Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Hannah Howard Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Hannah Howard
By Hannah Howard

Once upon a time, I interned for an aspiring food celebrity. She was lovely, and had cobbled together a hodgepodge food career — catering, selling fancy granola bars, writing a food blog. I helped her with all of these ventures. Sunday mornings were for watching chick flicks in her apartment, cross-legged, and wrapping granola nut squares into sleeves of plastic.

Christmastime, we catered a really fancy event for socialites, with clinky glasses and tiny dresses. I remember a sense of panic — a million paper-thin sheets of prosciutto to roll into cylinders and tie with neat chive bows, the clock ticking, my forehead slick with hot basement and determination sweat.

At the end of the night, prosciutto and pearly scallops gone, we emerged from the kitchen basement out into the glittery party and toasted with the fancy guests. I felt self conscious in my black caterer garb, everyone all dressed up and jaunty.

But ugly outfit and all, I met a gorgeous restaurateur with an Australian accent and green-grey eyes and scruff. We talked in a corner with our bubbly, making snide remarks about the socialite cohort. He touched my arm. Our laughter felt twinkly. A few hours later, we were riding on his motorcycle over the Brooklyn Bridge, the night on our backs, the air soft and electrifying against our faces.

We had fun, but I knew I really liked him when he had me over to his Brooklyn Heights apartment for risotto. Mushroom risotto. So classic, so romantic. I grated parmesan and felt that spine-tingly feeling of liking a man who cooks you risotto, watching him stirring the rice, folding in a knob of sunshine-yellow butter.

It didn’t work out, but I had happy memories, carb-related and otherwise. The next summer, thinking I wanted to be a chef, I worked on the line in a sweaty midtown kitchen. It was all the things I was expecting — so hot my brain hurt, manic. I got screamed at regularly. A fellow cook singed my wrist. I left so tired my bones ached. I hated it; I loved it.

I worked mostly at the station that made all the hot sides. It was an American, classic sort of menu: I cooked mashed potatoes, sautéed spinach, succotash, mac n’ cheese. But my absolute favorite thing to make was risotto.

Now it’s my go-to. I love having dishes that I return to, but they’re more templates than formulas, and I riff on the theme. Risotto is good with mushrooms, always. I’ve also had success with butternut squash and sage, saffron and shrimp, pesto and goat cheese, and whatever veggie bounty the market offers.

I went to the little market by my old apartment for inspiration and what did I find? Mushrooms galore!

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Hannah Howard

Image courtesy of New York Natives, photographer: Hannah Howard

Stunning hen of the woods, chanterelles, and oyster mushrooms. And the prices? Not exorbitant! No way to cheer me up like some beautiful mushrooms. I was all smiles the whole way back to my apartment.

Mushrooms are nearly all water, and a big, generous bag of ‘shrooms cooks down to almost nothing. So I did it up with my bounty. No such thing as too many mushrooms.

What better way to showcase earthy, umami-packed, rich mushrooms than with creamy risotto? At my restaurant, we were proponents of “the more butter, the better” philosophy, but I prefer not to eat a stick of butter for dinner, so I use a rather modest amount. The result is still totally creamy, lush and feels decadent, not health-foody or something. It was some bang up risotto.

Here’s my risotto process:

1. Sauté my mountain of mushrooms in as many batches as it takes, with just a bit of olive oil, butter, and salt (Or whatever veggies I am using!)

2. Warm up some stock — veggie or chicken or whatever you have, keep it ready on your stovetop

3. Sauté leeks, shallots, and garlic in good olive oil, until translucent

4. Add aborio rice, season generously; let rice toast for about 5 minutes, keep stirring

5. Deglaze the pan with a glug of white wine

Here’s where the serious stirring comes in. Add a ladle-full of hot stock. Keep adding and stirring, adding and stirring, until the rice gets creamy and unctuous and transcendent (For me, this requires a watchful eye, and tasting). It should take forever, or anything…maybe 10 minutes.

Add all the mushrooms in and stir. Finish with a big handful of grated parmesan, a chunk of butter, and perhaps a sprinkle of herbs (If I was using goat cheese, or pesto, I’d fold in these goodies at the finale).

So easy, so tasty, and good!

I served my creation with a big green salad with a mustardy vinaigrette, to play off the risotto’s richness, and a bottle of riseling, for the same reason.

I have little patience, and I am terrible at slowing down. Making things in my kitchen forces me to stop running. It takes how long it takes. Just gotta stand there and stir. Maybe with a glass of wine and some old-school music blasting. The sum is much greater than its parts — rice and wrist action and a few minutes. Mid-bowl, everything is better, transformed.

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