When I was young and broke, one of the first dishes I learned to cook was risotto. I’d just moved into my own studio apartment after graduating from college, and was excited at the possibility of making myself whatever I wanted for dinner on a nightly basis.
My pitiful earnings waiting tables didn’t normally afford me the luxury of buying cookbooks, but as fate would have it, I stumbled across a bargain while combing the sale tables at Macy’s that week.
The book wasn’t authored by anyone famous, but it promised a variety of good, straightforward recipes. I don’t recall the title, but I do remember some of the dishes that became part of my regular rotation in those days: the Greek egg-lemon soup called avgolemono, lasagna roll-ups and my favorite, risotto.
Simple and seasonally adaptable
Before making it in my own little kitchen, the only risotto I’d ever tried came from restaurants. Despite the humble ingredients used to make it — rice, vegetables, stock — I thought of the dish as somewhat exotic. There was just something about its rich flavor and creamy texture that tasted like magic. When I cooked it for the first time, I couldn’t believe how easy it was: Just chop a few ingredients, throw them into a pot, sauté, add liquid and stir.
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Before long, I could make risotto without the recipe. I quickly discovered that pretty much anything I happened to have in the fridge, from squash to sausage, could be transformed into a velvety dish of heaven.
Although I no longer have the cookbook, the risotto has stayed with me for more than two decades. In the spring I make it with asparagus, shrimp and leeks and in the summer I add freshly shucked corn and ripe cherry tomatoes. But my favorite risotto is the autumn version, made with earthy mushrooms, crisp pancetta, gorgonzola and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.
You can make it with pretty much any type of mushroom, from dried porcini to fresh cremini, but I prefer the heartiness of the portabella. Although you could substitute bacon for the pancetta, I find that pancetta adds a delicious depth of flavor that bacon can’t quite match. Chicken is my stock of choice, because it adds intensity to the dish, but you could easily substitute mushroom or vegetable stock if that’s your preference.
Pinot Noir for the perfect pairing
A special dish like this deserves a wonderful wine, and I find that Pinot Noir, especially one with a bit of earthiness, is a great complement to the mushroomy richness of the risotto.
I recently paired the dish with three different Pinots: the Gary Farrell 2009 Hallberg Vineyard from Russian River Valley, the Talbott 2011 Sleepy Hollow Vineyard from the Santa Lucia Highlands and the Thomas George 2010 Cresta Ridge Vineyard from Russian River Valley.
The Gary Farrell was my favorite match, with its spiced black cherry flavor and bright acidity. The earthy notes in the Thomas George Pinot also worked well, and the Talbott’s ripe red fruit flavors and richness mimicked the lushness of the risotto.
Serves 4 (without leftovers) as a main dish
6 cups chicken stock (may substitute mushroom or vegetable stock)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 ounces pancetta, roughly chopped
1 small onion, minced
2½ cups fresh mushrooms (portabella or cremini), cleaned and sliced
1½ cups arborio rice
1 teaspoon dried thyme
¼ cup dry white wine
1 ounce gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
½ cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 tablespoons aged or *reduced balsamic vinegar
Fresh ground pepper to taste
* To reduce, add ¼ cup medium-quality balsamic vinegar to a small saucepan over medium-high heat and cook 2-4 minutes, until reduced by half. This gives it a thicker consistency and concentrates its flavor.
1. Heat stock in a saucepan and maintain at a low simmer on the stove.
2. Heat oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy saucepan (I like to use enameled cast iron). Add pancetta and stir until crisp. Remove it with a slotted spoon and let drain on a paper towel.
3. Add onion and stir until translucent. Add mushrooms and stir 2-3 minutes until they begin to soften. Add rice and thyme, and stir until rice is coated with oil. Add wine and stir until liquid is mostly absorbed.
4. Add ½ cup of stock and stir every minute or so until the liquid has nearly evaporated.
5. Repeat this process, adding ½ cup stock at a time, until the rice is al dente, about 20-25 minutes (you may not use all the stock).
6. Remove pan from heat. Stir in cheeses, cover and let stand five minutes. Add pepper to taste. (You can add a bit more hot stock if risotto seems too thick.) Chop cooled pancetta into smaller pieces. Just before serving, sprinkle risotto with pancetta and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.
Top photo: Mushroom-Pancetta Risotto. Credit: Tina Caputo