The US version of Hell’s Kitchen premiered on tv when I was twelve years old. Each week I sat in front of the tv in my parents’ bedroom to watch the Americanized caricature of Gordon Ramsay flail his arms in fury, spit flying from his face with every expletive hurled at a trembling line cook. I was mesmerized by it all- partly due to the fact that like many Americans that night, I enjoyed watching the public degradation of a person unfolding on television as a form of entertainment, but also because once in awhile there would be a moment of shaming in which Ramsay would brand golden rules of culinary wisdom that both viewer and shaking, hubris driven contestant would never forget.
The one that stood out to me the most during those Tuesday night television sessions was when someone hastily dropped a plate of risotto onto the expo table, hoping that Ramsay would be preoccupied yelling at someone else to notice its flaws before it went out. Me being in sixth grade at the time, risotto was only something I would see Giada make occasionally on Saturday mornings. I would later see Rachael Ray adopt it into her curriculum of 30 Minute Meals, exclaiming, “Risotto only takes 20 minutes!” between every shot as she fervently stirred her Rachael Ray branded skillet with her trademarked orange spoonula. Risotto was just something that kept popping up in food media, much to my disinterest as I wrote it off as nothing more than a dull, overly-tedious plate of rice. That was all until I saw Gordon Ramsay have his epic meltdown over the plate of stiff porridge that was presented to him on the expo table that Tuesday night.
Never before had I seen anyone so passionate enough to have such a breakdown over a plate of rice - I was suddenly enthralled and fascinated with how cooking such a humble grain could seems so finicky and easy to screw up, and I fell asleep with the scene of Ramsay shouting “IT SHOULD FLOW LIKE LAVA ON THE PLATE!” forever imprinted in my mind.
For the following year my oblivious twelve year old self attempted to make risotto at least once a month, each trial containing a myriad of errors: using long grain rice instead of arborio, undercooking the rice, using vietnamese pho broth because I was being lazy, or cooking it on such a whisper of a flame that after 40 minutes I was still left with a pan of starchy pebbles. With every failure, the grinch that was Ramsay kept shouting behind my ear, “IT SHOULD FLOW LIKE LAVA YOU DONKEY!”
I thus added risotto to the list of kitchen obstacles I never seemed to be able to master (which included macarons, cornbread, pancakes, and red velvet cake among other things), and gave it up indefinitely in pursuit of learning Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.
It wasn’t until I began working in a restaurant, when we put risotto on the menu for a short bit was I reminded of that scene that used to play in my head. Once I saw that flow of rice, still with a distinct bite in the center, and suspended in a starchy, unctuous emulsion fortified with butter and cheese, I went home that night and immersed myself in a risotto making frenzy. There’s a magical feeling that occurs when something that seemed so impossible to master suddenly happens so very easily, and as I spooned a creamy ladle of risotto built upon a base of bacon and seasoned with a punch of white miso into its warmed, awaiting bowl, I couldn’t help but feel like a domestic badass. A seared scallop, something I also picked up from work, with its underbelly composed of a golden sear topped off the risotto, which had now become nothing more than my own form of self gratification in a bowl. —Andrew Bui
- Serves 4
strips of bacon, roughly chopped
finely chopped leeks
chicken stock, kept warm on a burner
grated parmesan cheese
white miso paste
dry packed, U8-U10 diver scallops
- In a cold medium skillet, cook the bacon over medium low heat, until the fat renders out and the bacon becomes crisp in its own grease. Be patient - it will take a while. If you find that your bacon is starting to burn on the outside, you can add a splash of water to help facilitate the rendering process.
- Remove the bacon (keep the fat!) and add the leeks and shallots and two tablespoons of the butter. Season with salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Sweat them over medium-low heat until they are soft and translucent, approximately 10-15 minutes. There should be a soft, melodic sizzle versus the loud hiss of a saute.
- Now it’s time to toast the rice: boost your heat to medium, and add the arborio rice. Let it toast for 5-6 minutes (feel free to add more butter or olive oil if it looks dry). They should have a shiny slick from the fat, and begin to become gold around the edges. Add the white wine : you’ll see it hit the pan in a big puff of steam as it sizzles from the heat. This is when you start stirring - You don’t necessarily have to be stirring it every second risotto is on the stove, but it should be given a mix frequently.
- Once the wine has been absorbed (it’s pretty obvious, but a good indicator is that you’ll be able to see the bottom of the pan as you stir), it’s time to start adding stock in stages. Add enough of the warm stock to the point where you can see it bubbling around the rice (you don’t want to drown it - no more than a cup at a time should be perfect), and repeat the process of stirring until it’s been absorbed. Repeat this process over the next 15-20 minutes, until the rice is just shy of al dente - there really should be a considerable bite to each grain (but not enough for it to feel chalky). You should just barely be able to see the small core of opaque white. At this point add the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter, parmesan, peas, arugula, and the white miso. Once added, stir the pan vigorously to emulsify the risotto and to make it creamy. You may need to add a touch more stock to make it flow slowly like lava.
- When your risotto is five minutes out from being plated, heat a heavy bottomed pan (I like cast iron, but stainless steel also works) on high heat until you can begin to see it smoke. Pat your scallops dry and season with salt. Add enough oil to create a thin layer in the pan, and gently place in the scallops- I like to slowly lay the scallop down from one edge to the other to make sure the entire surface is in proper contact with the hot oil. Let it sit there for 2-3 minutes without moving it. If you start to see the golden crust start to creep up the sides of the scallop, it’s a good time to start checking your sear. If it looks good, flip your scallop and “kiss” the other side for 20-30 seconds (if we tried to sear both sides, the scallop would overcook - better to have an awesome sear and a perfectly cooked scallop versus a dried piece of tire). Blot the scallop of any excess oil before placing it on top of the risotto.
- Serve in warm bowls - you spent all this time making risotto, so don’t do a disservice to yourself by putting it a cold bowl. Top with a seared scallop and extra virgin olive oil and serve immediately, as the texture stiffens as it cools. Eat, and give yourself a high five.