I traveled to Argentina In December 2007 to make a presentation at a seminar in Buenos Aires. As the round trip cost me a day of life, I decided to stay a few more days and go to El Calafate, a small town in the south, near the border with Chile and famous in tourist itineraries for its proximity to the Natural Park Los Glaciares and the Perito Moreno glacier. Take a walk on the ice is something unforgettable but to get an idea of the immensity of the glacier is best to watch it from one of the sights around. Imagine a white wall of ice with 60 meters high and stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye can see. All day long you hear the sound of huge chunks of ice breaking and falling into the lake. Even now, as I pull my memory to write this article, I can still remember the wonder I felt in the presence of such imponence.
In December, summer is about to begin in Argentina. Even so, going from Buenos Aires towards south meant to change from light blouses to warm turtleneck sweaters. Looking to the sparse and undergrowth vegetation that covers the steppe around El Calafate, no one would say that, apart from tourism, livestock is the most important economic activity. It made me wonder how life would really be like for those people, beyond the illustrated postcards with bright pictures of Perito Moreno in sunny days and the tours that end with a tea of yerba mate.
Before you give up reading, let me tell you that I haven’t forgotten that there was a risotto in this story. It was precisely in El Calafate, 12,000 kilometers away from home, that I crossed my path again with one. For lunch, not surprisingly, the restaurant’s menu featured a dozen meat dishes and only one alternative, a mushroom risotto, surely meant for the occasional vegetarian tourist. But after five days in Argentina I had eaten enough meat for a month and couldn’t even look at another lamb chop, however small it was. So, I ordered the risotto and waited for the worst. I don’t know if it was because I was in need of some carbohydrates comfort – it was cold, I was far from home and from my daughters and getting to the end of a divorce – or simply because expectations were low, the fact is that I remember that risotto as one of the best I ate until today. Neither soggy nor sticky, creamy as it should be, al dente and with the right amount of mushrooms.
But it was only about three years ago I dared to make a risotto at home. It was a time when I wondered if my oldest teenage daughter had crossed the thin line that separates a healthy weight worry from anorexia. I thought that if she gained some taste for cooking could also gain a taste for eating and both of us went to do a cooking workshop. It happened to be a workshop on risottos and now this is a dish that we make often at home.
Risotto isn’t very complicated or takes a long time, as I thought at the time. The basic ingredients are butter, onion, dry white wine, a rice rich on starch (Carnaroli and Arborio are the most popular and easiest to buy) and a good broth to cook the rice and give flavor. Then you can add the herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, fish or seafood you want. You don’t need to stir constantly, as many people think, but you’ll have to do it quite often, so it’s important to have all the ingredients prepared when you start to cook the rice. The rice will be ready when it’s al dente, i.e. the grain is already soft on the outside but still has a little resistance in the center. You just need to taste it from time to time to check.
Mushroom risotto is the one we do more often and this must be the best I’ve ever done. Not only because it was very soft and creamy, but mainly because of the thyme and the flavor it added to the final dish. I like using thyme in stews and mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms in particular, have a texture and flavor close to those of meat. I suggest you have a good white wine with your mushroom and thyme risotto, which you can also use for cooking it.
So, if you look at a risotto with suspicion, either because you’ve tried it before and didn’t like or because you think it’s a very complicated recipe, I hope my story gives you at least the will to try again. I wish you all a good weekend and see you soon.
Mushroom risotto with thyme
You should stir the risotto frequently. So it is very important to have all ingredients prepared when you start to cook the rice. Use the other ingredients in your recipe to make the broth. For example, if making a prawn risotto use the shells and heads for flavor. In this risotto I used Paris mushrooms, that are cheaper, to flavor the broth.
- 250g Paris mushrooms, cut into quarters
- 1,5l (6 cups) vegetable broth
- 2 + 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves with skin, slightly crushed
- 400g mixture of crimini and shitake mushrooms, sliced (you can leave the smaller ones whole)
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 2 fresh thyme stems, leaves separated
- 80ml (1/3 cup) dry white wine
- 320g Carnaroli or Arborio rice
- 50g Parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 tablespoons butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place the Paris mushrooms and vegetable broth in a saucepan and let it boil for 15 minutes.
- Heat 1/2 tablespoon of olive oil in a pan, on high heat. Add the garlic cloves and a small portion of crimini and shitake mushrooms and saute until golden. If you crowd the pan, the mushrooms will boil in their own liquid and won’t turn golden. Repeat until there arent’t any more mushrooms, adding a little more olive oil when necessary (I usually do it every two mushroom portions).
- Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan, add the chopped onion, the stems and thyme leaves and let cook over medium heat until the onion is translucent (don’t let the onion get golden).
- Add the rice and let cook over medium-low heat for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly (you’ll notice that the rice becomes more opaque in color). Add the white wine and cook, stirring, until the rice absorbs it.
- Pour 2 ladles of broth through a sieve (to strain). Let cook, stirring occasionally, until the rice absorbs the broth. Repeat until the rice is cooked but
al dente i>, i.e. the grain is already soft on the outside but still has a little resistance in the center. It will take about 30 minutes, but taste from time to time to check.
- Remove the stems of thyme and add the butter and the grated Parmesan cheese. Stir for 1 minute until slightly thickened and creamy.
- Serve immediately, with the sauteed mushrooms.