In Praise of Mushroom Risotto

Risotto is a demanding mistress.   Leave her unguarded and she will burn.  Maybe it’s easier to prepare her in a washing machine …Set it on spin cycle and take all the credit….

But I don’t think so.

The taste will soon be lost cause the taste is born in the effort you put in.

Elisa and I were talking about the relationship between work and flavor as we roasted our toes over the camp fire new year’s eve.   I mean, we were eating tortillas we charred on a sliver of tinfoil over the flame and a can of Amy’s Lentil soup warmed on a camp stove – but, we both made those vocal yum sounds over and over again.

For canned soup and store bought tortillas….

That same meal defrosted and slammed in a microwave is just not the same.

It’s the heat.

Fire is one of the things that makes us human.  The simple task of cooking without modern convenience allows us to touch this ancestral cord through the access point of work.

So, if you want to remember what this feels like and you can’t slip away to the nearest camp site- just cook a risotto.

And don’t take it personally if the parmesan cheese you plop on in the end takes all the credit.  Cheese is like a clown in Shakespeare – it’s on stage for ten minutes and steals the show.

But it needs all the spinning and turning, the attention, and care.  The singleness of mind.. To shine…

That’s what I think is one of the dividends cooking this way creates–A singleness of mind.  Which we need more and more of these days.

There are many ways to get at it, but all require some concentrated effort.

That’s what the Zen arts are.

The end result is that singleness of mind brings us home to ourselves.

For me the portal to this experience can be found in and around a kitchen.  It doesn’t have to be on a mountaintop with a swami but dug out of a sink where there are dishes to be washed.

For me the darma road starts there.

What makes cooking risotto so special is the chemistry lesson contained within the break down of its composition.  It is a metamorphosis worthy of Ovid.

An interaction of heat and time cranked along by determined effort.  Motion.

Circular motion with a wooden spoon.

You don’t even need to look at it to be with it.  You can hear the wheel and feel it.  It will tell you when to add more broth.  Especially when you begin to listen to it.

So yeah, I love Risotto.  I don’t even have to eat it.

I’m not going to tell you how to cook it or step by step a recipe, what to add to it – that’s far too personal a thing – like our understanding of God – but I will share a few impressions.

First of all, since Risotto is all about blends, I find that a blend of wild rice and traditional Arborio is best.  The end result is a diversity of texture that makes for some seat wiggling excitement when enjoyed.

It’s worth noting here that Risotto is also synergy incarnate.  Because it produces a mysterious nuttiness.  And no nuts were involved.  They are secondary tastes created by the integration of primary tastes.

Did I say how much I love Risotto?

Maybe it’s because  cooking it  slows life down.  Reminds me of what truth and beauty can come from a little hard work and singleness of purpose.  And here’s the kicker-  The first thing all that effort creates is the natural desire to serve it to others.


Do it.  Do it now.   With what you got.  It doesn’t need complication – in fact it will reject it – but does welcome a little parsley on top.

It doesn’t require anything too exotic, but what it does require is timing.  Real timing.  Not timing based on clocks. But true time- time that can only be measured by a side pot of simmering broth that gradually empties.  A risotto is not done till the all the broth has been added – one half cup at a time.

But here’s the thing about risotto – like love and art and life itself – it can be lost in the measuring cup.

There was a friend I knew in rural Sweden who was descendent of Shakers who liked to say that no recipe worth anything can be quantified.  When asked how much salt, sugar, flour, etc, it’s always “enough for the pot.”

So, yeah.  There is no short cut around that either.  Risotto asks us to interact with it.

Sometimes it wants us to carmelize onions in a skillet while we stir…

And set aside mushrooms sautéed in oil and butter (to raise the flash point).  It may suggest we sprinkle a little herbs on those mushrooms and set aside…

I love that phrase in cooking-  set aside, or reserve.   Almost as much as I like “serve immediately.” Knowing which is which makes all the difference.

Maybe you use some garlic maybe you don’t.  Maybe you use a good – and I mean real good balsamic and maybe you use wine.  But we can all agree – no matter what part of the political spectrum we are on – that there is one quintessential ingredient- mushrooms.

Their natural habitat is burrowed in a pot of risotto.

Just don’t add them to the end.  In fact don’t add any of the fun stuff till the end.

That’s the big finale- don’t sabotage the whole thing by combining everything too early.

I think that’s the final tannin in the risotto experience that I would like to leave you with.  The fact that you get to luxuriate yourself.  Fine dine.  In your PJS if you like. And all that big-ticket extravagance comes from you carving maximum flavor our of simple things through your own effort alone.  Trust me you will be the richer for it.

Like spirituality and all things good – we have these obstacles blockading the path  that call out in complaint and fear, “who am I to do this, to be that… well, who are you NOT to?”

Take the plunge, get creative.  Risk burning a pot.  And work hard.  Find a recipe online.  Read it a few times – like you want to commit to memory and understand the logic within it, then play.  And get a good bottle of balsamic.  It took me nearly twenty years of cooking to realize that no matter how poor you may think you are, you can always afford a good bottle of balsamic.

A little goes a long way.

So does truffle oil.

Your mushrooms will thank you.


3 thoughts on “In Praise of Mushroom Risotto

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