Reynolds is a cooking teacher and author based in Portland, Oregon.
Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest
In the past, summer days for children were not organized by adults. They were idle days, which is to say, kids were free to figure out what the world offered. The world was the lake, woods, house, porch, or the distance you could cover on foot or bike.
Occasionally someone would get the idea to collect the kids to pick berries. Everyone was given a bucket and shepherded to wherever an adult thought they remembered finding good berries in previous summers. The berries always seemed plentiful. I don’t have a memory of it being difficult to fill a good sized, gallon container, including eating as many as you picked.
If the picking happened in the morning, then the afternoon would include the activity of making Fool. We’d be given a glass loaf pan into which we’d place slices of cakey white bread after we’d trimmed the crusts. We approached it like piecing together a puzzle. The bread would be cut as exactly as we could manage. We’d put enough berries to make a first layer into a bowl, mash them with a fork, sweeten them with sugar and arrange moistened fruit on top of bread slices. We’d repeat that procedure until we had three or four layers of bread and lightly sugared berries.
The Fool would be left to sit for a few hours. The sugar drew juices, and the juices broke down the bread until it almost had a texture between cake and cream, and the natural pectin in the fruit along with the starch in the bread helped it all congeal. Its magic was that it fooled you into thinking it was a cake. It only involved berries and bread. You easily ate seconds. You liked it when there was enough left to refrigerate overnight. You could have it for breakfast, by which time it congealed even more and resembled a sort of pudding.
The first strawberries of the season showed up at the downtown farmers market yesterday. It’s a gorgeous little market and the produce has an incomparable vibrancy; you can feel things growing. I came across greens, leeks, lovely herbs including sorrel. I found white asparagus that proved to be amazingly sweet. Then I found strawberries and was .... suspicious. There weren’t that many and I asked the woman where they grew. She said she grew them in Sherwood, and tented the plants to encourage them. “Can I taste one,” I asked; I’ll buy them no matter.” “Please” she said, indicating I should help myself. Lovely perfume of strawberries that made me think of the strawberries at the markets in France.
I prepared risotto as I’d once eaten in the the Veneto, the region around Venice. The Italians, like the French, use the early berries like vegetables, because with their lack of developed sugars, they’re more acidic and like a tomato.
When the risotto is finished, I let it sit and rest for a few minutes before serving. I slice strawberries, fold them in carefully and divide it among the bowls. A generous scattering of Parma cheese is tossed on top. If you have a particularly good Parma cheese, it will often have a fruity quality, so much the better. Then the final gesture before sending the dish to the table, is to drizzle an excellent syrupy Balsamic vinegar. This is a dish you’ve been saving that very expensive vinegar for.
Drink a white wine from the northeast of Italy, a Soave from Stefano Inama, or Zuani from Feluga. The wines of the region will harmonize in a celestial way.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup small dice of shallots
1 cup white wine (optional)
1-1/2 cups Arborio risotto
about 1-1/2 cups brodo, chicken stock, or water and a boullion cube
1 pint of strawberries, sliced
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan per portion
1 or 2 teaspoons Balsamic per portion
Melt butter, then add olive oil. When hot, add shallots with a sprinkle of salt and cook for 1 or 2 minutes to soften, but don’t allow the shallot to brown. Add the risotto, stir to coat with fat and continue to cook another 2 or 3 minutes until the grains of rice turn opaque. Again, keep everything from browning as you prepare the dish. Cover with broth, simmer to evaporate.
Risotto making is like religion, people who do the details one way, don’t want to talk to people who do things another way. I can hear every Italian saying, “My mother, she didn’t do that.” That said, you can stir, not stir, beat, not beat the risotto while the liquid evaporates. It all makes a difference. Vow to make it for the rest of your life, and more than likely your children will have a religious version of the dish to pass on.
I like mine beaten to extract starch. that gives the impression of a creamy texture, when in fact, there is no cream in the dish. Do as you like. Add and reduce liquid three times, over a period of about 20 minutes. Then start tasting the grains to determine how cooked they are. Ideally the rice should yield to the tooth, i.e. be tender, and the center should have a small resistance. When it’s where you want it, turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes or so before serving. During this time, it seems to souffle, relieved that it’s no longer being agitated.
Just before serving, fold in slices of strawberries, and portion the risotto in flat bowls. Each is dusted with grated cheese from Parma (or Granna can also be excellent) and drizzle lovely Balsamic vinegar over the surface. A final grinding of pepper as the plate heads to the table. The perfume of that pepper will reach up to everyone’s nose and pull them into the dish.
Once the moment arrives in the season when the strawberries are ripe and filled with sugar, make some other risotto. Eat those berries naked (the berries, not you) paired with a bowl of sugar, and another of crema.
visit http://www.thechefstudio.com for class info
CHEESECAKE IN THE STYLE OF NIORT
This cheesecake was the most discussed pastry in the small town where I take students to train in France. The dessert stood out for a number of reasons; it was light, it was flavorful and unique; and no one could figure out how the pastry chef did it. When I was first introduced to it at table, my host said: “You could eat the whole thing..” That was unusual coming from people who looked smart, ate well, dressed and lived with style. I had never heard that sort of remark about any other food. So the conclusion to be drawn is that this cake is light.
Then there was the constant discussion about how it might be made. The original version was baked in an oven because it had a golden top. Its texture seemed between a souffle and a cake. As we ate, we speculated. No one was without an idea, and everyone was ready to dismiss any that weren’t reasonable. Once I thought I had figured it out and got scared that if I was correct, the secret would be out and the man’s business would be ruined. Such was the extent of our engagement with this cake. I finally settled on the following version. It is not made the way the cake was made by the baker at Niort, but the idea of it is so unique and so good, that it always elicits a similar response on this side of the Atlantic.
Crepe batter for the crust
1/2 cup flour
3 tbsp sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup cold milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
bloomed in 2 tablespoons cold water
3/4 cup (6 ounces) fromage blanc de chevre
3 egg whites
1 cup heavy cream whipped to chantilly
1/4 cup creme fraiche
Unsalted butter for cooking the crepe
Red fruit puree
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup red wine
2 inch strip of lemon rind
1 pint red fruit (raspberries, cherries, currants, or 1 cup uncooked rhubarb)
Put flour in bowl, add 3 whole eggs. With a fork beat just the eggs until they have pulled in all the flour. Add the milk, still whisking with a fork. Let the batter rest for 15 minutes before using.
Make one crepe large enough to fit an 8 inch spring form. Heat a 9 inch skillet on a medium flame, butter evenly. Pour in batter to cover the bottom of the skillet. Cook on one side, then the other. Line the springform pan with the crepe, then set the cake pan aside.
(Use the remaining batter for another use.)
Soften gelatin in cold water.
Whisk the egg yolks and sugar homogenous. Warm the egg/sugar mix over a double boiler till warmed. Remove from heat and add the bloomed gelatin to egg base while eggs are warm, stirring until it melts and is completely incorporated.
Have the fromage blan in a second bowl. Gently incorporate the egg mix into the fromage blanc till homogenous. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, fold into the base. Mix the creams and beat to chantilly and fold into base. Pour the batter into spring form lined with crepe. Cover with plastic and place in refrigerator until it sets, about 2 hours.
Put all ingredients for the red fruit puree in a saucepan and cook at a simmer till reduced by one third. Liquefy in the blender, allow to cool and serve with the cake.
ROBERT REYNOLDS CHEF STUDIO
advanced culinary education in support of local agriculture
ROBERT REYNOLDS is revving up for another series of comprehensive, tailored cooking courses at the Chef Studio. The Eight-Week Diploma course is for the serious cook, regardless of professional ambition or avocational interest. It is a thorough course of study in French and Italian cooking that teacher, chef and author, Robert Reynolds has offered to students of all ages and backgrounds for over 20 years in France and in the U.S. Reynolds designed the 8-week course as an alternative to longer and more expensive programs of training. This Diploma course equips participants with the skills they need to stand out from mainstream culinary students.
In a small class setting, Reynolds offers direct, hands-on instruction, helping students gain competencies in a broad repertoire of regional, Classic and modern cooking. They will learn the difference approaches, for example, Italian or French take to menus, cooking oils or pastas. They will understand the uniqueness of French sauces. And as students cook alongside Chef Reynolds each day, they will have the opportunity to work with fresh ingredients from local fish vendors, cheese experts, butchers, farmers, and wine makers.
By the end of the course students will understand the importance of method and technique but, in addition to gaining concrete skills, they will be inspired to craft their own vision of cooking. And as they move toward the culinary future they dream of, Reynolds offers ongoing support, guidance, coaching, and supervision.
There are now two versions of the Eight-Week Diploma course. Both sessions begin May 18th and will continue to be offered in September, January and March each year. The first requires students to attend 5 days per week (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.) for 8 weeks.
The second version of the Diploma course is now offered for students who require a more flexible schedule. By choosing to attend two evening classes per week(6 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and one full Saturday each month (9 a.m. to 3 p.m.), candidates complete the equivalent of the 8-week session in one year.
SCHOLARSHIPS: visit the site http://thechefstudio.com to become informed of scholarship opportunities that may cover partial tuition.
OTHER CLASSES: THE STUDIO’S SIX-PART EVENING SERIES begin again in mid-May. One series of courses, designed for people who need to learn the basics. Another series, for those who have some cooking skills but are looking for more advanced learning. So if you choose either series, you go to the studio one evening a week for six weeks. Visit the website above for further info, OR CALL Robert at 503-233-1934.
It takes an enormous focus to live in a foreign country; at the end of the day you can be exhausted. At the end of a week you really want to sleep in. We drifted through the day today. The fact that we went to the market at Nerac had nothing to do with ‘work.’ Nerac is the site of one of Henri IV’s chateaux. Henri, famous for his dictum of a chicken in every pot, has become our favorite king. He’s ours. Signs note that Henri once rode his horses on these roads we follow to market on the small streets of Nerac and in the shadow of what remains of his chateau and stables.
We wander through the town and discover the traveling department store that has unraveled on the streets and sells everything from old ladies housecoats; (‘schmatas,’ I say to Andrea, who finds comfort in hearing the Yiddish word, and thinks of her Grandmother); to anything else you could need in a small town in rural France, from housewares and hand made furniture to thread. Pots and pans, yard goods, clothing, and on and on until we arrive at the far end of the square where the food vendors sell their goods.
The first sign of the food world are the Armagnac vendors. We encounter an old man standing by his table with a simple display of Armagnac. I stop and look closer to learn it is not that expensive to buy an Armagnac from 1970. “You must look carefully,” my friend Kate advised, “because these guys have this stuff stored away in their cellars, and when a daughter gets married, or if they need a new roof, they bring the Armagnac to sell at the market. It represents a financial reserve, their way of keeping money in a sock. If you’re observant, you may come across something exceptional.”
This is not cheese country the way Niort, in the region of the Deux Sevres is. That’s the France I know best. When I discussed cheese with the woman at the market here she said, “No, this is a country of vines and prunes. No cheese. If you want cheese you go towards Cahors.” The dairy industry in America can move cows to the swamps in Florida, situate them next to the alligators, feed them Purina cat chow, extract liquid and call it ‘milk.’ The French tend to play to the high ground, as we do in Oregon, allowing healthy animals good pasturage. The resulting products you taste here are a Grand Canyon away from industrialized ‘cheese food.’ and ‘cheese flavor.’
Penetrate the market deeper, and you find a long succession of food vendors. Each time we come here, even in this early part of the season, more and more local produce appears. We find garriguettes, a famous flat strawberry from this region. It is almost without a core, and has a wonderful perfume. I smell them before I see them, but resist buying them just yet. I make a mental note to buy them last, so they wind up on the top of my market basket, not at the bottom. Three packets cost 5 euros.
I like the cheese lady in Nerac. From our first encounter she told me I should have confidence in her decisions. “I am in your hands,” I assured her publicly. Now when I buy cheese she announces in a public voice that “Monsieur est un connoisseur,” he knows what he’s talking about. I miss the excellent goat cheeses from Niort and tell her I’m in a mood for chevre. “Tres bien,” she says, and starts recommending things. I want my goat cheeses runny, and say to her, “There is a little cheese down there, sitting by itself. It seems to have an air completely creamy.” She gives me a smile as though I have won the jackpot by clever observation. “You are absolutely right,” she says, and from among the hundred or so cheeses she has on display, she heads for the one cheese I identified.
I ask the students if today is a good day for a grilled cheese sandwich. The idea thrills them. I know Cantal is like cheddar, and if you use if for melting it behaves beautifully. I also know that here they will mix Cantal with Roquefort for a magical taste effect. The reason Roquefort is used with Cantal, according to one school of thought is that Roquefort, being sheep’s milk, needs cream to complete it. There are other schools for whom that idea is pure heresy. I have discovered the pleasure of stickiing with my own beliefs.
“I want a Cantal that is a little fruity,” meaning that I like them young. I put myself in her hands and ask, “But would you let me taste the middle one, and the aged one?” “You are right to ask,” she says, “because you’ll find the others have much more taste.” Everyone waiting in line is very attentive to the unfolding of this story, watching the American (me), exercise his ability to swim in French. Waiting in line in France is a little like listening to an interview on National Public Radio. People are curious and entertained, but not impatient and I learned long ago that they will wait. We taste the Cantals and the French watch our expressions. I pick the middle one based on a vote of the students. We conduct our business and move on with perfect cheeses.
We wandering through the market for an hour taking in the inventory of vegetables, pork and duck and chicken products. The students find potted meats appealing. For a couple of euros they choose a jar of duck rillettes from the woman who made them. Rillettes are convenience food, made from duck, duck fat, Armagnac and salt. They are ready to use whenever we want, and perfect on a piece of toast with a glass of Floc, the local aperitif made from Armagnac and grape juice or wine.
We’ve tasted a lot of bread and few really please us. A baker near the train station in Agen makes good bread if you eat it right away. Bread is a reason we came to the market in Nerac. We discovered it tucked at a stand selling sells charcuterie and deli. It is almost out of sight, so you’ve got to look closely. We like this bread best of all we’ve tasted. I eyed a flat loaf of walnut bread, knew it would be good. I hoped someone ahead in line wouldn’t pre-empt me. As soon as the vendor gave me his attention, I asked for the last loaf. Once it was set aside I bought half a loaf of a second bread. He makes it by rolling out a piece of dough as wide as his hand and about three feet long. He folds the dough back in half and creates a flat, layered loaf about 18 inches long. It has some heft from moisture, a good crust and chew, as well as good flavor.
When I asked where I might find his bread during the week, he answers, “at the market at Fleurance. on Tuesday.” “Where is that,” I ask. “Fleurence,” he repeats. “But that is in Italy,” I say with a smile. “Isn’t that a bit far to go for a loaf of bread?” He likes that I joke with him, and carefully explains where the village is. We leave happy, knowing that if we accomplish nothing else, we have the makings of really good grilled cheese sandwiches. If we need a good dose of Americanism, McDonald’s will never show up on our radar. We know how to find satisfaction taking an excellent French product and making it speak flawless American.
SANDWICH GRILLE AU CANTAL ET AU BLEU
2 slices or artisan French bread, sliced finger thick
½ tablespoon excellent butter from the Charente and Poitou
1/4 inch thick slices of aged Cantal cheese
1-2 tablespoon sized slices of excellent Roquefort, ‘Papillon’ brand
Lay the slices of bread side by side. Set the slices of Cantal on one slice of bread. Top the cheese with thin slices of Roquefort, equivalent to 1 or 2 tablespoons of cheese. Top the cheese with the second slice of cheese.
Butter the top of the sandwich with a thin layer of butter. Melt the remainder of the butter in a skillet and heat it until it melts. Set the sandwich, non buttered side down, into the skillet. Adjust the flame so that the bread toasts in about 2 minutes. Lift the sandwich with the point of a knife and look at the underside of the bread; it should be toasted golden. Turn the bread and toast the other side in the same manner. Turn the heat down and allow the sandwich to continue to cook without over browning, until the cheese in the center melts, and runs together.
Remove from the skillet, slice and serve.
JOSEPHINE AND GENOISE
I used to love to watch Josephine make genoise at the restaurant. She was certified at the Cordon Bleu as a Chef patissiere as well as Chef de Cuisine, a singular achievement in the 1920’s. She would beat the eggs and sugar for her cake in a large bowl over hot water to get them to swell. Then she would fold in the flour carefully. It would go into the oven and bake light and flavorful. When I asked her about beating the eggs in the Kitchenaid, she explained that the movement of the whip in the machine made a small uniform bubble. When she beat the eggs and sugar by hand she had long irregular bubbles. When each was then baked, the results were different. The hand beaten one, with larger bubble, rose differently, and had a different, lighter, less dense, texture. She described the experience of the hand beaten one as ‘plus agreable.’ It made me understand that the agreeability, the final effect, is something sought, something attainable, within the control f the cook. It was a good lesson - look, aim high, keep control, be disciplined, go for your best.
Whenever I bake I remind myself through the ritual or preparing the ingredients that baking is a different science than cooking. Cooking is more forgiving. Baking is like dance. You cross the stage, leap in the air. You can’t be in the air, say you forgot something, and go back. So you need to be prepared to see baking as one continuous act, like a dancer’s leap. Have everything ready, so you don’t have to go back. The mis en place is ready, the pans are readied, buttered and papered; the oven is at temperature. When everything is in place, you can proceed.
The genoise is a type of cake know as biscuit - ‘cuit’ or cooked, ‘bis’ times, two times. So the cakes in this category are twice cooked. The first cooking happened when you beat eggs and sugar. It is done over hot water so that the eggs swell to two and a half times their original volume. The flour is worked in and then the second cooking takes place when the cake is put in the oven.
The eggs and sugar can be beaten to two and a half times their volume using the Kitchenaid; it takes about 7-10 minutes. It counts technically as the first cooking because across that time there is enough friction generated, and friction is heat. Then proceed with folding in flour and baking. The result is very good; the cake can be knocked out in minutes, do the cake enough times that it becomes second nature.
You have to look at the nature of the ingredients you’re working with and try to understand what they need to do in order to work. The eggs in this instance are fat, they need to accept a dry ingredient, flour. It is not easy. If you do it properly you will lose 30% of the volume of the eggs you’ve beaten so carefully. Since the egg is the only active agent, the leavening, you need to be mindful of how much of it gets lost. It will make a difference in how high the cake climbs.
The flour is twice sifted so that it is easier for the fat to absorb it. It gets added, not all at once, but a third at a time. It’s easier for the flour to accept less flour; once it has accepted some, it can accept more.
The folding matters. The technique is specific. It has to be accomplished with the greatest efficiency. If we are not efficient we lose additional volume with each stroke. Look in the bowl and figure out what has to happen. The volume of beaten eggs sits in a bowl. Flour is scattered over the surface. Heavy things sink; the bowl is sloped; so you can figure out that as the flour sinks, it works its way to the center. That’s where you work to fold; not at the edges.
Folding is a gentle technique where the weight of one ingredient falling on top of another allows them to mix. Before we worked with spatulas, we worked with our hands. See the movement. You cut into the egg at the center. Your hand goes to the bottom, you scoop, lift from the bottom. As you hand leaves the surface of the eggs, you turn it and let the volume of eggs in your hand fall on top of the surface of the eggs in the bowl. Dip, scoop, lift, turn. As you turn you move your hand toward the outside edge and empty the contents of your hand over the center, so that there is actually a fold. The weight of what has been lifted is set on top and it is the weight of the thing folded over that created the action of mixing.
Now, in modern times, instead of that hand, we slip a spatula in. The action remains the same. Cut in the center, descend to the bottom, lift the mass, turn your wrist so that the volume on the spatula falls on top of the beaten eggs in the bowl. Turn the bowl each time one third, so that you don’t work the same spot. Be efficient. When the first addition of flour has almost been incorporated, dust the surface with the second third of the flour. Continue to work in the same manner. Then add the final third of the flour. Turn until you turn 4-5 times and you don’t see any loose flour in the batter. Stop. Don’t over fold.
The batter is put into a sheet pan. Tilt the pan to get the batter to fill the pan. One kind of effect is achieved by flattening with a spatula. You get a cake that is dense and thin. I like the cake to be lighter and higher, so don’t work the batter with a spatula. Don’t slam the pan to get the air mass to collapse; not this time.
The cake is put on the rack set in the middle of the oven. The oven is set at 350oF. The cake will bake in 20-30 minutes. You know it’s done when you touch your finger to the top of the batter, press lightly, then remove your finger. If the mark of your finger stays, it does so because the cake is uncooked, and wet in the center. When the cake is cooked through, it is dry, and springy. When you touch the top, then pull your finger away, the cake springs back. The cake should have a pale golden color. When it is done, you will also see that it starts to pull away from the sides of the pan; it shrinks.
Remove the cake from the oven. Slip a knife along the side edges. Lift the paper away, Holding the pan with one hand, the paper with the other; pull the pan away, so the cake is slipped onto a second piece of waxed, or parchment paper. Peel away the paper used to line the cake pan. Set the cake on a rack and let it cool.
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup flour, sifted two times
butter for the pan
Butter baking sheet, line with parchment
Ribbon eggs and sugar
Fold in 1/3 of the flour
Fold in remaining 2/3rds
Bake at 340oF 18 minutes.
When you touch the center the cake should spring back, and not leave the impression of your finger. Remove from pan, peel paper, and cool on a rack till ready to use.
Slice and serve with
Macerated in syrup of
½ cup sugar
½ cup warm water
vanilla bean, or excellent quality liquid vanilla,
or Orange brandy,
or dark rum with a few drops of lemon juice
and finish with threads of mint
Enjoy while you wait for local berries in season
FROM: AN EXCUSE TO BE TOGETHER, by Robert Reynolds
The frog is still in the swimming pool but he has stopped croaking. Six people are standing around the edge of the pool watching it drain, or not drain, depending on whose voice you hear. The frog is hiding. He has to be wondering what all the fuss is about, and why the water is disappearing. At lunch every eventuality that could go wrong when draining the pool was discussed. Since the possibilities were without end and some were anxiety provoking, everyone at the table seemed to find comfort in the risotto with asparagus I’d prepared.
The risotto started yesterday evening when Eve and I went to a market in Velleron, near Carpentras. Eve said she loved a good risotto, and was reminded that Michel prepared them very well. I told her I wanted to feed people risotto. “That’s fine with me,” she said, “Will you make one with asparagus?” She and I drove to the evening market in one car, and her friends Fatima and Claudine drove in another. The market at Velleron happens once a week near the national route that passes through Velleron. By the time we got there at five in the evening the parking lots were already filled. We found a good space close to the entrance and considered it a fortuitous sign.
There were some things we wanted to get, like apple juice for Ambra, and spring peas, squash blossoms, pencil thin, green asparagus for the risotto, and tomato plants; we bought as we made our discoveries. Eve remembered eating green asparagus once in the United States, but here we mostly eat the fat white asparagus which are luxurious in taste and cost.
When we got home, I was given control of the kitchen. Ambra, the 17 year old daughter of Eve’s friend, Fatma, asked if she could help. Alima works as the house keeper and though she tried to stay in the background, she was too excited to see what I would do with the things we bought. “It’s good to have the men in the kitchen from time to time,” I remarked. She loved sticking her nose in the pots, watching closely while I started the risotto.
I started the risotto with magnificent, large spring onions. They are white, watery and have a gentle flavor. Onions offer a note of sweetness to the risotto, and as they cook help the risotto achieve that final creamy texture that makes it an exceptional dish. I use an equal amount of butter to olive oil in the pan when starting risotto, heating one first until the perfume it releases reaches my nose, then I add the other. When the temperature is correct, I put in the onions cut to the size of the grains of rice. I give them a sprinkle of salt and sauté gently until they melt. Ambra stood next to me at the stove until she mentioned that she’d never made risotto, so I showed her how to measure the grain by hand. Two handfuls make the equivalent of the pasta course, three handfuls are enough for the principal course.
When the fat is hot, I add the rice, turn it gently till it’s coated and shiny. It cooks until it becomes opaque, about 3 minutes on a medium flame. I watch the level of heat because I don’t want the onions or the rice to brown. When the rice loses its transparency and becomes opaque, I pour white wine, today a Cote de Luberon, turn the heat to high, stir, and watch the liquid reduce.
With the heat turned back down, and enough hot broth is added to cover the rice. It is stirred, sometimes like a madman the way Cathy Whims showed me, while the broth reduces. This procedure of adding and reducing is repeated a couple of times while the risotto gradually absorbs liquid and softens. It’s important to taste as it goes along, judging the final flavor of the dish by the taste of the broth. I don’t want to salt the dish too much too early as the reduction only concentrates salt. Risotto usually takes 20 to 25 minutes.
The tender green asparagus for today’s risotto are already blanched and ready. When it’s time to add the final volume of liquid to finish my risotto, I take a handful of cooked asparagus, put them in the blender with a ladleful of the water they cooked in, and liquefy them. When I add this liquid to finish cooking the risotto, it lends a pale green color that is pretty.
Vigorously stirring the risotto while it cooks helps create creaminess in the dish by releasing a maximum of starch. I try to judge the final moistness of the dish, because I don’t want it too dry, or for it to mound too much. I stop cooking when the rice feels soft, but still retains enough toothsome quality that allows me to still distinguish the shape and texture of the grain.
When the risotto is where I want it, the heat is shut off and it sits for another 5 minutes of so. During this time, the risotto seems to absorb more liquid and to soufflé gently and each grain retains it shape. My friend Marietta often beats a single egg in a bowl, stirs it into the risotto at this point, covers the pot and removes from the heat for a minute or two. The risotto soufflés with the egg, and she finishes the dish, which she calls “Bambino” with a little cream, and Parma cheese. It’s a dish her mother used to make especially for the kids.
While Ambra and Jany search for flat soup bowls and set them in place at the table, Alima helps me find a large platter. I heaped the pale green risotto into the dish, garnished it with the perfectly blanched green asparagus. Just before sending it to the table, I sprinkle Parmesan cheese which Ambra grated by hand, “and with love,” as she suggested. We deliver the plate to an eager audience waiting at the table. Everyone makes appreciative comments, passes the platter and before we’re done eats every grain on the platter. As the conversation continued, Jany kept coming back for yet another spoon full. With the final taste of the risotto, she said, “I’ve never tasted anything so good in my life.” I was reminded that the Italians say when you eat risotto that you need to save some grains for the angels. They know it’s so good and that anyone is going to want to eat it all, so the spirit of a little angelic offering seems to lend value to the dish.
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and blanched tender
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 large white onion, cut in a tiny dice
1 pound of risotto, (I like Arborio)
2 cups white wine
1 quart chicken stock
1 quart asparagus blanching water
Heat the butter in a 9 or 10 in straight sided skillet. When it melts, add the olive oil and wait for it to come to temperature. Add the diced onion, a sprinkle of salt and sauté 3 or 4 minutes without browning, until the onions softens. Add the risotto, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat the rice. Heat the rice until the grains turn opaque, again without browning.
Raise the heat, add the white wine and quickly evaporate. Turn the heat back down, add enough broth to cover the rice and cook slowly until the rice evaporates. While the rice cooks, stir constantly, sometimes vigorously, to release starches. Repeat this operation of adding liquid and reducing until the risotto seems tender. Taste the broth as you go along and add salt discretely to make the liquid flavorful.
When you think you are ready to add the last ladle of liquid, liquefy half a dozen asparagus in the water used to blanch the asparagus, and finish the risotto with this liquid. When the risotto is cooked to your liking, turn the heat off and let it rest for five minutes.
Spoon risotto into flat bowls, garnish with whole asparagus stalk. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and give a grinding of pepper before serving.
So there they were; local asparagus from Sherwood at the Saturday market. Six bundles of them; four were finger thick, two were pencil sized. I would have taken the pencil sized ones except there weren’t enough for the 12 people I was cooking for.
I lined up the four bundles, moving them like chess pieces closer to me. I reached into my pocket for money, and wouldn’t you know, someone came along, eyed my (as in mine) nicely arranged asparagus, and started to make a move on them. “No,” I began, “these are mine. Those over there are available to you.” We laughed and discussed the merits of thin versus not thin asparagus.
Back in the kitchen, I snapped one to see where the give point on the stalk was then took a nicely sharpened chef’s knife and cut the bundle. I put the cut ends into a bag for recycling, and moved on to trim the next bundles.
I like to prepare asparagus in a straight sided skillet. I add a couple of inches of water, bring it to a boil, toss in salt and then the asparagus. When the water comes back to a boil, I add half a cup of cold water to lower the temperature. The procedure allows the cooking to be gentler on the tips, while the stalks still cook. After the second addition of cold water, I remove one, test its doneness by slicing a small piece from the bottom of the stalk. When they are the way I like them, I stop the cooking. If I’m serving them warm I just pat them dry, and move them to a plate. If I’m going to serve them later, I run them under cold water to stop the cooking.
Having tasted these asparagus, I discovered how vibrant and sweet they were. I could just have eaten them like that. I decided all they’d get was coarse salt and excellent olive oil. As I went for the oil and salt my mind came back to the trimmings I’d set aside. “If the asparagus are this good,” I reasoned, “then those stalks are too good to throw away.”
I washed them, sliced them finger thick, and cooked them in about 1-1/2 quarts of water. I simmered them for 20 minutes or so until they were well over cooked. I put everything in the blender and liquified it. Next I strained the liquid to rid it of all the fibrous stuff. The asparagus water is sitting in the refrigerator waiting to be used to make risotto which I’ll do as soon as get more asparagus to garnish the dish.
When I’m in Provence my friend’s mother prepares fat white asparagus and arranges a generous amount of them on a large platter. One time when she set them on the table, I put some on my plate and said, “Since I’m in Provence, I would like olive oil for my asparagus, please.” Her daughter, who is my good friend, reached to the center of the table where three bottles of local olive oil rested. But before she could ask which olive oil I wanted, I beat her to it, “I want the one from Nyons.” I knew it was her mother’s favorite. Her smile revealed how the intimacy of small gestures repeated over years of being together heightens emotions. “I’d also like the salt mill, please.”
In the same season in Paris the asparagus I ate cost 18 euros in a restaurant, as much as the foie gras. I added a third to that price in dollars to have an idea of how valued they are. I also dined with friends at home on the Atlantic coast of France where we ate asparagus because when they are in season they are celebrated.
The French mostly eat white asparagus that they peel and then cook in a shallow pan at a slow boil until tender. When my friend Jacqueline prepared them, she arranged a large white tea towel on a platter and carefully aligned the asparagus. Since they were precious she made Sauce Mousseline using an egg yolk to make a mayonnaise that she later lightened with the egg white whipped to soft peak. The delicious and elegant sauce, only made once a year, complemented the simple asparagus perfectly.
In Provence they poured a white Chateauneuf du Pape from Beaucastel. In Paris, I ordered an Alsatian Riesling. In the west of France, they served a white Bordeaux.
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk (reserve white)
¾ cup flavorless oil (peanut, sunflower, etc.)
1 egg white, whipped to soft peak
Whip the egg white with a pinch of salt, keep on reserve.
Put the lemon juice, salt and mustard in a medium bowl. Using a hand mixer, whip homogenous. With the machine running, slowly add the oil, incorporating the oil completely, to retain an emulsion. Fold the egg white into the mayonnaise with a spatula. Serve the sauce with blanched asparagus.
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