Monday, January 11, 2010

Brown rice and portobello risotto

This is a very non-traditional take on risotto. It happened because I really wanted risotto for dinner tonight, but I only had short grain brown rice on hand. Typically, risotto is made with Arborio rice, a short grain white rice. But it's also a bit non-traditional in the preparation. I intentionally did not stir it as much as is called for in traditional risotto recipes to see if it would still work. One caveat on all the hypotheses postulated below; they may not be at all correct, but I think they probably are.

Risotto 101 - basic techniques and science
Risotto is essentially (in order of decreasing volumes used) liquid, rice, bits & pieces (chopped veggies, meat, seafood), and seasonings (usually including freshly grated parmesan cheese). What makes it special is the preparation. When you make most non-risotto rice dishes, you are going for fluffy, separated grains that are cooked till tender. In contrast, with risotto, you are going for a creamy, heavier texture and an al dente bite to the grains themselves. To accomplish the non-risotto texture, you boil/steam the rice with the lid on, without any perturbations to the system. To accomplish risotto-texture, it is exactly the opposite: lid off, adding in liquid a half cup at a time all the while vigorously stirring. What happens is that while the rice is cooking all that stirring-induced agitation causes starch molecules to leave the rice grain, and get cooked in the liquid. Since the starch molecules are released slowly, and you're stirring constantly, it's similar to a roux, but better. Lumps and burning cannot occur (whereas it's quite easy to make lumps and burnage while combining starch and liquid at a more macro-scale - think gravy). Alton Brown had an excellent Good Eats episode explaining most of this with a few more details, if you're interested.

Risotto 201 - brown rice risotto, mechanisms for desired outcome
Everyone knows brown rice is better for you. Less processed, more good fiber, etc... My thoughts on using brown rice for risotto were that:
a. it would take longer, because brown rice takes longer to cook in general.
b. otherwise it should work just as well.
Point a. is fairly obvious but point b. is more complicated. See, what makes brown rice brown is that the bran and germ are intact. White rice, at a point in its life after harvest and before the conclusion of processing, was brown. The bran and germ were removed, leaving only the endosperm. So when making risotto, I was somewhat concerned of the ability of water to pass through the bran, dissolve some starch molecules, and for those starches to leave the grain to return back to the cooking liquid to make that sought-after creaminess. Furthermore, since brown rice takes longer to cook, I was concerned about my arm having to stir the pot for 45-50 minutes. Luckily, and logically, I didn't have too. I probably stirred the pot for 15 of the 50 minutes of cook time. This makes sense, if the water can enter the grain, logically starch can leave it. Yes, starch molecules are larger than water molecules, but once the rice is cooking for a while, the bran splits, exposing the endosperm and allowing for free passage of starch molecules.

So these hypotheses/observations can give us a road map for successfully making risotto out of brown rice. The basic plan: make it in a similar fashion to traditional risotto, but there's no need to stir it for the first 10 minutes or so of cooking, since it is the heat and expanding endosperm that ruptures the grains, not the stirring. Once you see the grains opening to any degree, or swelling substantially, stir to your heart's content. I'm still a bit impatient, so I didn't stir constantly after that. The more stirring the better, but with white or brown rice I'm too lazy/disorganized to stir the whole time.

Another thing that's nice about this, is that since it takes longer to cook, but my above observations relieve me from constant stirring, you can start cooking the rice before prepping the other ingredients (chopping garlic, mushrooms, sage, grating the parm in the food processor). You can even use the down time to make side dishes, and depending on your sides, everything can be ready in an hour. I served it with a spinach, apple, and red pepper salad, and a Brussels sprouts and apple dish very loosely based off of this one. So in the end, this shouldn't take much more total time than Arborio rice risotto.

The end product was very tasty. The characteristic nuttiness of brown rice pairs nicely with mushrooms and sage, and though it maybe could have used a bit more stirring, there was ample creaminess. Like most risottos, especially those made with red wine, it's not much to look at:

A few notes on ingredients:
Using red wine as a cooking liquid is also a bit unusual, but according to the Gourmet Cookbook, it is traditional in the Piedmont region of Italy. With these ratios, the flavor is not at all overwhelming, it just imparts a nice, deep flavor (as well as a slightly funny color).
For the rice, make sure it's short grain. Long grain simply won't give off as much starch. I use a brand called Lundberg that I think is excellent. It also happens to be the only kind I can find out here, and it's only at the King Sooper's, not the Safeway, in Golden.
For the veggies, I probably would have gone with 1/2 an onion and 3 mushrooms, but I didn't have any onions.

4 c. water plus more for deglazing your pan and as needed
1 c. red wine
2 T. olive oil, separated
1 T. butter
5 cloves garlic, minced and separated
2 c. short grain brown rice (don't rinse)
4 portobello mushrooms, sliced thinly (~1/4-1/3") then chopped into chunks
salt and pepper
2 T. fresh sage, thinly sliced
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese (plus more for serving)
optional, a touch of cream or milk

Start the rice
1. Combine the wine and 4 c. of water in a 2.5 qt. saucepan over high heat. When it comes to a simmer, reduce heat to low.
2. Heat 1 T. of the oil and the butter in a 3.5 qt. saucepan over medium heat. Add half the minced garlic and stir till fragrant. Add in the raw rice and stir for 3 minutes.
3. Add enough of the simmering wine/water mixture to cover the rice by less than half an inch (maybe a quarter inch). Reduce heat to low, cover loosely, and let it cook for 10 minutes.
4. After the initial 10 minutes, or once you see some grain rupture, add 1/2 c. of the liquid at a time, stirring frequently. I like to think if I stir extra vigorously, I'm releasing as much starch if I stirred more frequently and less vigorously. Add another 1/2 c. when the last 1/2 c. is absorbed. Continue like this till the rice is tender and al dente, about 45-50 minutes including the initial 10.

In the meantime... prep and cook the veggies

4. Heat 1 T. oil in a skillet, add the other half of the garlic, stir till fragrant, and then add the mushrooms and some salt. Cook till the mushrooms are done, about 6 minutes.
5. Move the veggies to a serving bowl and add the sage.
6. Pour 1/2 to 3/4 cup of boiling water into the skillet to deglaze all of those tasty mushroom flavors. Use this hot water as your next addition to the rice pot.

Combine it all

7. Once the rice is done, add it to the veggies. Stir in some salt and pepper to taste, the parmesan, and the cream or milk if desired. Serve immediately with extra parmesan at the table.

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