We eat with our eyes first. Before we smell, before we taste, we look.
How a dish is presented to us affects how we will experience it. It doesn’t mean that a dish needs to be fussy or tweezerized, it just needs to look inviting and beautiful. Beautiful can at times mean constructed and manipulated, but it often means hands-off and natural. Natural in the sense of letting the ingredients be. The way herbs scatter when they fall, the multicolor shades of heirloom tomatoes, the curve of a pear. Food is beautiful; it just needs to be allowed to shine.
Some have compared chefs to artists, food to art. I think chefs are more like artisans, diligently honing their craft over the years. But I do think that chefs can create beautiful, thought-provoking meals. They can also tell stories and convey emotion through the food they cook.
This dish isn’t fussy or constructed. Actually, it’s a fairly straightforward risotto. But the secret ingredient is beets, which imbue the risotto with a vibrant red hue. Beet greens and a sprinkle of basil leaves complement the red of the risotto.
The key to a good risotto is in the stirring (or so I’ve been told). Stirring helps release the starch in the rice, which lends a silky, luscious texture to the finished dish. Risotto, in a sense, makes a sauce for itself. We just add a few more ingredients to boost the flavor and enhance the creaminess.
Because you’ll be stirring nonstop, when preparing this dish (and when cooking in general), it’s a good idea to prepare your mise en place before you start cooking. Mise en place literally means “put in place”; it’s having all of your ingredients measured out, prepared, and ready to before you start cooking.
So much repetitive stirring can get a little tedious, but it can also be meditative, depending on how you look at it. If meditative isn’t your thing, use it as a chance to catch up on a favorite podcast.
This dish requires a little patience and persistence (and elbow grease), but it’s well worth the effort.
Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
7 cups vegetable or chicken stock
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ yellow onion, diced
2 garlic cloves
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine
3 medium beets with greens (can substitute chard or spinach for the beet greens)
Zest of 1 lemon
½ cup Pecorino Romano, grated
Handful of basil leaves, sliced thin
1. Prepare the beets. Separate the beet roots from the greens. Reserve the greens. Peel the beet roots and slice roughly into 1-inch pieces. Process the beet pieces in a food processer until shredded into small pieces. (If you’d rather get an arm workout, use the small holes on a box grater.) Set aside. Stack beet greens and slice into ½-inch ribbons. Set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a simmer.
3. In a large sauté pan with tall sides, heat 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until beginning to soften, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the rice, stir, and let it toast for a few minutes, until the edges become translucent and the grains crackle.
5. Add the wine and cook until it is absorbed, about a minute.
6. Stir in the shredded beets.
7. Add enough hot stock to just cover the rice. Let it simmer until the liquid is almost absorbed, stirring constantly.
8. Continue adding stock by the ladleful, stirring constantly, until stock is almost absorbed before adding more.
9. Just before the rice is finished cooking, stir in the beet greens.
10. Continue cooking until rice is tender but still al dente. (Note: the rice may finish cooking before you use all of the liquid. That’s just fine.)
11. Stir in lemon zest, remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and grated cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon risotto into bowls and top with a sprinkle of basil leaves. Serve immediately.