Monday, January 19, 2009

Citrus Risotto (from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)

This Christmas, I did something I haven't done in over a year -- I bought a cookbook.

I am a big cookbook skeptic. I am an even bigger restaurant cookbook skeptic. Not that regular cookbooks aren't full of untested, poorly written recipes, but the cookbooks written by restaurant chefs seem to be the worst offenders. Let's start with the fact that such books' primary objective is to promote the restaurant, make you drool over photos, and tell you stories about the chef's adventures in Provence, Japan, or some other exotic place that inspire you to try the restaurant. Making sure that your dish comes out perfectly is on the bottom of the writers' and publishers' priority queue. When I first heard about the Zuni Cafe Cookbook by Judy Rodgers, I was as skeptical as usual. But 3 years ago, I tried the roast chicken recipe from the Zuni Cafe book republished on-line, and then the porchetta recipe, and finally... finally... I bought the book for myself this Christmas.

What made me decide that this book had potential was the kind of details provided in its recipes. It was the stuff I imagined Judy Rodgers telling her line cooks. Most of her recipes have 5-10 ingredients and 2 pages of procedural instruction. But as tedious as it is to follow such long instructions, the lessons learned from them are invaluable. Judy Rodgers wants your dish to succeed, and she puts such effort into walking you through the recipes that I suddenly had an urge go to San Francisco right away and give her a big hug.

I spent the last month devouring the book. I have now made an apple tart, chicken stock, pasta with broccoli and cauliflower, polenta, and my favorite dish of all -- the citrus risotto. The risotto was so good, I made it twice in one week. The picture doesn't do it justice. No story I could write about it could do it justice. Like many other of Rodgers' recipes, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Much greater.

I have to confess that I have made some minor tweaks to the recipe.
  • used shallots instead of onions
  • added more mascarpone than the recipe called for (almost doubling the amount suggested)
  • used my oven risotto method instead of the classic stirring on the stove stop
But I don't think I changed the fundamental structure of the recipe or what makes it so delightful.

Before I started writing this post, I was curious about what's already written about this recipe, so I googled "zuni cafe citrus risotto," and got over 2,000 results. Surprisingly, not everyone thought it was great. Of course, tastes are different, but I couldn't help but wonder what could go wrong for people who didn't fall madly in love with this dish. I can't imagine I'll convince anyone to give this risotto another try if their first try failed, but if you haven't made it yet and want to try it, here are some tips that worked for me.
  • Make sure to use enough salt. The recipe doesn't give salt measurement. It's too hard to do these days with many different salt types out there. Unfortunately, "season to taste" is easier said than done for many cooks. The oven method makes seasoning much easier. The cooking liquid does not evaporate after it's added to the rice, allowing you to season the liquid to taste in the very beginning. But I found that even if I use perfectly seasoned stock and end up with perfectly seasoned risotto, I have to add more salt once the grapefruit and mascarpone go in. Whether it needs more salt is not intuitively obvious. Once the grapefruit is in, the risotto tilts towards the fruity side and adding salt seems strange. But if you keep salting and tasting, you'll find that the flavor will become rounder, more complex, and focused.
  • Avoid store bought stock. This recipe is too delicate for that, and Judy Rodgers warn you. But I realize that sometimes you just don't have time for chicken stock (good one takes 5-6 hours start to finish). I found that using a shrimp stock was a great alternative. It's easy to make, and cooks in 40 minutes. I have made this risotto twice -- once with shrimp stock and once with chicken stock -- both were delicious.
  • Don't be conservative with mascarpone. Remember -- this is a restaurant recipe, and restaurant chefs never hesitate to add just one more dollop of fat. Taste your risotto carefully. If it needs a little something, try more mascarpone. Just remember that every time you add it, you have to add a little more salt.
  • Quality of the grapefruit. Make sure your grapefruit is tasty enough to eat by itself. If it's too sour, it won't do risotto much good.
My adaptation of Judy Rodgers' Citrus Risotto (from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook)

Serves 4 to 6

1 to 2 medium grapefruits, to yield 3/4 cup sections, plus juice
1 lime, to yield a scant 1/4 cup sections
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup finely diced shallots (or yellow onions)
1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice (do not substitute other rice!)
2 cups home-made chicken stock or shrimp stock
1/3-1/2 cup mascarpone
  1. Section the grapefruits using this procedure and squeeze the remaining juice from the "carcasses" into the bowl. Section the lime using the same prodedure, but don't squeeze the juice. Cut all the grapefruit and lime sections in half crosswise.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400F. Bring the stock to a simmer.
  3. Place a heavy 4-quart oven-proof pot that has an oven-proof cover on the stove top over medium-low heat. Add the butter, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are translucent and tender, but no color develops, 8-10 minutes. If they are browning before they have a chance to soften, turn down the heat. While shallots are cooking, season the stock with salt to taste.
  4. Add rice, raise the heat to medium, and cook stirring constantly with a flat wooden spoon (or some other spatula) until the rice grains are coated with fat and are translucent around the edges, about 2 minutes.
  5. Add the hot stock to rice and stir well. Bring to a simmer, give it one more stir to make sure none of the rice grains are stuck together, cover the pot, and place in the middle of the oven for 17 minutes.
  6. Remove risotto from the oven, add the grapefruit and lime sections and grapefruit juice. Bring to a simmer on the stove top over medium heat while stirring constantly. Taste the risotto for texture. If the grains are still too tough to your liking, cover the risotto and return to the oven for another 2 minutes. If you think you are really close, continue cooking on the stove top while stirring. If all the liquid is absorbed, but risotto is still too tough, add another 1/4 cup of stock or water. As soon as the risotto reaches your desired doneness (I like mine to lose all chalky crunch, but not get mushy), take it off the heat.
  7. Add mascarpone and a generous pinch of salt and stir vigorously, breaking up the citrus sections. Taste. If it tastes more fruity than savory, keep adding salt a little at a time and tasting after each addition, until the risotto has a good balance of sweetness, acidity, and saltiness. Serve immediately in warm bowls.


Anonymous said...

It sounds and looks delish! But I'm so curious in regards to your bad experiences with cookbooks. I have a cook book obsession. So please, and feel free to respond via email so as not to publicize any criticism if you're kind enough to offer, give me some examples of the worst books. I want to be sure to keep a wary eye.

Anonymous said...

I am an avid recipe follower and I understand your gripe with cook books. I will definantly check out the one you bought. To be honest, I have one cook book and I like it for the pictures.

Helen said...

Hi Joanne,

I don't make any secrets out of my opinions on cookbooks, good or bad :)

Just keep in mind that what I don't like many people do, so it's just one person's opinion.

I only have one Jamie Oliver's book and it's terrible. Inspiring pictures and recipe titles, but very poorly tested instructions. Not that you won't get something edible if you follow his recipes, but I know that all these dishes could and should taste much better than they do if you follow his directions.

I love Ruth Reichl's writing, but I haven't had any luck with her recipes. Writing prose and writing a recipe are very different skills.

Dave Lebovitz "Save Room for Dessert" has fabulous ideas, but directions are not good enough for fabulous results.

I can go on and on, but most of the other books are not so famous that you have to "avoid" them.

Here are some books that I think are great: Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Marcella Hazan's The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible, 1997 edition of the Joy of Cooking.


Anonymous said...

I've made a grapefruit risotto only once, without cream, but incorporating both grapefruit juice and the sections of fresh fruit added at the last minute. I found that adding quite a bit of freshly ground black pepper provided a necessary balance. The mascarpone sounds restaurant-indulgent, and delicious.

Anonymous said...

So delicious, I want to have a big bite,haha.