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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.