Today I got to cook my favorite meal. I mean, my favorite meal to cook. I am not entirely sure if it’s my favorite meal to eat, but it’s probably in the top five. As far as cooking goes, though, it’s an experience unto itself.
There are a few reasons why I love making mushroom risotto. It is the very epitome of comfort food. Warm, soft, and fragrant with a toothsome bite. Deep, woody earthiness offset by perfectly balanced salt, caramel alliums, and the sweet tang of oaky white wine. The flavours are extraordinarily complex, and at the same time perfectly mundane. Rice, mushrooms, garlic, thyme. Peasant food. Cooking risotto is an art. You have to understand your ingredients, and understand the flavour you are trying to achieve, and understand how to get that flavour out of those ingredients. And you have to take your time, hover over the pot attentively, obsessively, nudging your tiny grains of rice into compliance and tasting often, making small adjustments to the flavour of your stock as you go. If you’ve ever had someone tell you that you have a problem after watching you spend 30 minutes adding dollops of crabapple butter and splashes of tomato juice to a can of baked beans until you get the exact results you were looking for, risotto is your vindication. It is precisely that ability to imagine an effect, imagine possible ways of creating it, and the willingness to putter and play with things until you get exactly what you were looking for that is required to make this dish.
There’s a secret to good risotto, though, and that is the wine. This is the first rule of making things tasty, incidentally- add booze. Fermented things have a depth of flavour that is hard to find elsewhere. Also, drinking alcohol, especially while you cook, is good for your disposition. Trust me on that one. My Vegan Soulmate and I discovered this quite accidentally back in grad school. We drank because, well, that’s what philosophers do (blame it on the existential angst). And we cooked because we were poor vegans in Edmonton and we needed to eat. That, and we liked to procrastinate marking mountains of first-year ethics papers in the most delicious way possible. Naturally, these two needs would correspond and we found ourselves adding cheap booze to everything we cooked together. It was like magic. Boring potato soup sang with a splash of cider in the leeks, plain chocolate cakes came alive with spiced rum and bourbon cherries, Tofurkies sucked back bottles of Cabernet with enthusiasm matched only by our own. We started bringing two bottles of wine to our cooking dates (that’s how Vegan Soulmates date, rather than going to the movies, we go to the kitchen). One for us, one for the pot.
Here are some things that make risotto perfect. This is not so much a recipe as a guideline for cooking.
- Add more alliums, in more variety, than the recipe calls for. Different alliums bring out different aspects of oniony goodness better than others. You are going for a complex flavour profile here, so complicate things by using yellow onions, leeks, garlic, and shallots.
- Close your eyes when you add the earth balance. It will make it easier to concentrate on how the food tastes, rather than what it will do to your waistline. And on that note, only use delicious fats in your risotto- very good olive oil mixed with earth balance is what I use.
- Use a good, oaky white wine. You want lots of woody flavour, and some sweetness won’t hurt too much (but err on the side of dry). I like Chardonnay for risotto. But choose something that you want to drink as well. This is imperative, since risotto requires that the cook split the bottle with the pot. It’s only fair.
- Use at least two kinds of mushrooms. I like shiitake or oyster mushrooms in addition to criminis. For the love of god don’t use white mushrooms. Just don’t. Chantrelles are glorious if you can afford them. Cook your mushrooms in a very hot pan in as much earth balance as they need to move around til they are browning nicely, drying out a bit, and smelling more sharply like earth. At this point, add a bit more earth balance to the center of the pot, some minced garlic and shallots, and a pinch or two of cumin, thyme, pepper and marjoram. Yes, cumin. No, you can’t use oregano instead of marjoram. Marjoram has a sweetness that is irreplaceable. Stir these in for a minute, until the garlic and shallots are starting to brown, and then add a enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot and loosen anything that has stuck, while also carrying the flavours that had previously been suspended only in fat into the spongy mushrooms. At the same time, add a teaspoon or two of good tamari. No, not salt. Tamari.
- Once you’ve set aside your mushrooms, use the same pot to cook the risotto. Never waste flavour. Add some good olive oil and earth balance to the pot along with the finely minced onions, then the leeks, then the rice, then the garlic. Your onions should be almost caramelized, your leeks translucent, your rice just toasted, and your garlic barely golden. Add more fat if needed to keep things moving. Season the onions just a little bit with salt and pepper- you’ll add more as you go, and it’s better to add sodium in more flavourful ways than table salt. Then add enough wine to coat the bottom of the pot when stirred. Yes, a whole cup. Add a half teaspoon or so thyme and marjoram with it. Things are getting real now, so make sure your glass is full, too.
- Use a very good vegetable stock. Make your own, or use Better Than Bouillon if that’s what you have. I haven’t found good cubes of vegetable stock for risotto purposes- they are always too salty and two dimensional. Use the traditional risotto making method- add a cup of stock at a time, stir each til absorbed completely, repeat.
- At the last couple of cupfuls of stock, taste for seasoning carefully. Before adjusting the seasoning, stir in the mushroom mixture. Then proceed to your add your final flavour notes. In a cup, mix a half cup of wine with one good tablespoon of dijon, a teaspoon or two of tahini, a couple tablespoons of fresh squeezed lemon juiceand a couple tablespoonfuls of nutritional yeast. Add this, then taste again. Add more concentrated stock if more sodium is required, or the other last-minute stir-ins to adjust the flavour as necessary. It should be earthy, smooth, salty, and winey. The salty and rich dijon should balance with the herbal and sweet thyme and marjoram. No one flavour, except perhaps the wine (which will dissipate quickly) should stand out before all the others. It should be uniformly complex.
- Add fresh chopped thyme right at the end, on top of everything. Thyme carries a certain fragrance when fresh that denatures with heat. Let this carry the first bite of risotto to your guests.
I hope you enjoy cooking mushroom risotto as much as I do. If you don’t, you probably haven’t added enough wine.