I’ll never forget the first time I had risotto. I was wedged into the tiny kitchen in the back of Paley’s Place, trying to stay out of everyone’s way, smiling politely, but mostly awkwardly, at everyone who dashed past. It was my first “stage,” which in restaurant speak, means working interview. I was terrified.
Fresh out of culinary school and my former life of not being a very adventurous eater, I had given myself a pep talk about promptly putting everything they handed me in my mouth without hesitation. This was one of the best restaurants in the history of Portland, and I wanted in. Bad. As I stood wedged into my spot during service, my resolve was put the test as I was handed item after item to sample. I’d tried oysters and charcuterie, vinaigrettes and soup. Stuffed pieces of steak and fries in my mouth and swallowed an innumerable amount of sauces. All with a smile on my face. After a while, I couldn’t even tell what I was eating.
Until a small, silver pot was handed over to my side of the pass with a large silver spoon resting in this warm, creamy porridge. Almost robotically, I lifted the spoon to my mouth, but instead of the bland flavor I anticipated, I was greeted with the warmest, most comforting taste I’d ever known. The risotto was absolutely creamy, but with a slight hint of lemon and wine and had been garnished with a pile of fresh, Oregon Dungeness crab. The fog suddenly cleared from my overwhelmed mind and I looked up at the cook who possessed the hand that was holding on to that pot of heaven. I must have had quite an expression because he smiled, chuckled and asked,
“What do you think, darlin?”
Little did I know, just a few months later, I’d be standing on the other side of that same pass, peeking over that same cook’s shoulder, watching him sear, stir and saute everything imaginable. I’m not sure if it was his passion for the ingredients, his incredible intensity when things inevitably got crazy in the middle of service, or his smooth southern drawl (which became just a bit more pronounced the more he imbibed), but I worshipped that cook. I soaked up everything he said to me, which lucky for me, was a lot. When we had down time, he showed me how to make the recipes on his station. He instructed me to tidy up the walk-in and always make sure my shelf was organized. He helped me scrub my station if the dessert hour ran long, and he eventually encouraged me to assert myself and move up. He constantly told me I had what it takes and I adored him.
When he taught me how to make that heavenly dish I’d watched him plate up night after night, he got a funny edge in his voice. The way he talked about the combination of rice, wine and cheese was so lovely and romantic. Like he was talking about his first love, rather than a pot of rice. Despite it’s simple nature, it’s really the dreamiest dish and I’ll always have a special place in my heart for it, for a multitude of reasons.
If you’re looking for the perfect, laid back dinner to serve to your love for Valentine’s Day, this is it. Perfectly comforting, with a classy edge, paired with a nice glass of wine, you just can’t go wrong.
- 1 head cauliflower
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- salt + pepper
- 1/4 cup walnuts, chopped
- 3-4 sprigs thyme
- 32 oz. organic chicken stock
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 1/2 cups arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry sherry
- 1/2 cup pecorino romano
- 2 Tbsp mascarpone
- 3-4 chives, chopped
- Preheat oven to 425. Place cauliflower, olive oil, salt and pepper on a sheet tray and toss to coat. Roast for 15 minutes, adding the walnuts for the last 5-8 minutes. Set aside.
- Warm stock in a saucepan, keep warm on the side.
- Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft. Add the rice to toast 2-3 minutes.
- Add thyme and sherry and cook, stirring, until wine is absorbed.
- Gradually add the stock, one cup at a time, until stock is absorbed. Repeat until rice is cooked, but al dente.
- Stir in cheeses, and season with salt and pepper.
- Top with cauliflower, chives, olive oil, nuts and black salt, if desired.
By the way, this was the cook who taught me to make risotto.