Generally speaking, I consider myself a girl who loves winter and everything about it: endless, frozen nights when the our city is firm and quiet, the eerie cracking of frozen, bare limbs reminding us that we’re not the only ones waiting for the frost to break. Sweaters. Tea. Scarves. Red noses and extra trips to the coffee during those long work days when daylight seems to hide for days on end. I particularly love January to the end of March. The gray days are the perfect time for Sunday sauce + meatballs, pasta bakes, spicy shakshuka or chilaquiles for brunch, a few stews and definitely a few roast chickens.
Winter in Ohio is distinctly different beast depending on where in our lovely state you live. Here in the middle lands, we’ve had a gray, boring season. We’re underwhelmed at best while we jealously read the weekly forecast for the Northeast. Winter hasn’t given us anything about it to love this year. We’re cranky and basically over it. Ok, that part about wanting 35 inches of snow… that might just be me.
So – instead of being a crabby, restless mess and ordering lots of pity pizza… I started taking a yoga class! Three days a week! FREE AT WORK. I’d be stupid not to take it, right? Quite honestly, I can’t really move right now because I’m sure I’ve done EVERYTHING wrong, but that’s ok. It’s creating a little crack in this gray funk and I’m already feeling better. Small changes lead to big changes. Or something. I quite remember exactly what the new-agey yogi was talking about today, but it was something to that effect. Maybe one day I’ll be able to pay attention instead of wondering if I’ll be able to unfurl my sad, inflexible body in time for my next meeting.
In addition to getting some zen in my life, I’ve also started to make a concerted effort to actually use our cookbooks. We’ve got so many wonderful ideas quietly fill this shelf and it’s a shame that we’re letting them collect dust. Some of the newest are wedding presents from our dear, wonderful, and amazing friends Tom + Molly who live far, far away in Madison, WI and are probably having a much more exciting snow adventure than we are.
One of their gifts, “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi, is absolutely amazing and full of bright, happy vegetables! (Even if you don’t buy this book – next time you’re at the bookstore or library, go look at it… it’s beautiful. You go to the library, right? I’m blinking at you.)
As I was paging through, I realized I was craving the newness of spring but not ready to give up the ghost with winter quite yet. And then… there it was, right in front of me. The perfect bridge between these gray days and the coming of spring: lemon + eggplant risotto. Creamy, warm rice, cooked in olive oil and onions, slowly swirled with increments of good broth, good cheese and lemon juice and zest… oh my! It’s warm and comforting but fresh and vibrant. Heavy enough to be comfort food, but bright enough to really let the eggplant, basil and lemon shine. There is hope!
What I find clever about this risotto is the duo of eggplant: one oven-charred, one fried in olive oil. The oven-charred eggplant adds a deep creaminess to the rice, and the fried bits remind me how little adornment eggplant really needs to be a delicious little devil. Pair this with fresh basil, lemon zest and good pecorino Romano (…use Locatelli and don’t ever say I didn’t give you good advice). I mean, can you really go wrong with this? I think not.
Many simple combinations of delicate vegetables and aromatics will result in a very nice dish. I’ve had wonderful risottos with fresh peas, asparagus, and cheese. The traditional risotto Milanese (from Milan) is winter comfort food, for real: saffron, beef broth, butter or lard, cheese, and saffron (swoon) Something earthy like mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes and maybe a bit of thyme would be wonderful, too, I’d bet. Find a few things that play nice, and let them shine.
So, let’s back up just a bit. When I’m reading cookbooks, I’m not looking to follow a recipe to the final letter. I look at cookbooks as more inspiration for method, flavor combinations, and interesting tidbits about regional histories – those sorts of things. That being said, my method is not exact, or in perfect lockstep with any recipe, so work with the ambiguous nature of these directions and don’t be afraid to experiment.
To make a risotto – you’ll need about a scant cup of Arborio rice (there are other varieties, but this is easiest to come by in my opinion) and about 3.5-ish cups of warm broth. Gently cook the onion in some olive oil or butter, add some garlic and a heavy splash of white wine until it’s all absorbed. You can add most of your other add ins like, peas, mushrooms, here and stir for a few minutes. Add the Arborio and the broth about a ladle full at a time (… a heavy half cup, perhaps…) and stir until the broth is absorbed. This is the most important part. The time you invest here is worth it. Don’t rush it – let the grains and broth do their thing. Plan for about a half an hour here. Repeat this until the grains are al dente (a little bite left to them) and stir in cheese, maybe more butter, any lemon juice and zest and salt and pepper. Sprinkle with herbs and a little more cheese and done.
The oven-charred eggplant from Ottolenghi’s recipe was added towards the end with the lemon juice, zest, and cheese. The fried bits were served on top. I continue to be in love with it.
I will definitely be revisiting this recipe in the warmer months to come, when the eggplant and basil are ready in the garden…
Speaking of spring… our seed catalog is ready for a good read … I think I’ll stack it on the top of that reading pile. We should probably get on that whole gardening thing. We’ll talk about that some day.