This recipe grew out of an idea to use our share of rapini in a new way. It seems that when you look for recipes involving some sort of green — including rapini — there’s just one recipe out there that’s endlessly repeated. If you’ve ever looked, you know the one; sautéed greens in olive oil with a bit of garlic and some crushed red pepper, then hit up with a little salt and pepper before serving. Well, when you get greens at the rate we get greens from the CSA, that recipe gets old fast.
We knew that rapini (also known as broccoli rabe, and a whole host of other names) is a common dish in Italy, generally sautéed as described above. With the Italian connection in mind, we decided to go with a risotto made with the rapini, and, to help cut the bitter edge of rapini, to use some fresh goat cheese in place of Parmesan cheese. And, for a bit of textural contrast, perhaps topped with pine nuts. It sounded so good that we went out and bought pine nuts that day.
If you’re wondering whether you could just use ordinary rice for this dish, you could, but it wouldn’t be the same. For risotto, you really do need a special type of rice, and arborio is the most widely available variety. Seek it out and you’ll be rewarded with a nice, creamy rice dish; otherwise, well, we have no idea what you might end up with. For the white wine, we use a Pinot Grigio — you almost can’t go wrong buying any Pinot Grigio, as they’re uniformly good. Our favorite is Barefoot — very inexpensive, but also quite good. If you do use Parmesan, use a high-quality Parmesan or Grana Padano that you have to grate yourself. Don’t even think the stuff in a green cylinder shaker box is cheese, much less cheese that’s worth your hard-earned money. Feel free to use another nut in place of the pine nuts; walnuts, almonds, or chopped hazelnuts would be good. The goat cheese that we use comes from Black Mesa Ranch — they make some of the best goat cheeses that we’ve had — you should find a good goat cheese, not one of those goat cheeses that tastes all farmy and goaty. Finally, the vegetable broth — we make our own — but a high-quality, low-salt kind would work, too. We specify low-salt because you’ll be cooking the broth away and that concentrates the saltiness. When we made our broth, we included a couple of dried shiitake mushrooms for flavor, which we added to the risotto. Think of those as an optional, but not listed, ingredient.
Procedure in detail:
Toast pine nuts. Place the nuts in a small skillet over medium heat and toast, stirring very often, until golden brown and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from the skillet, as the residual heat can continue cooking them past the point of redemption — nuts can burn very quickly, and burnt nuts are not very tasty.
Simmer vegetable broth. Heat the vegetable broth in a small saucepan over medium heat until it reaches a low boil. Reduce heat to a bare simmer. You want the broth to stay very hot, but not boil or simmer away. This broth will be added a bit at a time when you cook the rice.
Cook onions and garlic. Melt the butter in olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and garlic and cook until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Do not let the onions or garlic brown, as you want soft, but not caramelized, onions.
Add rice. Pour in the cup of rice and stir until the rice is coated in oil. Each grain should look translucent around the edges with a small white pip in the center. Don’t cook the rice for more than 2 minutes, as it will seal up the grains of rice, making them harder to cook properly.
Add wine. Pour in the wine; it should sizzle as it hits the pan, and start stirring. Keep stirring the rice and wine until most of the wine has been cooked away and a spoon dragged across the bottom of the pan doesn’t fill in with liquid. As an aside, we’ve made risotto without wine, but it’s nowhere near as tasty. We believe the alcohol in the wine releases some flavors that you wouldn’t get otherwise.
Add broth. Now we get to the secret of good risotto — adding the broth. You need to add hot broth, about 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup at a time, and cook, stirring continuously, until the broth is absorbed/evaporated. Then you can add more broth and repeat until the rice is tender on the outside, but slightly chewy — not crunchy — on the inside. The total amount of time for cooking seems to vary (20 to 45 minutes), so start testing the rice after about 20 minutes.
Add rapini. After 20 minutes of cooking the rice — adding broth, cooking it away, adding more broth — stir the rapini shreds into the rice and continue cooking the until the rice is done. If you run out of broth before the rice is done — it happens to us about half the time — just use boiling water.
Add cheese. When you’ve finished cooking the rice, add the goat cheese, give everything a good stir to start the melting and remove the risotto from the heat. If it looks dry and not creamy, stir in just a bit more broth. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes, then taste and season with salt and pepper.
Serve. Give the risotto one last stir to distribute the melted cheese and divide among plates. Top with the pine nuts and some Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately, as risotto does not keep nor does it re-heat well.
Making good risotto requires some effort. You need to stir, add broth, stir, stir, stir, add more broth, and so on. But we think it’s also totally worth it, and we try to make a batch every couple of weeks. To us, it seems like the ultimate comfort food: hot, creamy, cheesy, and delicious. Sort of like good mac ‘n’ cheese, but more sophisticated. The downside is that, for all your work, sometimes the risotto doesn’t turn out quite right. Perhaps you cooked it too fast, or too long; whatever — risotto can be temperamental, but it seems as though you can use almost anything to make a good risotto, provided you start with the basics of arborio (or another variety of rice suitable for risotto) rice and take your time. This particular risotto was a nice way to use rapini. Rapini tastes somewhat like broccoli, but with a slightly bitter edge. The tartness and the creaminess of the goat cheese works very well with the bitterness, and the pine nuts add just a bit of interest in both flavor and texture. Four stars.