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There are certain recipies or whole categories of cuisine that I find intimidating to the point of aversion. Yeasted breads. Roast turkey.  Macarons. Pretty much anything that  should be pronounced with a French accent, actually.  The thought of making a souffle is enough to make me dizzy and reach for a cake box mix.

I kid, of course. Like I’d reach for  a box mix!

But souffles do spark a quiver of dread in my belly.

Risotto used to fall into the “I don’t dare to try it” category as well. For some reason the concept of risotto seemed shrouded in mystery, something that you needed to be an iron chef to attempt, unless you wanted to serve up a congealed lump of goo for dinner. Something little ole me should definitely avoid.

Until I spotted arborio rice at Trader Joe’s (oh, those glory days in California when I shopped at TJ’s every weekend!) and on a whim I bought it. And then, one day when I must have been feeling particularly brave, I made it. This here recipe was my first attempt.

And it was a revelation.

First of all, it was delicious, and second, it was easy! Time-consuming? Yes. After everything is prepped, it will take over thirty minutes to cook, and all of that time is hands-on. Needy and demanding? Ok, yes. You have to stand over the hot stove and stir, stir, stir until it’s done. You have to add liquid at the right time, and you can’t walk away for more than a quick moment or bad things might happen. But. You get all the ingredients prepped and ready to go, you get the broth nice and hot so it doesn’t stop the cooking process every time it’s added, and then it’s actually pretty easy. It’s just a lot of stirring, people.

So here’s how it works:

Get some leeks. Slice off the tough dark green parts along with the roots. Slice them in half and wash really well. Dirt likes to hide in between all those pesky layers.

All clean!

Slice ’em up. The recipe says “finely chop,” so I guess you could cut them longways a couple of times first, but… meh. This worked for me. They kind of melt away by the end, anyway.

Put all the leeks in a bowl and set aside…

Measure out the rice and set that aside. (Seriously. This will make your life a lot easier when you get in the thick of it.)

You’ll also need these… (and black pepper, but the picture looked better without it). And please note my salt cellar. I love it. And it was cheap! Crate and barrel, baby.

Zest the lemon… I got just over 2 teaspoons from this lemon. Also, I don’t like my zester much. I need a microplane, I think.

Drain your artichoke hearts. (Oh little artichoke hearts, why did I wait so long to discover how tasty you are?)

Next, whip out your skillet, pot, or – if you’re lucky enough to have an awesome professor from college send you a risotto pan for a wedding present – your jazzy red cast iron enameled risotto pan.

Don’t forget to heat up your broth! I forgot to take a picture of that… *fascinating* step.

Heat up some olive oil and sautee the leeks until they just start to turn golden. Then add the zest and the garlic and sautee a bit more.

Toss in the rice and toast for a couple of minutes, until the rice turns clear at the edges but has a little bead of white at the center.

Now the fun begins! Ladle in some of the hot broth and stir, stir, stir, until it’s all absorbed. Then ladle in a bit more and stir, stir, stir. Then a bit more broth, and more stirring. You get the idea.

Whenever I make risotto (and that’s pretty frequently, now that I’ve realized how simple it is!) I feel like I’m massaging the liquid into the rice at the same time I’m massaging the creaminess out of the rice. Just be patient, let the liquid absorb, and add more. It’ll take 20-30 minutes. You’re looking for the rice to be cooked through but with a little bite in the center – not hard, and not mushy.

When it’s done, stir in the artichoke hearts and then the cheese.  (Marscapone is expensive when all you need is a few tablespoons, and it goes bad fairly quickly. I use freshly grated parmesan because it keeps well in the fridge and it tastes way better than the pre-grated stuff. Actually what I used is asiago, which is even cheaper than parmesan but just as tasty.)

I’m sorry for this terrible picture. The lighting in my house stinks, and of course I had no shot at getting natural light when I don’t get home until 5:30! But risotto isn’t all that pretty to photograph anyway. Meh. Anyway, when it’s all done, serve it up with some freshly grated cheese on top.

That wasn’t too hard was it? All that fuss and fear for nothing, it turns out.

Hm, maybe I’ll try my hand at a souffle next…

Leek and Artichoke Risotto

2-3 large leeks, white and light green parts finely chopped (1 1/2- 2 cups)

2-3 tsp olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

2-3 tsp lemon zest

1 cup arborio rice

3-4 cups chicken/vegetable broth or water (I often use a combination)

1 14-oz can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained and chopped (8 small-medium hearts)

salt and pepper

2-3 tbsp mascarpone (or parmesan) (or asiago)

Bring vegetable stock to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Reduce to a simmer and cover.

Sautee leeks in olive oil in a large pan or Dutch oven over medium heat until slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and lemon zest and sautee for 1 minute.

Add rice and allow to toast, while stirring, for 2-3 minutes. If the grains were white, they should now be more clear with a bright white dot in the center.

Add vegetable stock in 1/2 cup additions, adding more each time the prior addition has been absorbed by the rice. Stir frequently or continuously. Keep adding broth until rice is tender. It should take approximately 3 1/2 cups and take 25-30 minutes.

Stir in artichoke hearts (and lemon juice, if you decide to add some) and add salt and pepper to taste. Cook until artichokes are warm, then remove from heat.

Stir in cheese and serve.

Serves 3 as a main, 4 as a side.

I love soup, especially brothy soups full of veggies and interesting flavors. Those kinds of soups fill me up without making me feel heavy. It’s comfort food without all the guilt!

I remember the day the issue of Everyday Food with this recipe came in the mail, and that’s because I was salivating over the minestrone soup. I’m always excited when EF arrives, and I generally sit down and tear through it right away, making a mental catalogue of all the things I need to make IMMEDIATELY.  When I thumbed over to the recipe for this soup, I thought: Oh. Oh my. Yes. It’s chock full of veggies and flavors, and it comes with a full page of alternative ingredients. Don’t want to use a potato? Maybe butternut squash would suit your fancy. Not a fan of cabbage? Try kale or Swiss chard! I was impressed with all the options and couldn’t wait to play around with the various combinations.

Now, months and months later, I finally got around to making it. My only regret: that I waited so long to bring this delicousness into my life. The soup is robust and satisfying. We definitely didn’t miss meat with this meal. The red pepper flakes give it just a touch of spiciness to keep things interesting.

And the toasts. Oh, the toasts. I got the idea from Tyler Florence’s Ultimate cookbook, from his recipe for minestrone soup (which looks awesome, by the way). They’re super simple and oh-so-tasty. Slices of baguette + butter + a healthy dose of freshly grated parmesan cheese, popped under the broiler for a few minutes. They make a great accompaniment to the soup, and I imagine they would to a lot of other dishes as well. We used sesame semolina for the first loaf, and a baguette for the second (what can I say, this makes a lot of soup so we needed a lot of bread. And the cheese toasts are so good, you can’t have just one.) and I think I liked the semolina better – the nuttiness of the sesame seeds really complimented the nuttiness of the parmesan cheese.

Classic Minestrone

From Everyday Food, October 2008

Serves 6

Prep Time: 30 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour

2 T olive oil, plus more for serving (optional)

1 medium red onion chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and diced

1 large celery stalk, diced

1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary, or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1 can (14.5 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, drained and finely chopped

1 large potato, peeled and diced

1/4 head Savoy or green cabbage (1/2 pound, cored and thinly sliced

1 can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, rinsed and drained

1/2 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch lengths

1 garlic clove, minced (optional)

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil, plus torn leaves for serving (optional)

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

In a lage pot, heat oil over medium. Add onion, carrots, celery, red pepper flakes, rosemary, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion begins to turn golden, 5 to 8 minutes.

Add tomatoes; cook until some of the liquid evaporates, 1 minutes. Add potato, cabbage, cannellini beans, and 7 cups water; bring to a boil. Stir in green beans.

Reduce to a simmer, and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper; stir in garlic, if using, and basil. Serve sprinkled with Parmesan and, if using, more oil, if desired.

Alternatives:

Replace green beans with 2 cups diced zucchini or summer squash

Replace potato with 1/2 cups peeled, seeded, and cubed butternut squash

As an extra vegetable, use 1 1/2 cups frozen peas (add to soup after 15 minutes of simmering in step 3)

Instead of cabbage: kale, tough stems removed and thinly sliced; or escarole, trimmed and thinly sliced, or Swiss chard, trimmed and thinly sliced

Instead of cannellini beans, try a 15 ounce can of another variety, drained and rinsed: Kidney beans, chick peas, or pinto beans

What I did:

I used butternut squash instead of a potato, zucchini and summer squash instead of green beans, Swiss chard instead of cabbage. I also used 4 cups of chicken broth and three cups of water rather than 7 cups of water (7 cups of water just sounded awfully… watery). And we thought one can of cannellini beans was not enough, so the second night I added a can of kidney beans, and I really like having two types of beans in the soup.

Eek, it’s been a long time! The Christmas season was busy busy busy. I baked up a storm of cookies and sent them in packages to my parents and my sister. Then there was a second flurry of baking so I could bring several different kinds of cookies with us to California when we went to spend the holidays with James’ family. We had two delightful weeks in California, and now that the holidays are safely behind us, I can get back to blogging without going crazy.

This cake has been on my mind ever since Deb of Smitten Kitchen (the most beautiful and drool-worthy food blog out there, in my humble opinion) posted it back in July. July! I can’t believe I waited that long to try it. I originally wanted to make this for my birthday in October, but James and I went to a charming bed and breakfast in New Hampshire that weekend for some leaf-peeping, and to make things easier on myself I whipped up a batch of vanilla cupcakes.

My apologies to Deb for the blatant and amateurish mimicry of her astonishing, peerless photography.

Anyway, I’ve been craving this frosted, delicious cake for a long time now, and it didn’t let me down. Deb says this cake will work every time, and I believe her. It went together easily and baked up beautifully (I may have overbaked it just a smidge but it doesn’t seem to have suffered for it).

Deb used a chocolate sour cream frosting with this cake, and recommends a fast fudge frosting as an alternative. I chose to go with the fudgy frosting because I was hesitant that the sour cream frosting might be too sour for my taste. I’m glad I did, because this frosting is awesome. It whirls together in a food processor in a flash, and when it’s room temperature it is light as air.

The cake is also light and airy at room temperature, but I found that I like them both much better when chilled. The cake seemed denser (I’m a big fan of dense – but not heavy – cakes) and the frosting went from mousse-like to fudge-fudge-fudgy. Yum!

Yellow Layer Cake

Yield: Two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers, and, in theory, 22 to 24 cupcakes, two 8-inch squares or a 9×13 single-layer cake

4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line with circles of parchment paper, then butter parchment.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just Incorporated.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. (Deb recommends dropping it a few times from two inches up, which worked wonderfully.) Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then run a knife around edge of pan. Invert onto rack and discard parchment, then cool completely, about 1 hour.

Instant Fudge Frosting

Makes about 5 cups (I generously frosted my cake and still had a ton left over!)

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled
4 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar (no need to sift)
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
6 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse to incorporate, then process until the frosting is smooth.

Don’t rush to the frosting step! I don’t think my layers were completely cool when I started slathering on the frosting. It was fine until after I cut out our slices, and I saw that the frosting in the middle was getting melty and oozing out. I popped it into the fridge to stop the melt, and the next day was when I discovered how tasty this cake is cold!

This slice was supposed to be just for the photo shoot while I had good light, and I swore I was going to put it back and wait until after dinner to eat it. You can see how well that plan went!