I have strong feelings for risotto in general, especially mushroom and shrimp risottos. In addition to the usual risotto made with Arborio rice, I have an amazing recipe for mushroom risotto that is made from farro, instead of rice. But first of all, let me tell you about my strong feelings for risotto, in general.
There are few dishes that I enjoy making more than risotto. It’s a dish that requires planning, patience, a glass of wine, and magic. It has a basic framework, but then it is perfectly amenable to last-minute creativity. I really love standing at the stove while each small ladle of stock is added and the risotto plumps and rises to the occasion.
I also have very strong feelings about the texture of the final product. When I first started making risotto years ago, I had never had it at a restaurant, so I was simply relying on what I thought it should be, rather than trying to mimic what someone else had made. After making various forms of risotto at home, when I had the opportunity to go out on a corporate expense account (remember those days?), I ordered a luscious-sounding seafood risotto. I was disappointed. It was too soupy. And my other complaint about it is best summed up by this quote from Woody Allen:
“The food here is terrible and the portions are too small.”
So, I learned one lesson about risotto that night. It’s a restaurant risk, just like coffee and prime rib. I’ve been making different forms of risotto for a long, long time now. It’s been a great love affair, until recently.
I was cooking for six lovely people who wanted nothing more than to feel that the long drive out to our house would be rewarded by something tasty, until enough time had passed that they could get their hands on Gary’s dessert: The Black Beast (26 ounces of chocolate in the cake alone, not to mention what’s in the ganache).
I had a few food preferences to work around, so I finally decided that I would make Mushroom Farro Risotto for the main course. I have made this dish twice before, with great success. I have even given the recipe to my good friend, Sharon, and she also received rave reviews.
I was giddy with anticipation.
The last time I made this dish, I also added some asparagus and this is how it turned out:
Seriously! I know it looks messy, but doesn’t it look good? I just wanted to put my face in the pot.
There was only one problem this time: I didn’t have enough farro in my pantry to make the double batch that I needed for feeding seven people. Boise is not the farro capital of the Western world, but I knew that Whole Foods would carry it, along with the Better Than Bouillon mushroom stock that I also needed. So, I filled up the gas tank in Sparky the Subaru and headed to town.
The last time I bought farro was a year ago and the only place I had found it was Whole Foods. This year, Whole Foods still only had one kind of farro, but it was different than last year’s. I bought it anyway and headed back home. I put it next to last year’s farro, swore and sucked my teeth, and then decided to ignore it and hope for the best.
Last year’s farro is on the left; this year’s farro is on the right:
But hey, with enough good planning, I’m sure I can pull this off. I needed to double the recipe, so I knew it would take longer to cook. I prepped all of the cremini and wild mushrooms, heated the 12 cups of mushroom stock, and diced all of the other ingredients in advance. I even juggled the soup and salad courses around so I could spend more time at the stove if needed, stirring with my Official Wooden Risotto Spoon, while everyone else sat around the table and swapped stories and drank wine.
By this time, my guests had nibbled on a couple of filling appetizers, had a walnut and stilton salad with port dressing, and enjoyed a small bowl but super-delicious (even if I say so myself) Lyonnaise Onion Soup (thanks to Jacques Pepin and my homemade beef stock).
Here I with my homemade beef stock in the doomed kitchen.
This is what the onion soup looks like before you add port and egg yolks, stir the whole mess up, and serve it:
Wicked good soup!
Things seemed to be going fairly well as I cooked the farro and onion; then I added the garlic and the multitude of mushrooms. Then the white wine and thyme. I can taste it already, in my little mind.
About 15 minutes later, I started the long process of adding the mushroom stock, one ladle at a time, waiting for it to be mostly absorbed before adding the next. With about 12 cups of stock to add, this was going to take a while.
So, my guests weren’t starving. My only hope now was that their collective sobriety would continue to wane.
I hopped back and forth from the dining room table to the stove every few minutes to check on the status of my risotto. Ever so slowly, the broth would sort of be absorbed, but not really. I cranked up the heat of the broth and the risotto, hoping to inspire the grain to cook more quickly and plump the hell up.
Where was the magic? It wasn’t happening.
I poured more wine and considered my options, as well as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, which now applied quite well to my impending Dining Disaster:
Denial: I need to open the first bottle of If You See Kay red wine. I wasn’t going to serve this wine until the risotto was done; but maybe if I go ahead and open it, the risotto will start coming around. Kind of like moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.
NOTE: BTW, if you have not had If You See Kay red wine, you owe it to yourself to find it, spend the coin (it’s more expensive than our budget allows for), and then savor every drop of it. It’s not an easy wine to find in Boise, Idaho, where the name was offensive to a number of religious types who have nothing better to do with their time than to wander the wine aisles and look for heretical wine labels. Glad I’m not cooking for them…
If I find IYSK again, I will buy a case, even if I have to convince Gary to sell his body to do it. I think he’d do that for me.
Their slogan is: Wide Open Throttle Or Don’t Bother Doing It At All
Gotta love that. But I digress.
Anger: I am looking at the clock. I’ve been stirring for the better part of an hour and the risotto still resembles hot, soggy bird seed. A few grains fell on the kitchen floor and our older dog, Henry, helped himself. Then he spit them out, looked at me, and sighed. I am in deep trouble.
WWMD? What Would Martha Do?
Bargaining: It’s now been an hour. I have talked with God extensively. I’ve promised that I won’t eat potato chips ever again. In addition, I promised to vacuum more often and stop watching 30Rock. You’d think that God would go for this; I mean, it’s no skin off of his/her nose. Slightly soggier bird seed now.
Depression: Still stirring and staggering back to the dining room table to pretend I’ve got it under control and help myself to a bit more wine. I open the second bottle of IYSK. I ask the dinner guest to my right: “Shall I just call out for pizza?” He laughs, having no idea how truly serious I am. Where did all of those 12 cups of stock go, anyway?
Acceptance: It’s now been about an hour and a half. I taste the contents of the pot one last time: The bird seed is now chewy but unremarkable, uncreamy, and unpalatable. And, somehow, too salty (even for me). The mushrooms have mutated into the texture of mucilage.
In spite of doubling the recipe to up with 7 medium-sized servings and leftovers, because the farro refused to cooperate, I barely have enough for 7 smallish servings. I switch to smaller bowls, in hopes of making it look like the servings are bigger. I dribble killer olive oil on the top (Queen Creek Olive Mill – “Robust” variety), along with a bit of parmesan and parsley and throw them at Gary to serve to my captive and, by now, ravenous dinner guests.
It was a disaster.
But everyone ate the damned stuff; if you’re hungry enough, I guess you’ll eat anything. I had two bites, pushed the plate away, and grabbed the wine bottle. I tried to be calm but I don’t think I did a good job of it.
I have no delusions that I am a great cook, but I am an enthusiastic and occasionally fearless one. And, as it turned out, an unsuccessful one.
But never this badly.
I remember the panic I felt a few years ago when I was cooking eight racks of lamb (after taking out a second mortgage on our home to do so) with two different remote meat thermometers. OK, so I was a little neurotic about overcooking them.
Everything was going along quite nicely until the temperatures on the two digital displays started diverging wildly: WHY??? I was standing in the kitchen, with probably $120 of lamb in front of me, and my head in my hands. It all turned out OK…one of the thermometers’ batteries had chosen that particular moment to die. I recovered and the lamb was really delicious.
But until the farro incident, I’ve never felt like throwing a pot of something out of the window. Now I have. It’s humbling, frustrating, and maddening, to say the least.
I thought back on how this evening could have turned out differently, other than picking a different main course or using Arborio rice. But really, I only made one BIG mistake: I didn’t pay attention to the little, caffeinated voice in my head that said: “This farro looks weird. Don’t buy it. Go somewhere else and find the right stuff.”
Damn the little voice. Lesson learned. Again.
I gotta look at the bright side of this mess: The dessert was GREAT. I also found out that my dinner guests are such nice people that they are even still speaking to me. You can’t ask for more than that.
Thanks for reading. I know how busy you are.