Thursday, May 10, 2012

"Leek Risotto"

Tonight, I made another recipe from A Culinary Journey Through Time; the "Leek Risotto." This recipe is categorized by the authors of that book as "medieval", probably because it is based on rice, which was not used in quantity in Europe until the Middle Ages, though the Food Timeline notes that historians are divided as to whether risotto originated in the 16th century (and is at least arguably late medieval) or the 20th (and is definitely modern).

It turns out that risotto is usually is made from a special rice called arborio rice, which is grown in Italy; it may also include bits of vegetable and meat, somewhat like modern "Chinese" fried rice. Unlike the kinds of rice that most people are familiar with in the United States, arborio rice absorbs water very slowly, and remains very dense and firm after it has done so. For that reason, arborio rice has to be simmered slowly in liquid, and stirred constantly during the simmering, so that it does not stick to the pan and burn. 

Before I selected the recipe and went to the supermarket in search of "risotto rice" (which is what the recipe told me to look for), I had not heard of arborio rice, and I had never made a risotto before.  My experience suggests that making a risotto--or at least the "leek risotto" I attempted--is not difficult, but it does require constant and close attention for the 20 minutes or so that the rice takes to cook. 

As always, I did not follow the recipe in A Culinary Journey Through Time exactly as written, and it may be interesting for me to explain my substitutions and choices.  The book's recipe starts by sautéing leeks and onions, adding the risotto rice and liquid to cook it, and then adding chopped up bits of ham and  grated cheese to the mixture after the rice is cooked. For liquid, the recipe recommends meat stock and either white wine or "apple wine".  Because of my husband's distaste for alcoholic beverages (even when used for cooking) and his dislike of ham and cheese, I substituted apple juice for the wine and bits of roast pork loin for the ham. For the meat stock, I used the liquid remaining from when I roasted the pork, and some purchased beef stock.  

The recipe was a bit unclear about how to combine the ingredients. It states: "Fry the onion and the leeks in 1 tbsp butter/lard.  Add the rice and continue frying until it goes clear." Until *what* goes clear?  The rice, or the leeks and onions?  I couldn't imagine that rice grains would ever go "clear" under heat, especially if they were cooked *before* adding liquid to the pan.

I resolved the conflict by consulting the directions on the package my arborio rice came in, and proceeded thus. First, I sautéed the leeks and onions in my biggest skillet until they were getting translucent. Then I heated the stock in a separate cup, added the rice to the skillet, and then immediately followed by pouring enough stock into the pan to create a simmering mass.  I kept stirring the leek/onion/rice mixture while it simmered and continued adding the various liquids (stock and apple juice) to the skillet a bit at a time.   I ran out of the amount of liquid called for by the recipe before the rice was done, so I added more stock, bit by bit, until the rice seemed plump, and soft enough to be easily chewed. Then I turned off the heat and added in the meat.

People talk about risotto being "creamy" after being cooked.  I'm not sure exactly what that means, and my final result wasn't exactly creamy, but my rice was easily chewable and adhered to itself in a moist but dense mass, so I think I got the cooking part approximately correct.

How did it taste? Pleasant enough, though a bit unexciting. That wasn't because of a lack of spices.  It didn't need salt, because the butter I used to saute the leeks and onions was salted and the pork was more than adequately salted. I did not use black pepper either, since the recipe did not call for it, though pepper might have given the dish a bit of useful zing.  I suspect that my taste for foods with plenty of different herbs just led me to categorize the risotto as dull. Chances are, most people would have liked it. My husband did.

Overall, I'd consider my risotto a success, though because of all the stirring it requires I probably won't make it very often.  On the other hand, I will probably try making it a few more times, because I have plenty of arborio rice left.  My husband suggested that I try using orange juice instead of apple juice the next time I make this recipe, and that sounds like a good idea to me.  It probably would not even make the recipe less historical, since our modern "sweet" oranges had made it to Italy and Iberia by the late Middle Ages.

I'd like to conclude with a word of caution for anyone interested in reading and experimenting with the recipes in A Culinary Journey Through Time. The book has to be used with care, particularly by people who do not have a lot of cooking experience, because the book is not always explicit (or, as I noted above, correct) in its cooking directions. I don't know the reasons for this, though I have some guesses.

First, the book is a translation of an original Danish German text [see comment from Regula below], and the translators may not always have been sure how best to convey the intended directions into English.  Second, the authors are most interested in recipes that describe early cooking techniques that are no longer used, or are rarely used (such as burying wrapped food in the glowing embers of a fire pit), and are less concerned with describing more common tasks such as the cooking of risotto rice.   Either way, I recommend using A Culinary Journey Through Time as more of a guide to food experiments than as a Bible for what was or wasn't eaten in early Europe--and that's really all I think the authors intended.

The next "experiment" I have planned is to revisit my old friend, the barley and leek pot--but with rabbit instead of duck.  Watch this blog for more details!


  1. In the frying step, "clear" does refer to the rice, but is probably a bad translation. "Translucent" is the usual description of the point you sautéed the rice to before you start adding liquid (by which time the onion will also likely be translucent).

    1. Hi, Lon! Thanks for stopping by.

      I did not, in fact, cook the rice until it was "clear" before adding any liquid, because the package directions did not say to do that and I thought doing so would be insane. I freely admit I may have been wrong, but the results came out well enough that I will probably proceed in much the same way in future.

  2. I am not at all adventurous when it comes to what I will eat, but am really enjoying reading about your experiences with this cookbook.

    Have you ever thought about trying the food from A Song of Ice and Fire? Again, I'm too much of a picky eater, but I've seen some of the dishes look very interesting.

    1. Hi, Mae Ling! Good seeing you here. Welcome!

      I do not like George R.R. Martin's fiction so I have never read the "Song of Ice and Fire" books or seen the TV series based upon same. Since I know nothing about the food featured in the story, I have no way of trying it.

  3. Mae Ling--Speaking of trying to cook the foods from "Song of Ice and Fire", another friend of mine gave me this pointer to an article about two women who are doing just that:

  4. I didn't really think much of the food while I was reading the books. Later, I saw a few blogs where people had attempted to come up with recipes, and they all looked very interesting.

    I think that maybe the photos from the Inn at the Crossroads ( are what have piqued my interest... or maybe they're just well presented?

    Still, I'm thinking about buying their book. I may not actually want to eat any of the foods, but it may still be a fun read.

  5. Oh! That is *about* the Inn at the Crossroads people...

    1. I see. Having never read the books, I just passed on the URL my friend gave me.

  6. I should have noticed, anyway. I checked one site at home, then another when I got to work. I didn't see that they were the same until I got home.

    I was just telling some coworkers about your recent experiments. They asked if you are using much dairy in these experiments. Not being very familiar with the food in your timeline (the time in your foodline?), I said I'm not sure.

    1. The Vikings did in fact use quite a bit of dairy--one of their staple foods was skyr, a yogurt-like food made from milk with the butter skimmed off. However, I don't make recipes with dairy for the most part. Eric doesn't like cheese, and I don't have the skill to make cream-based sauces and the like. I do use butter for frying things like onions, and I believe I've noted that where I've done so.

      Our last food experiment involving dairy was trying "Viking" style flatbreads. I used (store-bought) buttermilk to make the dough (which I wrote about), and we tried them with (store-bought) Devonshire cream (which I somehow failed to write about). The main post about that can be found here.

  7. "the book is a translation of an original Danish text"
    NO! The original text was in german: "Kulinarische Zeitreise"

    For the leftover arborio rice: Try a risotto milanese: You have to sautée some chopped onions with bone marrow, then you add the rice and sautée it just to the translucent stage. Add a little bit dry white wine (for a cup of rice you need a cup of wine; the risotto rice NEEDS a little bit of acerbity), add stock and ground saffron (for 300 gramms of rice 0,125 gramms of saffron). As final step you add some butter (and perhaps a little bit of cheese [Parmiggiano Reggiano]).
    Each risotto has to be "all'onda" (like a wave), it needs enough liquid. The middle of the rice grains must be at a stage between hard and soft; you should be able to bite the rice.

    And: the best rice for risotto is the "Carnaroli". The grains are a little bit longer than the arborio grains and they are much tastier than arborio.

    Yours Regula

  8. Regula, thanks for your post, and thanks for visiting!

    I also appreciate the correction. I had thought that "A Culinary History Through Time" was originally written and published in Danish.

    Your suggestions on using arborio rice sound interesting, and I'll have to experiment with them when I do more cooking again.