Last January, I swore off risottos. Not eating them, mind you. I solemnly swore I would never make another risotto again. The problem is, I love risottos. I love the way each individual rice grain is so creamy it's as if it melted just slightly before reaching my mouth. As much as I love risotto, it's just not worth it to me to stand over a hot stove for an hour, stirring until my arm goes numb. I am not normally one to take short cuts in the kitchen, but risottos are the one thing I believe the input in effort is not worth the output in taste. That's why, I will always order the foie gras with porcini risotto EVERY TIME I eat at Andre's in downtown Boise.
Even though I had made the no-more-risotto-making rule, when I saw a recipe for "Artichoke, Asparagus, and Mushroom Quinoa Risotto" in the July issue of Bon Apettit, I added the ingredients to my shopping list without hesitation. It wasn't a true risotto, I thought, and besides, quinoa cooks quicker than aborio rice, this will be a breeze. It turned out to be a breeze with a tornado in the middle.
This recipe is problematic for several reasons. Let's start with the ingredients. It calls for an 8oz package of frozen artichoke hearts, which WinCo does not carry. This called for a trip to the evil empire known as Albertsons in these parts. For $3.89 I bought a square block of frozen artichoke hearts. The best part about this whole dish, in fact, came from the back of the box of artichokes. I quote from the frozen vegetable company: "we believe passionately in Quality and that Quality of Life, Family and Friendships are the only reasons for our existence."
Unfortunately, pukishly pale green artichoke hearts with a plastic-like, flavor akin to those wax lips I used to get as a kid around Halloween time did not make me believe my quality of life had improved. I would have been better off buying a can of marinated artichoke hearts for half the price. Then there was the Manchego cheese the recipe calls for. My discretionary cheese fund for the next six months has been tapped out by a rather extravagant imported cheese tray we had during our graduation celebration last month. I couldn't bring myself to pay $20.99/lb. for Manchego. I substituted Pecrino, which might have been a tad sharper and salter than Manchego, but still had the good muskiness of a sheep's milk cheese.
So, now let's get down to the cooking disaster. I sauteed oyster mushrooms in butter and olive oil with garlic without incident and set them aside. The mushrooms were sitting innocently on the counter, and as I opened the cupboard above them to grab the quinoa, somehow, the bag had come open. Quinoa exploded over the counters, floor, sink and into the reserved mushrooms. Quinoa, for those of you who haven't cooked with it, is really quite good. It's about the size of couscous and has a nutty flavor and a texture similar to tapioca, but firmer and less slippery. But, when a bag of quinoa gets loose in your kitchen, it looks like some one grabbed a GIANT bean bag, gutted it in the middle of your kitchen and decided to throw its entrails around like confetti. Not pretty. I have swept the kitchen floor three times and vacuumed the entire house, and we are still crunching grains of uncooked quinoa under our feet.
So, I had no choice but to cook the mushrooms with the rest of quinoa to the skillet. Instead of adding them at the end. Did you say skillet? That's another problem with this recipe, it calls for using "a heavy large skillet." I used my 10-inch saute pan that is deep enough to hold two quarts. And it nearly overflowed, making all the strenuous stirring even more difficult. Loose globs of quinoa kept flying over my stove and floor as a stirred. If you boil quinoa, like rice, it'll take about 20 minutes to cook. If you try to turn it into faux risotto, expect it to take forever, somewhere around 45 minutes. It was also quite angry at me by this time. As soon as the liquid got low, the quinoa would spit and hiss like a phone line full of static.
The moral of the story is this don't be fooled by faux risottos. They are every bit as time consuming and arm-wrenching as the real deal.
But, the thing is, the dish was actually quite good. The asparagus and artichokes added a hint of sweetness to the pungency of the cheese and the earthy nuttiness of the mushrooms and grain. Also, it's quite healthy, and it will be perfect for frumpy teacher lunches. The recipe called for 1/2 a cup of dry white wine and I, of course, drank the rest of the bottle during the 45 minutes I was stirring. Maybe my judgment was skewed. (And no, I was not intoxicated before the quinoa exploded.)
With a faux risotto such as this, nothing would have been lost had I simmered the quinoa in broth and wine like rice. There would have been no texture compromise, and it would have been a hell of a lot easier. So while I like this combination of ingredients, the technique can be simplified.