It's been really hard to cook lately.
There's not one single reason, really. Part of it is that Bryan has been traveling a lot lately. I become surprisingly lazy when I only need to cook for myself. Perhaps it's from being so tired at the end of a busy day at work; or maybe I'm just not motivated to go all out cooking a meal when there's no one with whom to share it.
On top of all that, I got the same bug that I think has been going around in Boston. A few days of fever followed by a couple weeks of coughing probably zapped any remaining energy out of me.
I'm feeling much better now.
Additionally, the longer days (it's still light out when I leave work now!) have put me in a much more pleasant and less sluggish mood.
This past weekend Bryan and I finally had a chance to slow down and relax on a Saturday afternoon. It's something we haven't had for a long time, between my work trip to New York City last weekend, Bryan's work trip to Macau, and our week in Buenos Aires.
I savored the slow-paced Saturday where we took care of general house stuff, shopped for groceries, and enjoyed a lovely lunch right near our house.
And then that evening, I had the luxury of spending an entire evening at home trying out a new recipe. Bryan opened up a nice bottle of wine (one of my favorites at the moment!) and we hung out at home. Just the two of us.
As part of fun new partnership I have with Backyard Farms, they sent me some recipes to try that were created for them specifically by Mary Ann Esposito (chef and television host of Ciao Italia). Of course, they gave me some of their delicious tomatoes as well (yay!).
Bryan loves Italian food, and I was feeling like something a bit lighter, so I chose a tomato risotto recipe. I was intrigued at the idea of a risotto that did not use any broth, but instead relied solely on tomato juice (made from fresh tomatoes!) and a little bit of red wine as the liquid.
I gathered a huge pile of Backyard Farms cocktail tomatoes (these are the small and sweet ones!) and pureed them all in a food processor. I was surprised to see that the resultant juice was actually quite a bright pink color!
I tried my best to strain out the seeds and solids, though my "juice" still seemed a bit thick. In the interest of time, I gathered all my juice. Unfortunately, I did not have the 3 ½ to 4 cups of tomato juice that the recipe said I was supposed to have. I had a little under 3 cups. Nevertheless, I soldiered on.
This recipe calls for pancetta or bacon. I was able to get thick cut pancetta, which cooked up nicely in the pot (I chose a pot that would be large enough to fit all my risotto). After setting aside the pancetta, I decided to use the fat as my base for the rest of the dish.
The recipe actually says to add olive oil, though I found that there was plenty of fat that had rendered from the pancetta and I really didn't need to add more.
Saute chopped onions in the oil/fat first until soft. Then add in the rice and stir around until well mixed. Slowly add the wine (about ½ cup at a time) and stir, letting each portion be absorbed by the rice before adding more.
Once the wine in completely absorbed, add the tomato juice portion by portion (again, about ½ cup at a time).
I added all my tomato juice, yet after almost an hour my risotto was still not cooked fully through.
It was at that moment that I realized risotto making is really an art. I started scouring web sites trying to figure out how to solve this problem. What had I done wrong? Was my burner on too high? Should I have heated the tomato juice before adding it? Was it too "pulpy", and thus harder to incorporate into the rice?
I eventually started adding water in small batches.
Finally, after about an hour and a half, my risotto was done. I stirred in the pancetta I had set aside as well as a lot of grated Parmesan cheese (I added maybe ¾ cup to 1 cup, significantly more than the recipe called for!). I also felt it was a bit undersalted, so I added some salt as well.
I know it shouldn't have taken this long, though I'm not sure exactly how to improve the cooking time. I'm sure it was a combination of factors that led to this long, long prep.
"It's very tomato-ey" were Bryan's exact words.
There's something about the flavor you get when using fresh tomatoes that's totally different from the canned variety. It's much brighter, sweeter, and overall much more flavorful (in a good way!).
The red wine is an interesting addition, and not something I would immediately consider. It makes the risotto an unusually deep purple/pink color, which is not what you might expect for a tomato-based risotto. The flavors work in this recipe. Ha ha, we also used really nice wine since Bryan had already opened a nice bottle of wine to drink.
All in all, the dish is a keeper. I just need to refine my risotto making technique!
Recipe courtesy of Mary Ann Esposito (Ciao Italia Family Classics)
My notes are in italics
- 3 pints washed and stemmed cocktail tomatoes (I'd suggest 4 pints just in case)
- ¼ pound bacon or pancetta, diced
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (optional)
- 1 small onion, minced
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- 1 cup dry red wine
- ½ cup grated Parmesan or Asiago cheese
- ⅓ cup minced thyme leaves
With an immersion blender, or in a food processor, (or maybe a juicer to squeeze out more juice??) puree 3 (I would say 4 to be safe!) pints of cleaned and stemmed cocktail tomatoes. Transfer the pulp to a fine mesh sieve placed over a large bowl and strain out the juice. Discard the seeds and skins. You should have between 3 ½ to 4 cups of tomato juice. Set aside. I had closer to 3 cups of juice. I wonder if I had used a juicer whether I would have gotten more juice. The amount turned out to be insufficient for 2 cups of arborio rice, and I ended up adding quite a bit of water).
In a two-quart heavy duty saucepan brown the bacon or pancetta until crisp. With a slotted spoon transfer it to a dish and set aside.
Add the oil to the saucepan (or use the fat rendered from the pancetta) and over medium heat cook the minced onion until very soft (about 5 minutes). Stir in the rice and coat well in the onion oil mixture. Stir in the wine ½ cup at a time and cook, stirring constantly until the wine is absorbed.
Add ½ cup of the tomato juice to the pan and cook until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding more tomato juice ½ cup at time, allowing the rice to absorb each addition before adding more. Stir occasionally during this time.
As the rice cooks it will increase in volume. The consistency should be creamy. Taste the rice for doneness. It should hold its shape, be cooked through but still firm. If necessary add more juice until the rice is cooked. If you've run out of juice, water works, but won't add additional flavor.
Stir in the cheese and thyme.
Serve immediately and sprinkle the bacon over the top as a garnish. Oops! I added the pancetta and stirred it in throughout, which works fine too.
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