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Chef John Foster: We love our pasta — in all forms, but we should try risotto for its versatility and taste


We love our pasta, in just about any conceivable way possible to serve it. It doesn’t even matter that for some pasta has become off limits as gluten allergies continue to rise. Those people seek out alternatives, whether it be rice noodles or sweet potato, even lentils!

For those who don’t have to worry about gluten, the choices can be almost staggering and include all semolina, whole wheat, spelt, and even quinoa. The colors, prompted by spinach and beets powders or ground chipotle give the dish extra visual, textural and palate-pleasing potential. It’s quick, easy to cook for the most part, and filling.

The filling part is key as it combines with the inexpensive nature of most pasta. True, the fresh pasta from a store might be more expensive, but there are plenty of recipes out there to make your own.

Chefs like pasta for the same reasons you do and for one more; adaptability. Conventional sauces present the pasta as just that, conventional, and for most Americans that’s a comfortable feeling. Mac and cheese, fettuccine alfredo, linguine carbonara, spaghetti and meatballs. All classics, all straight forward. For a twist, we add lobster to mac and cheese, make meatballs not from beef but from turkey, and our carbonara is often the farthest thing from the original that you could imagine.

Once again, the adaptability of pasta is apparent. It has become such an important staple, that a portion of The Sage Rabbit’s marketing is based on it, and we teach it several times in our culinary program at Sullivan University. Approachable for the student, a good kinesthetic exercise, and ultimately one of the best cost control items on your menu.

But let’s shift gears a bit and talk about another staple, another adaptable, relatively efficient and cost-effective food that might be as old as pasta, but far less known. The dish is misnamed from the start, part of a decision early on that takes the method over the ingredient. There are many grains that can be cooked in the “risotto method”, but in today’s culinary world there is really only one risotto.

Arborio rice, high in starch and flavor, is a jewel of Italy’s Po River valley and the undisputed star of the risotto method. You can have your barley and corn “risottos”, they are all very trendy and neat (and if done well delicious), but when the menu announces risotto the choice is clear. Arborio rice is generally of the short grain variety, stubby, plump, off-white in appearance. Through the risotto method it is transformed into a creamy, rich dish that transforms simple mushrooms and olive oil into a heavenly dish that sometimes will last in the memory forever.

In this way it is comparable to pasta or that perfect roast chicken in that it takes on mythical proportions. It’s not an exaggeration to say, “The best meal I ever had,” may have been a white truffle risotto with shaved parmesan cheese. And in that last statement lies the key to both pasta and risotto, the thing that makes them important to any cook’s repertoire.

Flexibility is an unspoken goal of most chefs and cooks. The ability to move product quickly and creatively through the kitchen keeps your guest and your cooks involved and interested. The shapes of pasta facilitate this movement easily. The ability of pasta and risotto to assume flavor profiles that are far ranging increase the versatility and make these dishes the foundation of a successful menu. Cost effective, easy to precook and then finish, they also give the restaurant an identity of sorts. Those two potential side items are featured as specials or standalone dishes rounding out protein heavy choices with gluten free, vegetarian or vegan options.

At The Sage Rabbit, we have been able to easily promote both a daily risotto special and fresh pasta, side by side each lunch and dinner. The fresh pasta is a seasonal dish, highlighting the produce of each season and keeping in line with the weather; heavier sauces in the colder months light sauces and pesto’s in the spring and summer. The risotto is a way to highlight individual items, far ranging and in most cases purchased that week or even that day. Ramps and shrimp in our risotto was one of the best-selling specials we’ve had in a while. When local shiitakes are in, they appear in various forms in the risotto until they are gone, an effective and delicious way to sell product quickly.

My first foray into the risotto method was an abject failure. I used the wrong rice, cooked the heck out of it, and threw away the result. It was literally years before I tried it again, this time with the benefit of experience and patience.

If the internet has given us anything, it is a peek into the techniques of others doing what we once did in solitude. The YouTube videos of risotto method take away a lot of the mystique that a cookbook never really diminishes, opening the door easily into a once shaded technique. It’s not hard to make risotto, it takes patience and vigilance. It is a method that is adaptable as well, whether you wish to cook and serve immediately or par cook and hold for service.

That last statement may have me banned from some international risotto guild, but unless you are a restaurant that hangs your reputation on risotto you would do well to learn the par cook method.

From start to finish, the risotto method can take as long as 30-45 minutes. It involves stirring and assessing at regular intervals as the Arborio rice cooks. I look for the solid white center to slowly fade to a pin prick, as I continually add hot stock to the simmering rice, just enough to cover.

The stirring is key, as is the simmering liquid that should just cover the cooking rice. Plucking a grain from the pot and judging the shrinking size of the uncooked, white center allows the cook to track doneness almost to the end. When the dot is almost gone, a vigorous stirring through the rice will bring out the abundant starch and finish the risotto method. The resulting dish should be served almost immediately, garnished with the cheese or the herbs that finish the dish for service.

Even after dinner, you’re not done with the dish. Risotto lives on in the form of tiny stuffed rice balls called arancini, made the next day, crusted and fried. There is also the rice cake, not your typical dried crusty shaving, but a rich creamy interior surrounded by a brittle crust and often the base for yet another meal.

So if you haven’t yet tried (or in my case re-tried) risotto, the time is now. Pick up some Arborio rice, shop the Farmers Market for some fresh mushrooms and green garlic, and finish the dish with some local goat cheese.

John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene and a promoter of local and seasonal foods for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been the executive chef of his former restaurant, Harvest, and now his Chevy Chase eatery, The Sage Rabbit.

To read more from Chef John Foster, including his recipes, click here. 


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