Ten years ago, I drove upstate with my friends to go apple picking. We roasted the apples alongside root vegetables and showered it all with fresh dill, and I made a big pot of risotto for everyone. After dinner, we sat on the dock by a lake, drinking red wine out of Solo cups and watching the sun go down.
The unabashed idleness of that evening – of being surrounded by simple, straightforward food and, most importantly, friends – is still the only kind of party I want to attend.
If I’ve learned anything from my years of watching Nigella Lawson on television, it is that one stellar main course and one proper dessert can sometimes feel much more complete, much more elegant, than a procession of dishes that make you regret hosting in the first place.
An easy way of achieving that serenity is to make one big starchy thing, like a pot of risotto, and build your evening around it. This variation, loaded with olive oil-fried chestnuts that taste like meaty nuggets of holiday cheer, is a supreme way to feed your friends on a cold winter night. And it is even better when served with a luscious toppings bar of roasted vegetables and herby, creamy, pickled things.
The roasted vegetables in question – dressed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper –take a cue from Ina Garten: Two large sheet pans, one filled with burnished, crispy mushrooms and the other with mauve and glistening caramelized red onions, can make this humble risotto party feel like a veritable feast.
What could be more fun than topping your own bowl of creamy, stock-enriched rice?
Risotto is not as hard as people make it out to be, but it is still risotto – it will require attention. That you need to stir it constantly, however, is a myth. “Stir frequently, but not all the time,” Italian British food writer Anna Del Conte advises in her recipe for risotto with nettles from her memoir of the same name.
There are no-stir options out there that can be made either in the oven or on the stovetop, but I’ve found that a happy medium lies in stirring every three to five minutes, just so the rice on the bottom doesn’t stick. Everything in moderation, right?
Many have waxed poetic about the relaxation that stirring grants you, and that can be true, but the real draw of making risotto for a party is the message it sends to the people you invite. When you serve someone a dish that takes time and effort, you’re letting them know how fond you are of them. (Look what I’ve done for you!) Some might call this fishing for appreciation; others, a love language.
Dessert after all of that work should be something sliceable, like a tender, buttery pound cake in sheet-cake form. Serve it simply on its own or dusted with powdered sugar. If it’s regality you’re after, top it with raspberry preserves, gently salted whipped cream and a snowy, psychedelic blanket of crushed Barbie-pink freeze-dried berries.
You can set out cheese and crackers if you’d like, or not. It’s your party. But the joy of this unbuttoned affair is that it’s really just dinner.
And though the Solo cups, shining red as the sun goes down, will stay with me forever, it doesn’t hurt to clink real glasses at midnight.
Chestnuts fried in olive oil taste like soft, meaty nuggets of holiday cheer when stirred into creamy rice. A big pot of risotto is always a good time, especially when it’s the centerpiece of a DIY toppings bar. Roasted mushrooms and onions, quick-pickled celery, sour cream and dill can be offered as crispy, crunchy, salty and creamy toppings to go with the savory risotto. Risotto tastes best when made fresh, but you can – and should – prepare the toppings ahead of time, storing them in the refrigerator up to a day or two in advance, then cook the risotto just before your guests arrive.
For the Toppings and Broth:
2 cups thinly sliced celery plus leaves (from 3 large stalks)
1/4 cup rice vinegar
Pinch of granulated sugar
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds cremini mushrooms
Extra-virgin olive oil
2 large red onions (1 1/2 pounds)
2 dried or fresh bay leaves
For the Risotto:
Extra-virgin olive oil
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
10 ounces roasted and peeled chestnuts, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 cups carnaroli or arborio rice
1/2 cup shiro (white) miso
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (3 ounces)
1 cup sour cream (8 ounces), for serving
1 bunch fresh dill, leaves and tender stems coarsely chopped, for serving
Prepare the toppings, starting with the pickled celery: Place the celery in a small bowl. Add the rice vinegar and sugar, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, then stir to combine. Cover the mixture and place it in the refrigerator until ready to serve.
Prepare the roasted vegetable toppings: Position a rack in the center of the oven and another below it. Heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Using a damp paper towel, wipe the mushrooms clean. Pluck the stems off the caps and transfer the stems to a large pot. Thinly slice the mushroom caps and transfer to a large bowl. Drizzle enough olive oil (5 to 6 tablespoons) to generously coat the sliced mushrooms; season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and transfer to a large sheet pan in a single layer.
Wash, peel, halve and thinly slice the red onions. Transfer the onion peels and any trimmings to the pot. Transfer the sliced onions to the empty bowl, drizzle with enough olive oil (about 3 tablespoons) to generously coat, and season with salt and pepper. Toss to combine and transfer to another large sheet pan in a single layer. (Save the bowl without washing it.)
Place the onions on the center rack of the oven and the mushrooms on the lower rack. Roast the vegetables until deeply golden brown at the edges, stirring them halfway through, 30 to 40 minutes.
While the vegetables roast, make the broth: Fill the pot with 8 cups cold tap water, add the bay leaves and season with 1 tablespoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil over high, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain into the reserved bowl, discard the vegetable scraps and transfer the stock back to the pot. Bring to a simmer and keep at a gentle simmer over low heat. Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a kettle or saucepan.
Make the risotto: In a large Dutch oven, add enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom. Heat the oil over medium. Add the shallots, celery and chestnuts, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft but not brown, 7 to 9 minutes. Add more olive oil if the pot looks dry. Add the rice and stir continuously until each grain is coated in the fat and looks shiny and translucent at the edges, about 1 minute.
Pour in 1 cup of the simmering stock and stir vigorously until the rice has absorbed all the liquid. Add another cup of stock and stir occasionally until the rice has absorbed that stock. Continue like this, adding a cup of stock at a time and stirring just enough to make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot (every 3 to 5 minutes). When you’re out of the stock, continue with the boiling water, cooking until the rice grains are tender but maintain defined edges. This entire process will take 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and cover.
In a bowl, stir 1/4 cup of boiling water with the miso until smooth. Add this miso mixture, the butter and cheese to the risotto and stir until incorporated. Serve the risotto immediately, with the roasted mushrooms and onions, quick-pickled celery, sour cream and dill in separate bowls with serving spoons so that guests can top their risotto themselves.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Cream Cheese vw Cake
Reminiscent of Sara Lee’s loaves in the freezer aisle, this tender, buttery treat is like a pound cake in sheet cake form. For a Barbie-pink dream house finish, prepare this with the optional toppings: raspberry preserves, gently salted whipped cream and a snowy, psychedelic blanket of freeze-dried raspberries. Any toppings should be added right before serving, but if it’s simplicity you’re after, then you can skip them and dust the cake with confectioners’ sugar or nothing at all. The cake, undressed, will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 to 4 days or well-wrapped in the freezer for up to a month.
By Eric Kim
For the Cake:
2 1/2 cups (320 grams) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/2 cups (345 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces (226 grams) cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups (600 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 teaspoons fine sea salt
5 large eggs, at room temperature
For the Assembly (optional):
1 cup (305 grams) raspberry preserves (see Tip)
2 cups (473 milliliters) cold heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/2 cups (34 grams) freeze-dried raspberries
Prepare the cake: Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a medium bowl, add the flour and baking powder. Whisk to combine and to break up any lumps.
Add butter to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Use the empty butter wrappers to generously grease a 9-by-13-inch baking pan; line the bottom and long sides with parchment. Add the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla and salt to the bowl with the butter and mix on medium-low speed to combine. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, almost white and the sugar is mostly dissolved, 5 to 7 minutes. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, mixing until smooth after each addition. Use a flexible spatula to scrape the bowl, then beat over medium speed for another minute.
With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients and mix until most of the flour streaks have disappeared. Using the spatula, scrape the bowl and gently stir until you eliminate the flour streaks. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, then smooth out the top.
Bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until golden brown and a skewer or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. When you gently press on the center of the cake with your fingertip, you shouldn’t leave a dent. Let cool completely in the pan. (The cooled cake can be covered and kept at room temperature for up to 3 or 4 days.)
If you’re preparing the optional toppings, assemble the cake: Spread the preserves evenly over the cooled cake.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the heavy whipping cream, sugar and salt over medium-high until billowy soft peaks form. When you lift the whisk out of the bowl and turn it upside-down, a peak of cream should flop over slightly like a Santa hat. Evenly spread the whipped cream over the jam-topped cake.
Add the freeze-dried raspberries to a fine-mesh sieve and hold it over the cake. Using your fingers, pass them through until most of the magenta powder rests atop the frosting like fresh snow and most of the seeds are left behind in the sieve. The entire surface of the whipped cream should be covered in pink dust. Discard the raspberry seeds. Serve immediately.
Look for a brand of raspberry preserves with minimal ingredients: They should consist of only raspberries, sugar, pectin and some kind of citrus. That will taste more tart and less artificial than one with, say, high-fructose corn syrup and other fruit juices that muddy the natural raspberry flavor. If your preserves taste especially sweet, you can stir in up to 3 teaspoons of fresh lemon juice for added tartness.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Spokane7 email newsletter
Get the day’s top entertainment headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.