Cheddar and Fennel Risotto

Cheddar and Fennel Risotto
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fennel risotto
Part of a complete meal!

After we returned from our road trip vacation to the four corners region, we had to do something with the three small fennel bulbs that were still sitting in the crisper. They were too small to turn into our favorite fennel dish, Fennel Gratin, so we had to think of something else. When we picked up the goat cheese, we thought of a goat cheese and fennel risotto. That sure sounded good, but we made the Parmesan Crisps and Goat Cheese Mousse, instead (we were testing them for an upcoming dinner). So, what to do?

We decided to go with the risotto idea, but, since we were out of fresh goat cheese, we thought we’d try it with Cheddar cheese instead. Sure, we did have Parmesan in the house (that’s a staple here at Scratchin’ Central), and we knew that Italians would probably roll their eyes and shake their heads and possibly even shudder at the thought of Cheddar in risotto, but, hey, it’ll give them something to talk about in the coming weeks.

Cheddar and Fennel Risotto

Yield: 4 servings

Cheddar and Fennel Risotto


  • 1 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup finely minced onion
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced fennel
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
  • 3 to 4 cups simmering broth
  • 3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Cheddar cheese
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • Several small fennel fronds, for garnish

Abbreviated Instructions

Melt butter and heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, and fennel, and cook, stirring often, until tender, about 8 minutes.

Add rice and stir and cook until coated with oil, about 1 minute.

Add wine and, stirring continually, cook until almost all wine is absorbed.

Add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of broth and, stirring continually, cook until absorbed. Repeat adding broth and cooking in this fashion until the rice is tender on the outside and just slightly chewy in the center, about 30 minutes. If the rice is dry at this time, add enough broth to make it creamy. Stir and remove from heat.

Taste and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Stir in cheese, let melt, then stir again.

Serve immediately with a small fennel frond as garnish.

Ingredient discussion:

mise en place
Fennel can be tough so slice it as thinly as you can.

If you’re using fennel that has the fronds still attached, save a few small pieces for garnish. It’ll look nice. Use a dry white wine that you like to drink, as, last time we checked, wine comes in bottles that hold more than a half cup, so you’ll have plenty left for (wink, wink), another use. Arborio rice (or another rice appropriate for risotto, such as carnaroli) is required. Ordinary rice will not release the starches needed to make the creamy sauce for which risotto is known. Sure, the arborio rice is expensive at most stores, but, if you live near a Trader Joe’s, you can pick up a 1.1lb (500g) box for under $3. (We only mention this because it’s what we use.) For the cheese, we used a medium Cheddar; a strong Cheddar might be even better, but we wouldn’t suggest using a mild version.

Procedure in detail:

Melt butter. In a large saucepan (3-quart) over medium heat, melt the butter and heat the oil until the butter is foamy. Foamy means that it’s nice and hot and ready for the next step.

Cook vegetables. Add the onion, garlic, and fennel and cook, stirring often until the fennel is tender, about 8 minutes. The fennel is usually the last thing to soften, and it’ll have more time to soften while the rice cooks, but crunchy fennel in a creamy risotto is an odd contrast, so try to get the fennel nice and tender.

cooking arborio rice
Don’t let the rice cook too long, or the starch will be sealed into the kernels and your risotto won’t be creamy.

Add rice. Stir in the rice until coated with oil; you can let it cook just a bit, too, but not too long. We find that a minute is about the right amount of time. More than that and the grains of rice start sealing off the starch, which means that your risotto won’t be as creamy as it could be.

rice and wine
Stir risotto often as it helps to release the starches from the rice.

Add wine. Stir in the wine and bring to a simmer. Stirring nearly continuously, cook the rice and wine until nearly all the wine is absorbed.

Add broth. Add about 1/4 to 1/34 of a cup of simmering broth — you need the broth simmering so that the rice doesn’t stop cooking — then stir it in. And, just as with the wine, keep stirring until almost all the broth is absorbed.

Towards the end of cooking, the risotto should be quite creamy.

Repeat. Keep adding broth and stirring in the same way — a quarter-cup at a time once the previous addition is absorbed — until the rice is soft on the outside, but slightly chewy on the inside, 20 to 35 minutes. It won’t taste raw, but it shouldn’t be mushy all the way through, either.

Maybe add broth. If the rice is mostly dry when it tests done, add a bit more broth to make it creamy. If you added some broth in the last few minutes, you might not need to add any. Remove from heat.

Season. Taste the risotto and season with salt and pepper.

adding cheese
Stir in the cheese to make creamy, cheesy risotto.

Add cheese. Stir in the cheese, and let the risotto stand long enough for the cheese to melt, then stir again and serve.

finsihing risotto
A small fennel frond makes a nice garnish.

The risotto was super creamy, perhaps because of the Cheddar cheese, but it also had a slight bitter taste which neither of us liked. We couldn’t determine whether the bitterness came from the fennel, or possible the cheese (cheese is bitter when there isn’t enough salt to cover it up), but it was there, albeit faint. Also, the Cheddar cheese has a bit more coating power than Parmesan, so, as we were eating, our teeth became slightly coated. Not gooey sticky coated, but that slight fuzzy feel, which is not conducive to appreciating dinner. So overall, three stars.

Worth the trouble?

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