When I was in college, I created a Spanish-rice inspired casserole, which one of my friends (and roommate at the time) dubbed, “Lorenzo's Spanish casserole.” This was another one of those casseroles I could make on Sunday evening and eat all week for dinner, unless, of course, I was sharing with my roommates, which we often did. That casserole consisted of a box of Spanish rice mix (it came with white rice and a seasoning packet) and I threw in things like black beans or ground turkey, corn, black olives, bell peppers, and onion. I think it changed slightly each time, depending on what I had on hand and what I was craving. I would top each serving with a good dose of shredded cheddar cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
I thought about this casserole the other day, when I was making a Spanish-inspired risotto. By no means was I basing the risotto on that previous dish, but as the rice started to soften, I looked down at the ingredients swirling around my wooden spoon, and the sight lit a small flash in my brain – a vague memory of the look and smell of Lorenzo's casserole.
I almost immediately smirked, thinking how far I've come from cooking something from a box. I not only usually CANNOT make things from a box, because manufacturers so often use glutenous substances as binders, but I realized I actually stopped making things from boxes well before I was diagnosed gluten intolerant. I couldn't stand the sodium content. And the unpronounceable ingredient list. They stopped tasting like food and felt plastic-y.
And I thought about that seasoning packet. Who knows what is in there? Now that I have so much fun playing with seasonings and learning what tastes fantastic together and wondering how it would taste if I just added a bit of cumin or something-or-other... I can't imagine throwing in a boxed seasoning packet, mindless, and unaware.
But, I cannot charge or blame anyone who cooks from a box or a package. My understanding of how fortunate I am to be able to afford to by-pass those cheaper, pre-made meals in favor of my own creations is just too great. I also far too well understand my good fortune of feeling confident in the kitchen and having the immeasurable resource of the internet at my fingertips, with it's vast array of cooking tips and techniques. Furthermore, I live in city with a farmers' market steps from my front door. Fresh produce, poultry, eggs, and cheese are just a few offerings abundantly available. Contrast this with some parts of this country where even the nearby grocery stores don't stock fresh produce.
My work in psychology and health often intersects on issues such as these, and I see how complex a problem it is, as well as how complex the solution needs to be. Improving the entire education system in the U.S., creating living-wage jobs, improving access to fresh produce, and even things like altering marketing practices to change what is considered “normal” eating habits – these all have to be part of the solution, among several other components. Until then, it will remain more practical, more affordable, and more comfortable for many people to cook from, and eat, packaged foods. Even I use canned beans more often than cooking my own.
All of that was swirling around in my mind, as I stirred and stirred my risotto.
I have been playing around with Spanish smoked paprika lately, since Ben moved in with a large jar of it. I added it to the yellow split pea soup I posted earlier (which I labeled “chili” for my own tomato-free imagination). So, when I decided to whip up a risotto for dinner the other night, I wondered what kind of a risotto would have smoked paprika? What else would I add?
Since risotto is traditionally Italian, it took some box-breaking, mentally, for me to think away from traditionally Italian ingredients.
I started out with a lot of minced garlic, some olive oil, and the smoked paprika. For some reason, I like kidney beans in my “Spanish” dishes lately – I think it's because of their red color. So, I opened a can of kidney beans. Following the beans came some good, Spanish olives...
I eventually created what I think is the best risotto I have ever made. It's flavorful and punchy. It keeps you guessing. It's not traditional – and I like that.
Use a good, deep stock pot or dutch oven for this - it helps prevent some of the broth from evaporating away. You will also want to use a good, comfortable wooden spoon, since you will be doing a lot of stirring. This recipe calls for cheese, which adds a lot of flavor to the dish, but it is just as delicious without it. The lovely thing about risotto is it's creamy texture, with or without any dairy product.
1 cup Carnaroli rice (this rice is the easiest to use if you are not an expert risotto maker, but you can also use Arborio, which is harder to get "right," but I think it is more easily found)
4 - 5 cups good broth (depending on how much evaporation you end up with)
1 tablespoon Spanish paprika
ground black pepper
2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
dash cayenne pepper
1-2 tablespoons cilantro
1/2 can kidney beans
1/2 cup sliced Spanish olives
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup sliced green onion
1/2 cup hard cheese, shredded (such as zamorano or manchego)
Bring your broth to a simmer in a sauce pan over medium-low heat. Keep it simmering at this heat until you have used it all.
In your large stockpot, heat a good dose of olive oil (it should well-cover the bottom of your pot) and saute your garlic for a few minutes. Add the rice and stir for a few minutes, until the edges of the rice become translucent. Add your paprika, some black pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, and the cilantro. Stir to mix well.
Add a ladle-full of broth and stir until all of the broth is absorbed. Add another ladle-full and stir until absorbed. Continue this until all of the broth is used, or until the rice is tender, with just a tiniest bit of bite left.
Stir in the olives, beans, and green onion. Mix well and heat through. Add one last bit of broth, if needed.
Add the shredded cheese (optional) and stir.
Take the pot off of the burner and set aside, covered, to rest for about 4-5 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a skillet on the hot burner and toss in your pine nuts. Toast these over medium heat for a few minutes, until they start to turn color.
Either stir your pine nuts into the risotto, or use them as a garnish.
Garnish with additional green onion and shredded cheese, if desired.