a thursday night smackdown of questionable methodology

shallots-31308.jpg
It’s not meat!

Tonight’s Smackdown comes to us from Creole by Babette de Rozieres, a beautifully photographed collection of 160 classic and not-so classic creole recipes. On the menu: Creole Seafood Risotto.

On the surface, this dish seems like a total winner: shrimp, scallops, and fish, risotto finished with some creme fraiche, saffron and scotch bonnet peppers bringing the creole mojo, and more shallots (8) than I have ever used in a single dish (It serves 4. So, 2 shallots per person. Babette doesn’t fuck around with shallots.). Although the flavor is ultimately a winner, a tragic misunderstanding of classic risotto procedures leads to fatal textural compromises. Amazon informs me that Babs is a French celebrity chef, making this all the more surprising.

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If you do not wear goggles while viewing this photo, I can not be held responsible for any eye damage.

Behold: the scotch bonnet pepper. Cayenne is the cocker spaniel to the scotch bonnet’s bullmastiff; the jalapeno is a mere chihuahua, or possibly a helpless kitty stuck in a tree. This is a spicy fucking pepper, and one that appears a lot in creole food – it’s the backbone of any good jerk seasoning or sauce. For this dish, half a pepper – no ribs, no seeds – flavors a whole pot. You can sub habaneros and get the same approximate heat level, but you won’t get the particular floral flavor of the scotch bonnet.

One summer in grad school, my friend W. and I house- and dog-sat for one of our professors, living in her lovely house on the coast of Maine with her co-dependent Golden Retreiver. W.’s boyfriend was coming up for a long weekend and W. wanted to make him a special dinner. He decided to do a spicy corn chowder using scotch bonnets, and diced them without wearing gloves.

I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, I know what happens next – he rubbed his eyes before he washed his hands, and went partly blind for the rest of the day.” But you are WRONG. He went to the BATHROOM before he washed his hands, and handled his junk with his capcaisin-covered mitts. Whereupon he started weeping, called his mother for help, and spent the next two hours in the shower ministering to himself with baking soda and milk. He recovered, but to this day cannot eat corn chowder.

So: either wear latex gloves while handling these babies (highly, highly recommended), or REMEMBER TO WASH YOUR GODDAMN HANDS.

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Shallots. Shallots. Shallots.

The finely diced peppers saute for a few minutes with shallots, garlic, scallions and basil. This alone sent up a heavenly aroma and I’ll definitely be using this as an aromatic base again, whether for risotto or something else. The peppers made amazing bright orange, almost florescent little pops of color throughout the shallot mix. Zing!

cookbook-31308.jpg
Normally Courier New irks me, but here I find it quaint. Go fig.

Babs calls for 8 prawns, a handful of cockles (heh…she said cockles) and 1 pound of mixed seafood. I’d been hoping to use some calamari, but with fish you gotta go with what looks good, so we ended up with the shrimp, scallops and halibut.

Here’s where things started to get a little dicey: Babs directed us to throw the seafood into the saute pan with the aromatics along with some saffron, stir, then add all the fish stock and the rice. This meant that the seafood would cook by itself for a few minutes, and then spend the next 30 or 40 minutes bubbling away in the risotto – seafood that only takes 2 or 3 minutes to cook through. This also meant that two of the key traditional steps in risotto were omitted: (1) sauteing the rice with the aromatics before starting to add the liquid and (2) adding the liquid bit by bit.

boil-31308.jpg
Smelled better than it looks.

I decided to trust Babs, because she’s a French celebrity chef and I am not. Because hey, maybe there’s a risotto shortcut I didn’t know about! (I know there’s a no-stir oven method, and have been meaning to give it a try). No more hovering over the stove, stirring, while the stock stays warm in a teapot! No more nasty-ass tea when I forget that I used the pot to keep stock warm! Although I not-so-secretly love the whole risotto process because it makes me feel like I have an inner Italian nonna, I wouldn’t mind being able to get risotto on the table a little quicker.

waiting-31308.jpg
Man and beast alike await feeding time.

My trust in French celebrity chefs has suffered a serious blow, and I’m not sure if my bond with the French celebrity chef-community can be repaired. Because the rice hadn’t been sauteed, so it never had the opportunity to develop the coating that both provides risotto’s toothsomeness and allows it to absorb liquid and release its starch gradually; it sucked up the fish stock post haste and overcooked before the stock had been absorbed. Because the stock had all been added at once, I was left with watery risotto. Because the fish was already mixed in, I couldn’t turn up the heat to try to drive some of the liquid out of the risotto without turning my scallops into super-bounce balls. A finishing dollop of creme fraiche helped tighten things up a little, but not enough.

finished-31308.jpg
And yet, I would not kick this risotto out of bed for eating crackers.

Here’s the thing: it tasted really good. The half a scotch bonnet added the exactly right amount of heat. Any more, and it would have been too bizarrely spicy for a risotto, any less, and it would have been a standard risotto. The saffron gave it the beautiful sunny day color that saffron is wont to produce. The combo of aromatics and herbs created a wonderfully complex foundation for the dish, and all the flavors complemented the fish. A squirt of lime added a bright note. Creme fraiche is an obvious no brainer – is there nothing it will not yummy-fy? – and even the parm Babs told us to grate on top was good (my inner Italian nonna does not usually like to combine fish and cheese).

Given all that, the texture made me even more sad. Overcooked rice, no chew, watery sauce.

Sigh.

The final flavor was great enough that I will definitely do something like this again, but I’ll stick to my guns and make my risotto the tedious way. Sometimes, fine dining requires tedium.

Score: Us 0, Food 0. When you fuck with nonna, nobody wins.

0 thoughts on “a thursday night smackdown of questionable methodology

  1. For the peppers, I found that even compulsive handwashing could not purge the burning oils. You have to remove the top 3 dermal layers before it’s safe.

    As for risotto, I suck at it, no matter how careful I am. I’ve given up completely. I only order it when we go out. But yours looks bright and cheery, perfect for a dreary cold night.

  2. My hub is always getting red pepper in his eye, now he usually leaves me to cut the chillis.

    I love risotto and I would absolutely adore a creole risotto. Am starring this one!

  3. ok – so like that was totally fun…
    bummer about the texture
    the key would be to invite culinary clueless peeps over for dinner – dump the leftovers on them – they’ll love it, you’ll look like a top chef – and then you can go on which yo bad self.

    see how i know?

  4. I will need a copy of the pic of man and beast please. They’re both so handsome. I’ll take that picture with a side of risotto.

  5. Love this post. Ain’t tastespotting great. You get to discover such fab sites. Like your dog too! And the risotto sounds good. I also make a baked seafood risotto and add parmesan. Don’t know if I have an inner nonna, but I do have a cheesy fishometer, or a fishy cheesometer. Still, I add the parmaesan and it works. Weird! Thanks for visiting my blog …and leaving a comment. I like to know who’s reading.

  6. Yeah, washing the hands does not work, trust me on this one….let’s just say, me+contacts+peppers=EYES ON FIRE
    those oils seep down in your skin and are even there sometimes for a couple of days. Just pick your nose the next day and see for yourself…..although it gets the sinuses cleaned out.

  7. susan: thanks! and it’s okay to laugh, because that story is really fricking funny.

    dp: we diced the pepper used ziploc bags and stand-in rubber gloves. WEAR THE GLOVES, PEOPLE. and give risotto another try! the old fashioned way takes a little time, but it’s pretty fool-proof.

    pixie: let me know how you like it. like i said, the flavors are really spot-on.

    claudia: i always feel this moral responsibility to feed guests only the best. i think it’s the inner italian nonna again.

    jodi: can do the pic. the risotto, unfortunately, has been entirely consumed.

    vanielje: i want a cheesy fishometer.

    stacey: so true, unless you autoclave your hands, and even that i’m not sure about. WEAR THE GLOVES, PEOPLE.

    heather: the french never cease to disappoint me.

  8. Maybe the weird method is because even a French chef can’t be an Italian nonna? Maybe risotto isn’t in the domain of the haute cuisine types?

    My eyes watered more from the shallots than from the peppers. I could never chop that many shallots without pausing multiple times to give my eyes a break and blow my nose. You have my utmost respect.

    I once heard a similar pepper story told by Ian Anderson in a radio interview (he has a farm in England). He grows habaneros and had been handling them prior to using the bathroom. He used chewed-up Tums to counteract the effects of the peppers and his wife got to see him with a whole lot of these chewed-up Tums on his schmenke when she ran to him in response to the screams. Well, it inspired a pretty good song called the “Habenero Reel” (complete with lengthy flute solos of course).

  9. rachel: schmenke is the BEST WORD EVER.

    and yes, the shallots did try to kill me. i had to stop at least 3 times and walk out of the room.

  10. Looks absolutely delicious. I don’t think it can be overstated though that scotch bonnet can be very dangerous for capsaicin sensitive people. Certainly won’t stop me from consuming though =3

  11. Your story of your pal and the pepper reminds me of a few cooking commandments I learned in culinary school but refused to believe until I experienced them myself.

    *don’t touch your junk after touching peppers
    *never fry bacon naked. Or even semi-nude. There are parts of your body sizzling bacon fat was never meant to meet.

  12. kailie: so, so true. may all readers heed the story of W. and the warnings of helpful commenters.

    cakespy: give it a try!

    leena!: i understand underestimating the power of peppers, but i have to admit i’m mildly surprised that people need to be told not to fry bacon in the nude. that shit splatters!

    nikki: thanks for the condolences.

  13. hey! up there! above me! I am not quite sure how I typed your name in the my name spot. yes, in fact my name is L*Joy not michelle. :) feel free to correct that if you care.

  14. Here’s the problem, which I learned after living in both France and Italy: the French don’t know shit about risotto. They make it in the goddamn OVEN, for crying out loud. They can’t make pasta to save their lives, but their “risotto” is a crime.

  15. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » TNS: I want some taquitos.

  16. Pingback: thursday night smackdown » Thursday Night Smackdown: Wasabi Fail

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