I had a moment of Zen tonight as I stood in my kitchen, slowly stirring my risotto. In the swirls across the slowly simmering rice and stock, my wooden spoon inadvertently began to trace an infinity symbol rhythmically around the pan. My mind emptied of the busy plans and daily worries as I stirred. I seized the moment and took in all that this simple experience had to offer.
I didn’t grow up with risotto on the menu, but I did grow up with two creative cooks in my life. Gramma had an amazing talent of making something nourishing and delicious out of whatever was available. She had a master plan for every part of every butchered cow, turning even the tongue and heart into delicacies. She used every fruit and vegetable that could be grown and exposed me to a seasonal palette of flavors from eggs cooked in maple sap during “sugaring” season to fresh garden tomatoes still warm from the vine that need nothing but a dash of salt and pepper to be a glorious lunch. In between were apple pies, elderberry pies, and vegetable soup dotted with spaetzle dumplings. My Dad was another culinary curator, with a special gift for adding any spice that could emerge from a cabinet or a jar and bringing flavor and fragrance into his nightly cooking. I drive 10 hours to visit now, in the hopes that my favorite spicy goulash or zested up macaroni and cheese will await my taste buds.
So, it should come as no surprise that my own cooking is seasonally inspired and infused with flavors. This week, I received a beautiful, huge butternut squash in my “bounty basket” from my CSA supplier. This, in combination with some garden fresh sage, inspired tonight’s risotto. I fired up my grill and added some apple wood to the smoker. I sliced the squash lengthwise, applied some olive oil, coarse ground crystals of smoked sea salt, and black pepper. I put it outside to grill while I came inside and chatted on the phone with my parents. After the length of our conversation, I brought the squash back to the kitchen to cool before dicing to add in the final moments of this dish. I diced up a sweet onion, two nice sized shallots, and finely diced about a dozen sage leaves. A box of arborio rice and a carton of chicken stock were already on the counter. I had a bottle of wine from a local winery that I had opened in hopes of sipping…but it hadn’t made the grade. So, that was added to the prep counter. I got out a hunk of parmesan and a grater, some olive oil and some salted butter. Wait..something more….yes, ground nutmeg.
Out came the big risotto pan, and finally I set up two glasses and an oversized bottle of Hardywood Singel. Upon opening the local craft brew, my spouse pulled up for a chat and some shared sips. We caught up on the week and shared stories that never find time to be told amid the busy pace of life. One ingredient after another, and the risotto started to take on its own life of scent and simmer. A dash of nutmeg, a few extra sage leaves, the slow and steady addition of spoonfuls of simmering stock…slow food and slow cooking to nourish the soul. As the grains reached their full potential of liquid absorption, and my spouse left to set the table, my thoughts melded with final melodic stirring to a place of stillness. At precisely the right moment, my awareness came back and I added the bit of butter and some grated cheese. This signaled the rice to stop absorbing, which would produce the finished creation.
Every grain of risotto, when cooked well, is bursting with flavor. It is a dish of potential energy and complexity that requires time and patience. The flavors must come together and the rice should cook steadily in the liquids added spoonful by spoonful. It requires time. It welcomes conversation. It allows the mind to drift. All these add to the complex flavor and experience of the dish.
Life takes time, and its ingredients need to be absorbed at a slow and steady pace. But awareness is the essential ingredient.
“Ten times a day something happens to me like this–some strengthening throb of amazement-some good sweet empathetic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”