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Making mushroom risotto

Elspeth Hay

Gianni Bisone of Truro grew up in Italy. His whole family is from there.

"My mother's side is from Veneto, the Venice region, and my father is from Piedmont," he explains.

"Piedmont is where, like, barbaresco comes from, good butter, polenta, and then Veneto is like they have all the rice paddies and stuff like that. So I feel like I love this recipe because it's just like merging of my mom and my dad in one little dish."

Gianni learned to make risotto from his aunt. His mom was sick with cancer, and he needed to cook for himself. So his aunt taught him the same mushroom risotto that his great-grandmother used to make.

"Today we have chanterelles and matsutakes. I rehydrate them in organic chicken broth," he says.

Both of these mushrooms grow here. While they sit, Gianni preps. He peels a clove of garlic, slices up an onion, and cuts up a pile of fresh shiitakes from a farmer in Truro. Then he sautés all of these vegetables in butter til they’re translucent, and adds the rice.

"You have to use Arborio rice, short grain rice."

Arborio is named after a town in Piedmont, the region where Gianni’s dad and the rice are from. It has a special kind of starch called amylopectin that makes it firm, creamy, and chewy all at once. Gianni sautés it for a few minutes dry to infuse it with the flavors of the mushrooms and garlic and onion and then pours in a cup of wine.

"So I picked a barbera d’asti. I always say like, get something good that you'll drink, but don't go spend $100 on a bottle of wine to make risotto. That's silly. You're not really looking for it to, like, give a flavor somewhat. I mean, you're more wanting it to like, deglaze your pan to get all that fond off the bottom of it."

I asked, fond?

"Fond. So your fond is going to be like all the bits, you know, when you sauté and you have, like, all the little bits at the end of your pan. If you add in an acid, what happens is, is that it cleans the bottom of the pan. And now all that stuff, all that flavor that they call Fond will now go into the dish, so it'll make it thicker."

I had no idea, but fond is a technical cooking term, French for “base” or “foundation.” And Gianni keeps incorporating fond — and flavor — into the risotto, by repeating this process again and again.

"What you're doing is the whole process is that that fond that we talked about, you're playing off of that. So once we start pouring in liquid, the liquid will cook down and you want it to cook down to where it gives us a little more flavor on the bottom. And then you throw more water and on top of it and more stock, rather on top of it."

Gianni goes through this process five or six times — adding a ladle of stock, letting it cook down, adding a bit more, and stirring the whole time.

"Okay. Now, most of the liquid is cooked off," he says. "There's pretty much not much left. Don't push this too far or you'll burn it. And then no one likes that. So there's still some liquid."

The rice is changing noticeably.

"Yes, it's getting fatter. It's going it's starting to release some of its stuff. It'll go like a little more opaque. Also, the way it should look is called al onda, al onda means, like a wave. Right. So it should look like the ocean," Gianna observes.

"We’re lucky here we live next to the ocean so it should be easy for you guys to figure out. Like it should look, right? Like that’s coming in a little slow. So when it’s done, you want it to be, have some motion to it but not be too dry, like you don’t want to move it and like nothing happens, that’s not good, you need to add more liquid to it."

Elspeth Hay

We stir and taste until the rice is just right — al dente, chewy, and yet creamy. Gianni grates in some Pecorino Romano and we sit down to piping hot plates of mushroom risotto. He says the dish is kind of like a metaphor.

"To us, I think it’s like we always saw it like a thing in life where it’s like, life gets really dry, life really brings it down to where it’s like a struggle and it’s hot, and you just want a change. But that part where it’s cooking down, that’s where the flavor of life, that difficulty of life, right," Gianni says.

"It’s like the rainy day will come, it’s not always going to be a drought, everything’s going to be good. So I feel like this dish is really just a play on the cycles of life."

Gianni Bisone’s Mushroom Risotto

3 ounces dried mushrooms (porcinis, chantarelles, and/or matsutakes are great)

2 quarts organic, low sodium chicken stock

1/2 pound fresh shiitake mushrooms (or wild local varieties)

3 tablespoons butter

1 red onion

1 cup arborio rice

1 clove garlic

1 bottle of good (but not too good) Italian red wine

1 cup grated Pecorino Romano

Heat the chicken stock until steaming. Add the dried mushrooms and set the pot aside until the mushrooms are rehydrated, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, prep your other ingredients. Cut the shiitakes into bite size pieces. Peel the garlic. Peel the onion and chop it finely. Then, pull the rehydrated mushrooms from the pot with a slotted spoon, draining the stock from them and reserving it for cooking. Cut the rehydrated mushrooms into bite size pieces. (Some people puree their mushrooms; others use huge chunks—size here is a matter of preference.)

Heat the butter in a medium size pot. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, over medium-high heat, until translucent, about 5-8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook another few minutes, then add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, for about two minutes. The rice should begin to look like tiny eyes, but it should not brown.

Keep the heat on medium-high, pour in the wine, and stir well to deglaze the pan and get all the fond from the pot bottom. Let the wine cook down until almost all the liquid is absorbed.

Now, start adding the mushroom-infused chicken stock. Pour it in one or two ladles full at a time. Stir pretty much constantly—drink a glass of wine or chat if it feels slow!—until the liquid is almost gone again. Now add another ladle full or two, and let the rice absorb it while you stir. Repeat this another four or five times, until the rice is chewy but creamy—al dente. The risotto should look like a wave coming in across the bottom of the pot when you stir—not too fast, not too slow. If it doesn’t move at all, things are way too dry. If it moves fast, you need to let the liquid cook down. When it moves like a wave, it’s just right.

Cook and taste and cook and taste, adding liquid in smaller amounts toward the end, until you get it the way you like. Then, turn off the heat and sprinkle in the grated Pecorino Romano. Serve piping hot.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.