Risotto has got to be the quintessential food for cooking with wine. Like us humans, this dish simply cannot thrive without wine; it is that perfect ingredient that makes the dish just sing.
Risotto comes from Italy; riso means “rice” in Italian. Rice was originally brought to the Mediterranean by the Saracens – Arab merchants who came to Italy in the Middle Ages to trade. By 1475, the Duke of Ferrara was writing letters looking for 12 sacks of rice for a big dinner party.
The Italians grew short-grain rice, which has a lot more starch than its long-grain counterpart. That starch is what makes risotto special; as the rice cooks in liquid, it releases that starch into the cooking fluids, turning them into a creamy substance. That’s really what lends the dish its richness.
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My winter risotto with roasted fennel and parsnips is a bowl of comfort on a cold day. The veggies make it extra hearty and give it some play on textures, which I always love. You can certainly add Parmesan cheese or goat cheese if you’re a little more adventurous, but I decided to go dairy-free with this one. Why not go the healthy route for January, right? The dish is almost as creamy without it.
Making risotto is a lot less intimidating than you might think. You’ll need:
- 1 onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 parsnips
- 2 fennel bulbs
- 1 ½ cups arborio rice
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 cups chicken stock
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Put 2 parsnips, peeled and sliced, in an oven-safe dish. In a separate dish, put 2 fennel bulbs, cored and sliced into thin strips. Add olive oil and salt and pepper to taste to both dishes, and put them in the oven. Roast at 425 degrees. The parsnips will cook faster than the fennel, which is why I like to put them in separate pans. The parsnips should be soft after about 10 minutes, and the fennel will need about 20.
Next, mince an onion and put it in a pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Fry the onion on medium heat until translucent. When the onions are translucent, add one and half cups of arborio rice. It is important to use short grain rice so that it will actually turn into risotto. Season with salt and pepper. Here’s a tip: I like to build up the flavor by seasoning at every step, rather than just at the end. This way when the dish comes together, the flavor has depth, plus a little something extra.
Stir the rice in the onions and oil until it becomes translucent around the edges. Then add half a cup of nice dry white wine. We have some recommendations below, but most importantly, make sure it’s a wine you would enjoy drinking — I don’t like cooking with a wine I wouldn’t drink. When the wine has cooked off, add half a cup of chicken stock. Stir occasionally, keeping an eye on the pan as the liquids cook off. When the liquid is absorbed by the rice, add another half-cup of chicken stock, stirring until that, too, is incorporated. Keep doing this until the risotto is done. You’ll know it’s done because there wont be anymore white kernel in the center of each rice kernel, but they wont be mushy, either. It takes about 3 cups of stock. It’s definitely a high-maintenance dish, but it isn’t difficult. If you add too much liquid, just wait a little longer; if you add too little, just add more sooner. Make sure to taste it frequently, too, so you don’t overcook it – it’s hard to come back from that.
When the rice is done, add your roasted veggies, some chopped parsley, and the cheese of your choice if you’re going that route. Serve immediately.
Now for the wine. You’re going to want to go light and crisp with fennel and parsnips. Since this recipe doesn’t call for butter and cheese, the risotto is going to be on the lighter side. A fuller-bodied white might be too heavy for the dish, though if you’re adding cheese, you could venture out in that direction.
I’d recommend you go with a Soave, both for making the risotto and for enjoying alongside the finished dish. From the Veneto region of Italy, this white wine goes perfectly with a crisp risotto. I’m going to recommend a bottle that actually isn’t labeled Soave, because winemaker Roberto Anselmi doesn’t agree with the rules of the DOC, but it’s a Soave nonetheless. You can’t go wrong with Anselmi; at an average price of $16, it’s reasonable enough to cook with, but still absolutely delicious enough to drink with your dish.
But once you’re done making your dish, you may find yourself wanting something a little more festive for sitting down to eat it. Light bubbles would also be a perfect pairing here. I’d recommend you stick with Italy here, but instead of Prosecco, go for a bottle of Ferrari sparkling wine. At $25, this bottle is still reasonable enough for a weeknight, and it will elevate your dinner.
Finally, Roero Arneis from the region of Piedmont in northern Italy is fruity and smooth, an ideal pairing with the parsnips and fennel. This one has an average price of $24, so you may want to save it for dinner and cook with the Soave.