Ingredients: Arborio rice, sunchoke, parsnip, carrot, button mushroom, porcini mushroom, shallot, garlic, bay leaf, thyme, sage, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Pecorino Sardo cheese, dry sherry, vegetable stock, butter, olive oil, black pepper, salt.
Last time I made a risotto, I remarked that it could have easily been served on its own as a complete meal. This time, I decided to do just that, and was very pleased with the results. My risotto was rich, creamy, herby, and filled with the woodsy flavors of mushrooms and root vegetables.
One particular root vegetable, the sunchoke, was my source of inspiration for this dish. What’s a sunchoke? I really didn’t know either, but damned if those Top Chefs don’t drape their steaks over sunchoke purée every single time. So I looked it up; sunchokes are the tubers of the sunflower plant! They can be roasted or mashed like any other root vegetable, or even served raw and crispy like jicama. They taste like artichokes, which is what led to their name.
[Sunchokes are also called Jerusalem artichokes. From what I can tell, this term is slowly being phased out, as these tubers are neither artichokes nor are they from Jerusalem. The latter is simply a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. If you find this interesting, I’m sure we could be friends.]
For a simple dinner one night, I hacked up and roasted a variety of root vegetables in the oven. There were potatoes, sunchokes, parsnips, and carrots, seasoned only with salt & pepper. This was the first time I’d tasted a sunchoke, and was really impressed with its deliciously-concentrated roasty artichoke flavor. I figured the leftovers would match well with an earthy mushroom risotto, so I made that for lunch the next day.
The first step was to sherry-soak a generous portion of dried porcinis. We’re periodically sent bags of these mushrooms by my girlfriend’s parents, who hand-pick them up north. I like to think of this as the vegetarian version of having hunters in the family — not that I’d actually prefer deer jerky. The flavor of wild porcini mushrooms is hard to beat, especially in “meaty” soups and stews.
When the porcinis had softened sufficiently, I diced them up, along with a handful of regular button mushrooms. I puréed the leftover roasted sunchoke, carrot, and parsnip chunks, and set them aside for later. I also prepared a nice mound of grated cheese, using both Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Sardo (an amazing sheep’s milk cheese, softer and much less harsh than Pecorino Romano).
To get the risotto started, I heated olive oil in a heavy pot and sautéed 2 cups of raw Arborio rice until very slightly brown in color. Then I added my chopped mushrooms, plus a bay leaf and some minced garlic & shallot, taking care not to burn anything. Next, I poured in the sherry I had used for soaking the porcinis. When that got absorbed, I added ladles of hot vegetable stock, stirring all the while, encouraging the rice grains to release their natural starch into a creamy sauce.
For the final step of the process, when the rice had cooked through, I mixed in the vegetable purée, followed by a hunk of butter and the grated cheese. I also added a pinch of thyme and sage, for an herby accent. The risotto was delicious. I especially liked the artichoke flavor lent by the sunchokes.