Saffron Cauliflower Risotto
Risotto is food for the gods. It comes from humble origins as grains of rice but develops into a creamy luxuriousness that transports you to a dreamy and calmer world. Often, I feel like I am being extravagant when I eat risotto. It’s odd when I think about it because essentially risotto is a bowl of rice slowly cooked in stock, vegetables and cheese. Nothing fancy, but what a transformation. Say the word risotto, people start to swoon and get weak in the knees. They can only respond by repeating your own words with a subtle exclamation, “Oohhhh rissoootooo, I love rissoootooo.”
The first time I had risotto was many years ago in a very fancy restaurant, Equus at The Castle in Tarrytown NY. We were the lucky recipients of a gift certificate to this 5-star establishment. For our first course, my husband ordered risotto and I, not knowing anything about risotto, ordered pumpkin soup. Joe, being a generous person, offered me a taste of his risotto. That first bite of risotto changed my life.
To this day it is the best thing I have ever eaten. Selfishly, I was tempted to grab his bowl and make a run for it. Fortunately, I did not run away and Joe continued to share his risotto with me. My bowl of pumpkin soup got pushed aside as we sat together sharing the risotto and savoring each bite while melting into our chairs. I do not remember anything else about that meal, only the risotto.
Since then, risotto is a favorite dish of mine, but I make only a few times a year. Mostly because it requires my undivided attention when I make it, and for various reasons, I see risotto as a treat. Whenever I feel like being indulgent and know I can give it my undivided attention, I’ll make risotto. Please, take me back to that point in time when nothing else mattered and my husband and I were sharing our first bowl of risotto together.
Making risotto does require some work and skill, but mostly cooking confidence. Yet, I believe all cooks at any skill level should try it. You can substitute ingredients as is within your will and means, but because there are so few ingredients in the recipe, each one plays an important role developing the risotto’s flavor. Risotto is greater than the sum of its parts, with all its parts transforming these humble ingredients into an elegant meal.
This recipe is inspired by two different types of risotto, Cauliflower Risotto and the traditional Risotto alla Milanese. I used two types of cauliflower, green and white to add some color to the dish, but I believe it would still look and taste lovely if you only used white cauliflower. I originally set out to make traditional cauliflower risotto, but I love saffron and decided it would be a nice addition. Either way, cauliflower risotto is delicious with or without the saffron.
Pointers for making cauliflower risotto:
Homemade stock will give you a better tasting risotto then store-bought stock.
Use a good quality vegetable stock, preferably homemade, in this recipe because it is a vegetable risotto and it creates a brighter flavor. You can use chicken stock if you prefer a richer flavor, and not cooking dinner for vegetarians.
Risotto requires a specific type of short grain rice, Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano. The most common risotto rice found in the US is Arborio rice. If you can get Carnaroli, buy it over Arborio rice because it does not get as mushy. Either rice creates a good risotto. I have not seen Vialone Nano rice in any stores in my location.
Risotto does require your undivided attention. Have all the ingredients prepped and ready before you start. You do not have to stir the risotto the entire time, but you do have to stir it most of the time so it does not burn on the bottom of the pan or stick. Stirring also develops the creaminess of the risotto.
You should use a high sided pan with a big “mouth”. A Dutch oven works well. I used to use my sauté pan and I found the liquid evaporated too quickly. I have been very happy with the results using my 5-quart Dutch oven.
Add the liquid a little at a time and stir frequently. Add additional stock after the rice absorbs the stock, but the pan is not dry.
Use only freshly grated Parmesan Reggiano, or Pecorino Romano cheese. Stay away from processed parmesan cheese.
Cook the risotto al dente, or just shy of al dente. Like pasta, the rice continues to cook after the heat off. You want the risotto at the perfect just as you sit down to eat it.
As risotto cools it gets thicker and dryer, like polenta. Serve risotto immediately.
Risotto does not mound up like regular rice or form into molds. It should slowly spread across the plate as you spoon it on. It is not thin like a soup, more like porridge or stew.
Make risotto with a variety of vegetables, or shellfish, or meats like sausage, and herbs. Have fun coming up with your own combinations and variations.
Make rice balls with any leftover risotto. An Italian specialty called Arancini and Suppli from Southern Italy. Find a recipe here. Or risotto cakes, here.
Saffron Cauliflower Risotto
- 6 cups 1 liter and 473 ml Vegetable or chicken broth *preferably homemade
- 1 head Cauliflower about 1 lb 9 oz 720 g
- 1/2 about 4 oz/ 115 g of a medium Zucchini
- 2 Tb olive oil or butter, plus 2 Tb of butter for finishing the risotto
- 1 onion
- 1 1/2 cup 10 oz/ 299 g arborio rice
- 1/2 cup 4 oz/ 118 ml dry white wine, Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
- 1/2 tea saffron threads
- 1/2 cup 2 oz/ 54 g finely grated Parmesan Reggiano
- Kosher Salt
- Fresh ground black Pepper
- Small handful of flat leaf parsley minced
Have the vegetable or chicken stock ready.
Core the cauliflower and discard. Cut the cauliflower into small bite size pieces, separating the "flowery" parts from their stems. Cut up the inner stems of the cauliflower florets into small pieces. Set aside.
Trim off one end of the zucchini and use a julienne grater from a mandoline, or a box grater, and grate the zucchini. Set aside.
Mince the onion then set aside until cooking the risotto
Bring a medium saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower florets to the boiling water and blanch for about 3 minutes. You will want the cauliflower to be tender but crisp and keep their shape. Scoop the cauliflower out of the water with a slotted spoon or spider and put into a bowl.
Return the water to a boil and cook the cauliflower stems for 5 minutes, until slightly soft. Once cooked, remove the cauliflower stems from the water with a slotted spoon or spider, and place in a mini food processor. Pour the cauliflower water into a small bowl and set aside.
Add about 2 Tb of the cauliflower water into the food processor with the cauliflower and process until the cauliflower is smooth. Set aside. If you do not own a food processor, place the blanched cauliflower stems on a cutting board and mince extra fine or mash with the side of your knife.
Making the risotto
Put all of your vegetable stock into a medium saucepan and turn on the heat to medium. The stock needs to stay hot while you are cooking risotto.
Place a 5 quart Dutch Oven on the burner and turn the heat to medium. Add 2Tb of olive oil (or butter) to the pan and heat up the oil. Add the minced onions and 1/4 tea of Kosher salt and sweat the onions. Stir the onions to get them evenly coated with the olive oil. Cook the onions until they are soft and translucent, be careful not to brown the onions.
Add the zucchini then stir to combine and cook for a few minutes until all the liquid has evaporated.
Add the rice then stir to coat with the oil and cook until the rice becomes translucent around the edges of each grain.
Add the wine, stir and cook until the liquid is all gone.
Add the saffron threads, stir into the rice then add 1/2 cup, or ladleful, of stock to the rice. Stir to combine and cook, stirring every minute or so until the liquid is absorbed, but not dry.
Add more stock, a ladleful or 1/2 cup at a time. Stir into the rice and then cook, stirring every minute.
Continue adding stock when the liquid is absorbed by the rice, but the rice and pan are not dry. Stirring every minute until the rice is al dente. Start tasting the rice at the 20-minute mark to gauge its progress. My risotto usually takes about 30 minutes. Use the cauliflower water if you need more stock.
4 minutes before the rice is done add the cauliflower, the puree and florets, with some stock. Stir to combine and continue to cook.
Add the cheese and butter with some stock and stir to combine.
The risotto is done when the rice is soft, but there is a slight bite in the middle.
The risotto should be loose, not dry, more like stew consistency.
Add the minced parsley then serve the risotto in individual soup bowls.
Serve immediately and garnish with more grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper.
If you want a more creamy consistency you can add more parmesan and butter. Add them in slowly and a little bit at a time. I have seen various recipes that add up to a cup (108 g) of parmesan cheese and 4 Tb of butter. My advice is to taste as you go and be careful not to make the risotto mushy and heavy.
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