Well, hello!! Fancy meeting you here in a whole new season! I know it has been a minute, but coming in strong with some tempting taste treats to make up for lost time. Think spring woodland treasures matched up with creamy, cheesy risotto! Yup – a fiddlehead fern, ramps and wild mushroom risotto! I had a hankering for morels, the crown jewel of springtime mushrooms, but couldn’t find any while foraging at Fresh Direct grocery delivery. However, they did not disappoint with an organic Asian blend, including Shiitake, Brown Beech and Oyster mushrooms. The Shiitakes add a nice depth of flavor – umami for the win – and the Brown Beech and Oyster provide their unique textures. Use whatever you can find, but look for a range in flavor, texture and shape.
By now you should be familiar with Shiitakes, because I reach for them maybe a bit too often. My workhorse! But the Brown Beech might be a new find. They grow in clumps – often at the base of beech trees, hence the name – and have long slender stems. Just trim the clump end off and leave them whole. So pretty and their bitter taste turns nutty when cooked.
Spring pastas and risottos will beg for their seasonal rock stars – ramps and fiddlehead ferns. Ramps are commonly known as wild leeks, wild garlic or spring onion. The look a bit like a tender tiny bunch of scallions, perhaps a bit leafier at the top. They have both an onion-y and garlic-y flavor, though both flavors come through rather sweet compared to their pungent older sisters. If you can’t find them, substitute with a small amount of minced garlic, and a handful of chopped scallions or chives.
Fiddlehead ferns are the furled frond of a tender, young Ostrich fern. Left to their own devices they would unfurl and become another frond on their host. They are a great source of iron, Omega 3s and fiber. But let’s get to it – texture and taste. It’s best to boil or steam them first to eliminate tannins and possible toxins. Then add them to your sauté toward the end so they stay crunchy and show off their delightful citrus-y taste. Together these ingredients bring both a bright springtime flavor (and color) and an unctuous woody flavor from the ‘shrooms.
If you live in a wooded area – and KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING – look around. One friend just reported yesterday that she had ramps, fiddleheads and Shiitakes popping everywhere right out her window. How’s this for a Shiitake crop?
I’m all for a stroll in the woods to see what has “popped up”, but if you haven’t done it before, be careful. Wildman Steve Brill offers an amazing course in NYC, where he forages in Central Park, among other Tri-State locales. He just did a private tour for the New York Women’s Culinary Alliance to rave reviews. I let Fresh Direct do the foraging for me, and by next week I will be haunting some outdoor farmers’ markets as they start to pop up.
The Right Rice
Now to the most important ingredient – the rice. For years, I thought Arborio was the go-to rice and used it with good results. (I used it here, too. Old dogs/new tricks????) But my friends Elisabetta and Kris, both of whom run wonderful culinary tours in Italy, assure me Carnaroli is the queen of risotto rice for most of Italy. I suppose I have been cooking so long that it’s possible it wasn’t yet a major import in the US market. But I’m abundantly clear now that it is the preferred variety. All rice used in risotto has short, rather stout grains, and is rich in a particular starch – amylopectin – that is a tad sticky and gives risotto its creaminess. Arborio is wider and longer than Carnaroli. But both are wildly different in shape and starchiness than our Carolina long-grain rice used for fluffy pilafs, geared to be a grain that won’t clump.
But wait – do I need to take a step back? Is this iconic, and oh-so-tasty-dish familiar to you? Apparently, it is not well-known to you all. Risotto is a dish that is among the easiest and least fussy, but requires a watchful eye and some stirring. Once the rice is toasted in hot oil, warm stock is added a bit at a time and stirred until absorbed, when you can add the next batch of stock. And so it goes, until all the stock is added and the rice’s chalky, crunchy texture gives way to soft and creamy. It is then that I add in the vegetables, sautéed previously, and the grated cheese(s) to finish it off. Serve it up right away with a crisp green salad and a lovely glass of wine. Invite friends, if you must.
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