porri e panna"
3 large leeks (or 5-6 smaller ones), white parts only, sliced thinly in rounds (approx 3-4 cups)
5-6 cups vegetable broth (how much you end up using depends on your rice)
2 cups risotto rice (arborrio is ideal)
200g of spring peas (about 1-1/2 cups), frozen or fresh. Definitely, definitely not canned
2 tablespoons [vegan] parmesan (optional - we didn't have any, but it would be a nice bonus)
a handful of fresh parsley, chopped (for garnish)
fresh ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot. Toss in the leeks and stir to coat for about 5 minutes. Add a tablespoon of water and simmer on medium heat for 20 minutes. If you're in a hurry you could cook the leeks down faster on higher heat, but if you take the full 20 minutes to let them really cook through, the taste will be sensational. Turn on some music, pour yourself a glass of wine and relax - but keep stirring. Keep adding more water (a tablespoon at a time) as needed, just to make sure the little guys aren't sticking. Unlike more savory dishes (like Brandon's Chana Masala) where the charring actually improves the flavor, you'll want to keep the leeks delicate and sweet for this one.
After 20 minutes, add the rice, stir until well combined and prepare to spend the next 20 minutes adding the liquids in. One cup at a time. Add the wine (pour another for yourself if a refill is in order) and stir until it is absorbed. Add a cup of broth and keep stirring. Keep the heat around medium, just enough to gently simmer and absorb about a cup of liquid every 4 minutes. If you get bored, do some kitchen karaoke, make a mental to-do list, make out with your husband or talk to whomever might be there to listen - whatever you do, keep stirring.
Check the consistency after the first 3-4 cups of liquid is absorbed. Now, I happen to like recipes. Instructions make me happy and give the world a sense of order. So it infuriates me when I ask the Bear "how much" or "how long" because his response is invariably, "You just have to go by feeling." Grrrr. As aggravating as this is, I'm afraid all I can tell you is, he's right. You can peek at the cooking instructions to see how long the rice is supposed to cook and aim for that, but start taste-testing after the first 3-4 cups and when it starts to soften enough to chew, you're getting close. This is a good time to adjust the salt to taste as well - if your broth is as salty as mine was you probably won't need to add salt at all.
At some point the rice will start "feeling" done: still a little al dente, soft enough to chew through but with some firm resistance left. Now is the time to throw in the peas. If you're using frozen peas (like I did) and they happen to be growing icicles (like mine were), rinse them in a strainer but drain them or pat them mostly dry, lest the ice melt and dilute the beautiful flavors of this risotto. Stir in the peas and add a little more broth as needed. Keep. Stirring.
Cook a few more minutes until the liquid becomes a gooey coating of deliciousness that holds the rice together and looks more like a thick sauce than a soup. Cover the pot, remove it from the heat (mix in the vegan parmesan now if you're using it) and let it sit for at least 5 minutes while you set the table. Serve it up with a sprinkle of fresh parsley, a few grinds of fresh pepper and some smashed grissini or bread crumbs.
We recreated this at the FranKat's last night, served with a vegan Caesar salad. I cannot even begin to tell you how good this was. The boys were practically fighting for rights to lick the pot. One sneaky taste-tester disappeared into the kitchen and actually did!
This immediately shot up to the top of our favorites list and might be the inaugural nominee for the Sneaky Vegan Hall of Fame.
Note: this would be a great base for many variations. Try it with carrots, zucchini, asparagus, artichokes, or any of your other favorite veggies.