Performance anxiety. It’s a terrible affliction, especially in the kitchen. I know this first hand, having experienced it for quite some time, until yesterday, when I decided to confront this fear head on.

It started about 15 years ago when on one winter’s eve, I failed at making a risotto. I had successfully prepared so many versions of this dish so many times before. It was a staple of my culinary repertoire. But on that fateful night, I just couldn’t do it; those pesky grains of rice just refused to come together and make that creamy mass of goodness. Was it hubris? Had I been over confident? All I remember now is how my guests politely smiled at my table as they strategically picked through their portions, picking out the few edible grains of rice, and waited patiently until I announced that we were ready for the next course.

To make matters worse, shortly thereafter, these same guests invited me to their home for dinner. When I asked what’s cooking, the hostess smiled demurely and said “You’ll see,” and then disappeared for about twenty minutes into the kitchen.

When we finally sat down to dinner, she appeared at the table with an oval tureen. Her eyes focused on me as she raised its lid to reveal an aromatic butternut-squash risotto. Not only was it beautiful with deeply colored chunks of squash, glowing grains of rice, it was absolutely delicious. Perfectly cooked al dente grains of creamy rice enveloped sweet roasted cubes of butternut squash. “Delicious,” I exclaimed (albeit enviously), and my friend shot me a knowing smile and said softly, with just a hint of sarcasm, “That’s how it’s done.”

After that evening, every time I wanted to prepare risotto, I thought of my failed attempt and heard my friend’s voice saying “That’s how it’s done.” I couldn’t bring myself to make one. I knew the steps, had learned the tricks. I had read so many recipes, watched so many chefs prepare their plain or fancy versions, bought so many varieties of Italian rice from traditional Arborio to Carnaroli to Vialone Nano. But I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I just couldn’t do it.

Then, yesterday, faced with a lot of left over chicken stock from a few nights ago, an abundant supply of dried porcini, and several packages of Italian rice in the cupboard, I thought it was time. Rather than going to my cookbook collection, I dug up a recipe from television chef Ina Garten that I had seen her prepare a while ago and always wanted to make.

I bought the few ingredients from the recipe that I didn’t have on hand—some fresh crimini mushrooms, a couple of shallots. I dug out my favorite, long-neglected enameled cast iron risotto pot, and opened a bottle of wine. I took a deep breath, a few swigs of wine, and started to prep.

I soaked the dried porcini, finely chopped the shallots, diced the pancetta, heated the stock, measured out the rice, the saffron, and grated the cheese. So far, so good. Maybe another sip of wine. Had I already finished a glass?

Onto the cooking. I melted the butter, sautéed the shallots and pancetta. The aromas encouraged me to proceed. It was time for the rice. One more sip of wine. The rice went into the pot and I coated the grains with the melted butter. They started to take on a pearly glow. A sigh of relief and another sip of wine. The rice was now ready for the stock to which I had added the soaking liquid from the porcini. The first two ladles. I was sweating now. Stirring (and sipping), I watched the pot as the rice started to absorb the stock. I added the soaked porcini and the saffron. “It’s smelling good in there,” I heard from the living room. Encouraged again, I proceeded, now standing erect and confident at the pot.

I continued adding the ladlefuls of stock, stirring, watching, and occasionally tasting for the next twenty of minutes. Finally, it was done. I took the pot off the heat, stirred in the grated Parmigiano, and tasted for seasoning. Perfect! One final, triumphant, swig of wine, and I announced: “We’re ready.” Seated at the table, after one taste, my spouse looked up at me, smiled, and said: “Now, that’s how it’s done.” My risotto mojo is back.

Wild Mushroom Risotto Adapted from Ina Garten
1 -ounce dried morel mushrooms (I used dried porcini.)
1/2 pound fresh porcini or cremini mushrooms (I opted for cremini.)
4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces pancetta, diced
1/2 cup chopped shallots (3 shallots)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (I used superfine carnaroli; I prefer its texture.)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for serving

Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl and pour 2 cups boiling water over them. Set aside for 30 minutes. Scoop the mushrooms from the water with a slotted spoon, reserving the liquid. You should have 2 cups; if not, add water to make 2 cups. Drain the mushrooms and rinse once more. If some of the mushrooms are large, cut into 2 or 3 pieces. Pour the mushroom liquid through a coffee filter or paper towel, discarding the gritty solids. Set the mushrooms and the liquid aside separately.

Meanwhile, remove and discard the stems of the fresh mushrooms and rub any dirt off the caps with a damp paper towel. Don’t rinse them! Slice thickly and set aside.

In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock with the 2 cups of reserved mushroom liquid and bring to a simmer.

Mushrooms, onions, and pancetta
Mushrooms, onions, and pancetta

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and sauté the pancetta and shallots over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Add the rehydrated and fresh mushrooms and sauté for another 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter.

After wine and stock
After wine and stock

Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 full ladles of the chicken stock mixture to the rice plus the saffron, salt, and pepper. Stir and simmer over low heat until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes. Continue to add the stock mixture, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry before adding more of the stock mixture. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 25 to 30 minutes total. When done, the risotto should be thick and creamy and not at all dry. Off the heat, stir in the Parmesan cheese. Serve hot in bowls with extra cheese.

After adding the cheese
After adding the cheese

Here’s a link to the original recipe on the Food Network Website.

Wine Pairing: Montepulicano d’Abruzzo, Dolcetto D’Acqui


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