VDP: Summer Risotto with Pesto and Ricotta

Saturday, July 26, 2008

This is the first risotto I made without using chicken stock. Instead if the customary butter in there I also used olive oil. The result was quiet good, but I did miss the goodness of a rich stock in there. Instead, I used some fresh vegetable stock to cook the risotto.

The process is classic. The onions and some celery get sautéed in fat (in this case olive oil), then in goes the risotto  rice (Arborio in my case). I make sure the grains are well coated with oil and after a minute or two they get a bit translucent around the edges. At that point I throw in some white wine and let it cook until evaporated. Now, hot stock gets added in ladlefuls until the rice is cooked. That’s a basic risotto and it can be flavored a hundred different ways. The most basic flavor is butter and Parm cheese added after the heat is turned off and allowed to mingle for a few minutes.

In this summery version, I added diced zucchini, peeled and chopped tomatoes and roasted red peppers. I also finished it up with Parmigiano cheese.

To serve it I topped the risotto with homemade ricotta cheese and almond-basil pesto. I have a bunch of basil in my garden, so pesto was a no-brainer. I had no pine nuts on hand so I used almonds instead in it. I bashed the herbs and nuts with garlic and salt in my mortar until fairly smooth, then mixed in olive oil, Parm cheese, and a touch of lemon juice. The sharp and deliciously fragrant pesto really made this dish perfect. I counter-balanced the sweetness of the peppers and the blandness of the zucchini perfectly.

VDP: Vegetarian Grilling

Sunday, June 15, 2008

I love a good steak or pork chop (or chicken or ribs for that matter) cooked over natural wood charcoal as much as the next guy. Let’s face it, the reason we light up our grills is to cook meat. It is the ultimate pleasure that hot charcoal can provide. However, with some creativity and little effort one can make a very tasty vegetarian meal on the grill.

This Sunday, in addition to putting a few chicken legs on the grill for the kids, I prepared a few dishes for Diana and I with no meat. From Mario Batali’s “Italian Grill” I made the marinated zucchini with homemade ricotta. The vegetable is sliced thin on a mandolin and marinated it with some herbs, oil and vinegar. After grilling, some more marinade is poured on top, in addition to chopped mint leaves. It is served with ricotta mixed with olive oil and with slices of grilled rustic bread. This a delicious mix of flavors and textures.

Another dish was something improvised, a sort of potato and green bean salad. I ‘steamed’ the green beans in aluminum foil with lemon slices and a bit of white wine. The packet was placed right on the grill. I grilled the potatoes directly on the grill and I also wrapped a few garlic cloves in foil and put them straight on the coals to roast. I made a dressing using those garlic cloves after mashing them. I mixed them with olive oil and lemon juice. I sliced the potatoes and tossed everything together. Not bad at all.

Last but not least was a cherry tomato and basil salad. Nothing more than tasty tomatoes, olive oil, torn basil, salt and pepper.

VDP: Ratatouille

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A year or so ago Ratatouille was just another obscure French dish and very few would recognize what it is and what it is made of. Now, thanks to the lovely Pixar film of the same name, even my 5-year old knows that it’s a vegetables stew. The word stew immediately brings to mind winter months and tough cuts of meat braised for hours in the oven in wine and aromatics. Stews are comfort foods, rib sticking and ‘hearty’. Well, at least for me, that’s what the word stew implies.

Not Ratatouille though! It is cooked for a long time and it does contain white wine and aromatics, but it is first of all completely vegetarian. It is also summery, using those emblematic summer vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes). Last but not least, it is light and the only fat in there is olive oil. While it tastes fantastic the minute is ready, Ratatouille, like any stew worth its cooking wine is much better the next day. So, I made this the night before and gently reheated it for dinner on Thursday.

The recipe I used is another winning one from Paula wolfert’st “Mediterranean Grains and Greens” with some alteration to reduce the amount of olive oil (not cheap) and to save me some time and effort since I was cooking on a Wednesday night. My main deviation from her recipe is the prep that goes into the zucchini and eggplant. I skipped the step where they are salted and allowed to rest and I also did not deep-fry them in olive oil. Instead I tossed them with some olive oil and roasted at 450F in the oven until nice and browned, but not mushy. These are then cooked long and slow with herbs, lots of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions and a cup or so of white wine.

To serve it I made brown rice. The best way to make brown rice is to cook it in the oven. Alton Brown has a good recipe for that. It yields a soft and fluffy rice instead of a hard or gluey mess that you sometimes get when cooking brown rice. This can easily be eaten as is or with some crusty country bread.