Caramelized Onion & Red Pepper Risotto

I cook in order to relax.  After a long day, chopping, combining ingredients and creating something that is both nourishing and satisfying makes me feel good.  I love to stand at the stove, zone out on what has happened all day and stir whatever is in my pot.  A glass of wine in one hand, a wooden spoon in the other – there is something so calming about that. 

I’ve never really thought about the why behind stirring from a culinary point of view.  I mean, I knew stirring was a way to make sure the ingredients browned on all sides.  And of course it served me well when I needed to mix ingredients together, but beyond that, it was just soothing.  And I certainly never thought about why not to stir something on the stove.  

That was about to change.  My friend Ania had been after me for months to take a cooking class with her.  She knows my passion for cooking, and recently had taken some cooking classes at a local kitchen boutique.  During her last class, called “Girls’ Night Out”, the students came amazingly close to ordering pizza because they were too busy drinking wine and not busy enough cooking.  (Ania, like me, is no stranger to wine or cooking.)  After hearing that anecdote, I was game!  This combined two of my favorite things – cooking and wine. 

Finally, Ania & I found a mutually convenient time and off we went to Chef Elizabeth’s class.  The menu looked great – salad with orange & fennel, porchetta, risotto with caramelized onions & red peppers, and for dessert, tiramisu.  We arrived early so we could enjoy a glass of wine and mingle with the other students.  Many of the them were return guests who knew Chef Elizabeth and her hot buttons.  They didn’t mention anything to us about her “rules.”  In retrospect, maybe they didn’t see it as a big deal, but really, how could they not understand the immenseness of what we were about to hear!

From the beginning, Chef Elizabeth emphasized to us that we had to have a culinary reason to stir.  You see, she is a non-stirrer.  OK, maybe non-stirrer is a tad harsh.  But, she doesn’t stir to relax herself, or to have something to do with her non wine glass carrying hand.  No, she only stirred with reason.  I knew trouble was circulating when she said that she’s actually had to slap hands away from wooden spoons.  That would surely be me and I was terrified – I went to Catholic school where nuns taught with rulers. 

I thought I was saved when I reviewed the menu.  We were making risotto.  Isn’t risotto famous for having to be stirred constantly???  Turns out that the answer to that is yes…….. and no. 

To start the risotto, as the name suggests, the onion and red pepper needed to be caramelized.  I knew this was going to be the hard part when Chef demonstrated.  She put the onion and red pepper in the pot with butter, and walked away.  She didn’t even stir to combine the ingredients!  We were working in teams of 6, so I tried to let someone else take the lead on this.  However, 2 minutes later I found myself behind the stove by the onions and red peppers.  I had to put my non wine glass carrying hand in my pocket so I didn’t get hit by the ruler, uh, I mean, wooden spoon.  But I didn’t stir!  Score one for me.  I followed the directions. 

One thing you should know, if your onions and peppers are in a pot, on the stove, over fairly high heat, they can stick to the bottom and burn.  Yes, I know this first hand.  This also taught me that holding hard and fast to a rule is not the way cooking works, especially in a savory recipe.  A good reason to stir is to cool something in your pot.  So while I was drinking wine and not stirring, our onions burned.  Don’t worry, there was an easy fix.  We just switched out the pot with a new one and kept going.  If you do this at home, no one else will ever know you burned anything – except whoever has the unfortunate job of doing the dishes.  The second time around, I watched more closely and stirred at the right time, which was exactly the point Chef Elizabeth was trying to make with her non-stirring ways.  The other good news is once you add the arborio rice, a great way to create the creamy goodness risotto is known for is to stir.  So yes, I got to stir for about 10 minutes straight.  I was in heaven. 


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