Thursday Night Smackdown: I was hoping for a little more redemption

Last week’s Smackdown – AKA The Aspic Incident – was a creamy horror. Whenever a Smackdown is a true culinary Ishtar, it’s time for reparations the next week. What to better counteract a creamy horror than a creamy bowl of risotto love?


Specifically, risotto al cavolfiore or cauliflower risotto, from Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italy, with a topping of crispy sauteed homemade breadcrumbs whizzed in the FoPro with anchovies and chiles. This book is full of unfussy, simple, rustic food. And when I say “rustic” here I actually mean rustic, I don’t mean “I’m trying to cover up the fact that this plate of food looks like shit,” like I normally do.

If Jamie’s Italy doesn’t make you want to go to Italy immediately, or at the very least to your nearest Little Italy neighborhood to steal an old Italian lady and/or fisherperson and force them to prepare you homemade pasta and/or stew and/or whatever the hell they want because it will all be good, then you have no culinary soul. There’s another Italian chef you may prefer; I believe his name is Boyardee. I mean, forget the food; if the pic of a gaggle of nonne and zie all waiting for the start of the pasta making competition isn’t enough, I don’t know what to tell you.*

Doesn’t it make you sad that somewhere, at some point in time there was a real Chef Boiardí who wanted to make Italian cuisine more accessible? And it totally backfired on him and is today the line of canned foods we all know, the Twinkie equivalent of pasta, just as likely to survive the apocalypse? It’s a distressing perversion of a brilliant’s man’s vision.**

*Quelle nonne taglieranno una stronza. Look it up.

**I made all that up. It could be true, though.

There is nothing inherently groundbreaking about this recipe for risotto, except that:

  1. I’ve never had risotto with cauliflower.
  2. I hate anchovies unless they are fully melted into a sauce/dish.
  3. Jamie Oliver uses his own special Oliverian measurement system wherein you never actually know how much of a given ingredient you’re supposed to use.
  4. There is celery.
  5. There is way more butter than it’s ever occurred to me to put into risotto.
  6. The idea of putting fish of any kind into the FoPro gives me the Morimotos.

Seriously, this is like the Julia Child of risottos. My family is from the deep south – the Alabama of Italy, if you will – and hardly uses any butter, although we do make risotto; we are an olive oil loving, making and eating family.  This recipe, which is meant to serve six assuming you’re using it as part of an elaborate Goldfinger-esque death trap wherein you will serve it on a boat and then push your victims overboard trusting the risotto to force them to sink, makes an (admittedly huge) pot of risotto with TWO WHOLE STICKS OF BUTTER in it.

Of course, this could be a bit more than Jamie meant due to my personal failing in being unable to properly interpret what a “dollop” of butter is (I’d just gotten the hang of the “knob”), but he does provide some usable measurements and you’re going for a stick and a half, minimum.

His risotto starts as all good risottos do, with onions and garlic sweating in fat; in this case, the fat is a mix of butter and olive oil, the onions are actually onions and garlic and celery, and diced cauliflower stalks are included.

Actually, I take back that whole last sentence: his risotto does not start as all good risottos do. Because as far as I know, I actually make the best risotto – yes, I went there – and I always start my best risottos by sweating my onion and garlic in the rendered fat of pancetta.

Close enough, though. I mean, he is British, so we have to cut him a little slack.

Once the veg are soft and translucent, you add the rice (once again, the Queen of Failing to Adequately Plan Ahead earned her scepter and orb by failing to read all the quantities called for, or she would have realized that two cups of raw arborio rice would perhaps make too much food for two people, even with leftovers). Saute a little more until the rice itself is somewhat translucent, and in with the wine or vermouth. We had vermouth in the house for once* so I used that, adhering to the Oliverian “2 glassfuls.” Really, how does Jamie Oliver know how big my glasses are? I could use tiny ones just to spite him, although I guess that would also result in the whole nose/face/spite dilemma that confronts each of us when we cook our way through a Jamie Oliver recipe. (Although hot damn, can they be worth it.)

And then it’s time for the hot stock, and the slow addition, and the stirring stirring stirring.

*The silver lining of making the aspic.

Between stirs I made the breadcrumb topping, which has a name but the name is in the book that I left downstairs and I’ll wake up the dogs and cause a ruckus if I try to go get it because I will inevitably step on one of them. So you’re SOL on that front.

I had no day old bread (see Failing to Adequately Plan Ahead, Queen of), so I took some new bread and left it in a low oven for an hour to dry out. Running the AC to make up for the oven and the fact that I spent an hour standing over a giant steaming cauldron turned this seemingly inexpensive meal into a virtual night at Per Se, but I do what I have to. (The $13 log of sopressata I bought to munch on while cooking didn’t help the overall price tag either, I’ll admit.)

When the bread seemed dry enough (read: when I remembered I had it in the oven), I buzzed it into crumbs in the FoPro before adding a few dried chiles and an entire can of anchovies, oil and all. I was scared that buzzing this would create some kind of scary fish-bread paste with the consistency of grout, and was pleasantly surprised when things stayed crumb-like. A quick toast in a hot pan, and the Topping That Cannot Be Named was done. Also, the whole house smelled like toasted anchovies. Jury is still out on whether that was good/bad.

Meanwhile, the risotto was just about done, though the cauliflower stalks could have probably stood another 5 minutes of cooking. This meant it was time for Jamie’s finishing touch, the “thing that you can’t skip because it’s what gives risotto its oozing creaminess”: a pile of grated cheese (yes!) and five ounces of butter (wha?). You mix them in, cover the pot and ignore it for five minutes, then stir to combine and serve.

Love for Jamie Oliver notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure – and by “pretty” I mean “100%” – that you can get creamy risotto without massive amounts of butter. I’m not saying fat doesn’t help; it sure as hell does, a fact to which anyone who’s ever stirred a glob of mascarpone into a pot of risotto can attest.* But plain old risotto, with its starches released from the rice and thickening up the cooking liquid or whatever Shirley Corriher** shit is going on in the pot, can be perfectly creamy on its own.

*Do this soon.

**This is a seriously useful book, and if you watch Good Eats then you already know and love Shirley Corriher. She’s the cute little old lady with the diagrams, not the irritating nutritional anthropologist who’s way too nervous on camera. Pull it together lady, it’s been like, three or four seasons already.

I’m not normally one to harsh a butter buzz, and I’m pretty sure I’m doing it here because I was a little disappointed in the final product. It was good, and the breadcrumb topping was great. But I can’t help but feel that Jamie Oliver’s risotto should be better than mine and rather than being proud of myself I’m just a little disappointed in the smackdown, especially since after last week I really wanted to be eating something that made me curse and fall out of my chair in a good way.

Plus, if you’re consuming that much butter you want it to COUNT. This counted. This risotto? Not so much; it was just risotto. Which is good in and of itself but not overwhelmingly so; at least, this one wasn’t.

I also learned that while I do not mind anchovies in bread crumb topping-form, and affirmatively enjoy them as such, I reject cauliflower (which I love in general) in my risotto. I thought the veg’s nuttiness would marry with the risotto and then be further enhanced by the toasted bread and offset by the chiles and anchovy; I assume that was the theory. Brian liked it (although I think he’d love anything topped with those breadcrumbs), but for me the risotto blandified the veg and the textures were just a weird non-match.

Still, it was risotto, I did have the $13 salami log and I have all the leftover parm, which was wonderfully nutty and salty and upon which I am snacking as I write. And I’m still Up On Oliver, and this particular book has a homemade semolina pasta recipe that’s in my sights.

For now? There are two quarts of risotto al cavolfiore in my fridge right now, and I’m hoping Brian is REALLY fricking hungry for lunch tomorrow. And next Thursday, the reparation must be TOTAL or HEADS WILL ROLL.

15 thoughts on “Thursday Night Smackdown: I was hoping for a little more redemption

  1. Man, the Oliveraian measuring system drives me nuts! I start agonising “how much is a handful? My hand or Jamie’s hand. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, just tell me how much goddamn parmesan to use instead of just demonstrating what a free form, seat of your pants, loveable chappy you are”.

  2. I usually eyeball a dollop to about the size of…an eyeball. I think. Unless I’m being clumsy as fuck again and accidentally throw in the whole stick of butter, which has been known to happen. Not that I’m complaining, but I can still feel my arteries squeeking ever since I made my last risotto.

  3. 1) Babel fish is your friend, /chuckle

    2) What if I use lard in my risotto, along with a *little* butter and lots of olive oil? See, I’m in the south, and whenever I read in a recipe that you need fat of some kind, I automatically think, “why can’t I use lard instead?”. It’s like getting all the benefit of the essence of bacon without all that “meat”, plus it has a higher burn point than butter or most oils. Ok, you can uncringe now.

  4. I do loves me the Jamie’s Italy cookbook. I did his fennel risotto once and totally overdid it with the ricotta salatta and found it ended up not being creamy enough. You seem to have the opposite issue with all of that butter. Wow that’s a lot of butter.

    I think a better way to do a risotto like this would be to roast the cauliflower separately and then toss it in the risotto after it’s cooked (the pancetta grease thing probably would help too). That’s how I make my penne al cavolfiore.

  5. Oliverian measuring system jacks me up. Makes me want to mash his cockney pumpkin head in.

    2 fucking sticks of butter?!!!!

  6. venture, i’m not a brie eater, but i could see how another kind of cheese could help. my instinct would also be to roast the cauliflower first, and stir it in at the end.

    anna, see, this is why i need to practice my italian more. closer?

    jules, and they will, and i’ll invite 50 of my best friends over to eat them because that’s how much fricking risotto i have.

    soylent, i appreciate that it gives people the freedom to learn rather than following a recipe rote. but when the GOAL is to follow a recipe rote, it makes me want to shoot lasers out of my eyes.

    karen, so i was using “eyeball-sized” as my measurement for “knob.” is knob more like doorknob, and eyeball is dollop?

    that may be the most incomprehensible sentence i’ve ever written.

    fuzzy, i usually use a combo of olive oil and rendered bacon or pancetta fat, so i say go on with your bad self and the lard.

    rachel, great minds!

    witch, see my feelings about it, further iterated above.

    and yes, 2 sticks of butter.

  7. I love this risotto – it’s prob my all-time fave, and risotto to me is a bit like soup. Often sounds like a good idea, but so often disappoints.

    I’m thinking you need to cook the cauli more. Maybe. I could be guessing.

    As for the butter – you have a problem with that much butter? Like, really?

  8. forkful, the cauliflower definitely needed more cooking time. as for the butter, i don’t have an issue with it – god knows i’ve made more horrifying things. i just don’t know that it helped here.

    kay, good god, woman; the methane you must produce.

  9. so i think i missed where the cauliflower went other than the stems into the “sofrito” base?

    I’m thinking it may have been more effective to just make a creamy soup base out of the cauliflower? The way one might make a butternut risotto. it would also make the butter a bit less, and it would serve to flavor the soup?

    have you thought of maybe making other stuff out of the leftover risotto? it would have gotten nice and thick. maybe some type of Arancini? pan-fried rice cakes? stuffed? or on a long shot–an alternative topping to a type of shepphed’s pie?

  10. Speaking as a person of almost impeccably british descent (there’s a bit of Italian etc in there). A ‘knob’ is approximately the size of the end of one’s thumb, and a ‘dollop’ is a somewhat rounded spoonful (spoon for cereal, rather than serving spoon).

  11. vera, sorry for the omission – the florets were in the pot of hot stock, and they went in a bit at a time after about half the stock had been added.

    theadosia, thanks for the direct correlation. i see that while i was close on ‘dollop,’ i was off on ‘knob.’ never again!

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