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