Around the beginning of this pandemic, my husband decided to devote his Aerogarden exclusively to basil. Because we use this herb quite often and in so many dishes, we didn’t want to be without it. Five months ago, however, we didn’t realize just how much basil our hydroponic wonder would provide.
Consequently, we’re now always looking for new ways to use it up. Pasta sauces and salads seem to have been our go-to applications. But I recently came across a recipe that provided a new alternative: risotto.
I found the recipe, “Risotto with Basil, Pine Nuts, and Parmesan” in Michele Scicolone’s The Italian Vegetable Cookbook, which has been hiding on my Kindle for quite some time. Scicolone is one of the most prolific authors of Italian cookbooks that I know, and all of them can be relied on for truly authentic, well-tested, no-fail recipes.
My only problem with the recipe was not having pine nuts on hand. Indeed, true Italian pine nuts, as opposed to the Chinese variety, have become difficult for me to find, and even more so now. But with so much basil, as well as Italian rice, to use up, I decided to make the dish, substituting walnuts. They were, after all, only being used as a garnish. In fact, I think they added even more texture and flavor to the risotto than would have the pine nuts.
My only other deviation from the original recipe was adding a tablespoon of softened butter along with cheese to mount, or enrich, the final dish. I also found that the recipe’s suggested cooking time of 18 to 20 minutes was not enough; my risotto took a full 30 minutes to reach the right texture. One new technique I learned from the recipe was adding a couple of tablespoons of water to the oil when sautéing the shallots to keep them from burning.
After just one taste, I knew this dish would find its way on our table more often. The raw basil and cheese blended beautifully, and the walnuts added as much in texture as they did in flavor. The sweet and savory shallots added just one more tasty layer to this dish, the flavors of which lingered on our palates.
Risotto with Basil, Walnuts, and Parmesan (adapted from a recipe in The Italian Vegetable Cookbook, by Michele Scicolone)
5 cups chicken broth
2 cups fresh basil leaves, loosely packed, plus additional leaves
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons water
3 medium shallots, finely chopped
2 cups short-grain rice, such as Carnaroli
½ cup dry white wine, at room temperature
⅔ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus additional for sprinkling
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Turn the heat to low to keep warm.
2. Meanwhile, put the 2 cups of basil leaves in a food processor and chop fine.
3. Add ¼ cup of the oil, salt and pepper to taste, and puree until smooth. Set aside.
4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the water in a large sauté over medium heat.
5. Add the shallots and cook until they are tender and the water has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
6. Increase the heat to medium-high, add the rice, and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, for 3 minutes, or until the rice is hot and well coated with the oil.
7. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until evaporated.
8. Add the warm broth about ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently after each addition and waiting until each one is almost absorbed before adding more. Regulate the heat so that the liquid remains at a simmer and the rice does not dry out.
9. If there’s not enough liquid before the rice is done, add warm water ½ cup at a time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
10. The risotto is ready when the rice is firm yet tender to the bite and looks creamy, around 30 minutes. Stir in the basil puree.
11. Tear up the additional 6 basil leaves and, off the heat, add them to the risotto, along with the softened butter and grated cheese. Stir well.
12. Serve in warmed bowls, sprinkled with the walnuts and additional cheese.
Wine Pairing: Sauvignon Blanc