In tenth grade, my English teacher assigned us a journal. Once a week, we were to write an entry about a page in length, and from what I recall it could be about whatever we wanted. Mine usually tended toward flights of fancy, as I wrote about elves or nature or about dreams I’d had. To my current shame but my then-pride, these were typically composed the morning the assignment was due, sometimes only in the class period just before English. My teacher, however, seemed to think my hastily penned essays were carefully considered marvels, even mentioning me once as an example to the class about how planning ahead and revising led to beautiful, crafted writing. I tried not to smirk.
One of these spur-of-the-moment entries discussed winter after Christmas: a season of sharp winds, unforgiving temperatures, and frost-slowed aspirations. It was dingy and cold, a harsh contrast to the joy-crammed, spiced festivity of the holiday-gone-by. As a high school student, winter after Christmas meant a return to school, so it’s no wonder I wasn’t enthused. Reflecting now, though, winter after Christmas feels a little different. Maybe it’s that I don’t go back to work until February, but winter after Christmas – winter after New Year’s, really – feels a bit more promising. I’m not talking resolutions, necessarily; I have those, but I’m not trying to turn my whole life around. Instead, it feels like an opportunity for some revising – the kind I never did on my writing as a high school student.
I’m sure you’ve noticed, but I haven’t done very well with this blog lately. So I’m not promising anything, because that sort of promise leads so quickly to disappointment or to shoddy, hasty products, but posting a recipe on January 7th does feel fairly promising, particularly after a disastrous fall/pre-Xmas performance.
As my high school self knew, this promising season is sometimes hard to see. It’s cold (at least colder than usual, yes, even in Southern California). The sun is steely and the sky sometimes threatens to open. But there are already small indications of warmth and growth and goodness to come. Some brave bulb plants have poked a curious tip or two of green above ground. For me, at least, the urge to organize has reared its head – look out, garage! And for my household, if you follow blackberryeating on Instagram you’ll already know there’s promising newness in the form of four speckled, brindled paws and a pair of liquid brown eyes. No one could ever replace Lucy, but this past weekend we welcomed a shy-but-affectionate little pup named Holly into our home and into the dog-shaped holes in our hearts. She’s a little shy about the big camera at the moment, but I’m sure you’ll be seeing plenty of her as she gets more comfortable.
So: post-Christmas chill but promising growth. You need something comforting with sparks of brightness. I decided on risotto: the warmth of creamy, just-cooked rice, fragrant with the stock and wine it has absorbed, punctuated by the vegetal freshness of whatever accompaniments you decide to stir in (and this seems to be a common thing for me, as seen here). As we’re working with a kind of winter-into-spring theme, I wanted vegetables that bridged the gap. Brussels sprouts stand in for the ragged roughness of winter, sturdy, but peeled into leaves and sliced so thin they become tender with only a minute or two of cooking. Leeks, my favorite member of the onion family, with their wintry white bulbs but supple, pale-green interiors, provide an aromatic bolster, made rich after a slow sweat in butter. Lemon zest to wake things up, and a generous palmful of dill to pull things forward into spring. Little tastes as springy to me as grassy, fresh, green-tasting dill.
We liked this as-is, but I could immediately see that a few perfect scallops, or a handful of shrimp seared with butter and lemon, would make a beautiful topping. So there you have it. Not a promise, but a dish that is, perhaps, promising. Promising of the season to come, promising of impending freshness and growth, and promising of good things on the horizon.
5-6 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable broth or stock
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, white and pale green parts only
2 cups short grain white rice
½ cup white wine
1 pound (16 ounces) brussels sprouts
zest of one lemon
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
salt and pepper to taste, which you will use to season throughout the cooking process
- Start by heating the broth or stock to a simmer in a medium pot. It will warm up faster if you put a lid on it. You might not use it all, but risotto lore affirms absorption will be better and the dish will be ready faster if the liquid is already hot.
- While the broth warms, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and the 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Prep the leeks by lopping off the roots, if there are any, and cutting off the very dark greens, which are quite tough. Split each leek section lengthwise, so you are left with two half cylinders. Run these under water, using your thumbs to separate the layers a bit and rinse away any grit within. Shake off the excess water, then return to your cutting board and slice each leek very thinly into little half-moon shapes.
- When the butter and oil have melted together, add the sliced leeks, a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and, stirring occasionally, let them sweat down and soften for 7-10 minutes. The goal here is not to brown them, but to cook gently.
- With soft, tender leek ribbons achieved, crank the heat up to medium high and add the rice all at once, stirring it into and through the vegetables and fat to coat it evenly. Let it toast, stirring gently, for 3-5 minutes. Then pour in the white wine and stir gently but consistently until the liquid is almost completely absorbed.
- Now starts the part of risotto making that people consider labor-intensive: turn the heat down to medium and begin adding the stock or broth about a cup at a time. With each addition, stir gently but firmly and frequently as the liquid absorbs. I don’t think you need to stir the whole time, but the more you stir, the creamier your end product will be. The first few additions of broth will seem to absorb very quickly, so more stirring is needed. After ten minutes or so, the broth will absorb more slowly, so you’ll have time for things in between.
- Once the absorption rate slows down a bit, you should have time to prep your brussels sprouts. Trim off a bit of the stalk end, especially if it is discolored, and peel away any wilted, yellowed, or discolored leaves. If you are feeling exceptionally patient, peel the sprouts into individual leaves. If you are feeling less patient, cut them into slices as thin as you can manage. Stir in the sprout slices and/or the leaves with your last addition of broth. Sprinkle in a bit more salt to account for the unseasoned veg you just added.
- When this final addition of liquid is almost absorbed, the rice should be fully cooked, with just a tiny bite, but not a crunch, in the center. At this stage, add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the lemon zest and juice, and the dill. Stir through, sample and add salt and pepper to taste.
- If you are adding seared seafood of some kind to round out the meal, serve by adding a scoop of risotto to a shallow bowl, then topping with the protein and, if you like, a final sprinkle of lemon zest and/or dill. If you are not adding anything, I’d still suggest a final sprinkle of zest and dill for punch and aesthetics. Serve hot.