Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pancetta and Bay Scallop Risotto

 I love to cook Italian food!  More than any others, it seems that Italian cooks know how to make something truly extraordinary from the ordinary.  Italian cooking methods can be so economical.  Some recipes really do make "something from nothing"! Risotto is a perfect example.  Simple ingredients such as rice, broth, butter, and cheese combine to make a saucey, creamy mixture that almost everyone loves!  Sometimes, the investment for making something from nothing is attention, and that's the case with risotto.  It really takes only 20 minutes from start to finish, but you have to "be there" for it all the way.  But, this attention has a tasty payoff!  Risotto costs very little in ingredients (unless you want to top it off with truffles!), but the sum is defintely bigger than its parts!  The moist, rich texture combined with the slight bite of the al dente rice is terrific enough to be the main course (in America), or it can be a most wonderful side dish that elevates whatever it's next to on the plate to a "company" meal. 
Just about anything can be added to risotto:  vegetables, meats, seafoods, and all sorts of combinations.  It's delicious plain, with just butter and parmesan cheese added at the end.  This time, there were fresh looking bay scallops at the market, but they were rather pricey.  The nice thing about a risotto though, is a small amount of something can be made into a meal, so I bought some.  Scallops, like a lot of things, taste great when paired with pancetta and again, a little goes a long way.  I picked up a small amount and headed home with my treasures.
Now, here's the thing.  You are going to be stirring and tending the risotto for 20 minutes, but it's so good, the rest of your meal can, and should, be extremely simple.  I served mine with some toasted bread and sliced, summer tomatoes with a little sprinkling of basil.  Whatever you decide to serve, make it before you start the risotto.  Once your rice is at the perfect point, you'll want to serve it asap!
Here's the other thing-- the secret!  While everyone is admiring your cooking dedication, standing over a hot stove to provide a delicious treat for them, what you really have is 20 minutes to think, daydream, sing, work out a physics problem, or whatever-- all to yourself!  Someone else needs to watch the baby, feed the dog, help with homework, vacuum....-- you're busy with the risotto!  Once your family has had your wonderful dish, they'll treat this responsibility with great respect and there you are-- stirring away at your stove at the most hum-drum, "boring" activity, while your mind slips away peacefully to.... "Italia!" :)

Pancetta and Bay Scallop Risotto (serves 4 generously as a main dish, recipe can be halved)

1 cup chicken broth combined with 4 cups water
2 Tbl. finely chopped onion
2 thick slices pancetta (tell the deli guy #10 slice-- it's about 1/3 inch), diced
3/4-1 lb. bay scallops, patted dry with paper towels
2 Tbl. vegetable oil
1.5 cup raw Italian Arborio rice (there are other risotto rices that are fine-- this is the most common in my grocery store)
*1/2 rounded cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbl. butter
salt and pepper

Put the diluted chicken broth in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer on the stove.  In a non-stick frying pan,  pour in the 2 Tbl. oil, and cook the pancetta with medium heat until it has released some of its fat and has taken on a little bit of color.  Remove the pancetta to a small dish and set aside.  Drop in the scallops, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and saute until just translucent.  They will release quite a bit of liquid-- it's okay.  Take out the scallops and put the pancetta back in the pan (use the same dish for the scallops).  Add the onion and the rice and stir around with the pancetta for a minute or two.  The rice will absorb the scallop liquid.
Now, comes the fun part!  Ladle in about 1/2 cup of the simmering chicken broth into the pan.  Look at the clock or set a timer because it will probably take 20 minutes for your risotto to be perfectly al dente.  Stir the mixture gently around, making sure you get to the edges of the pan and keep everything moving.  The heat should be a low-medium so that everything is simmering gently.  As the broth gets absorbed, add more and stir gently.  When you've used up the broth, add the liquid in the dish that has collected from the scallops.  You should keep the mixture moist and creamy at all times.  If you run out of liquid, you can add warm water, but don't add too much liquid at the end.  Your finished product should be soft and creamy, but not runny.  You should be able to eat it with a fork.  Anyway, when there are about 3 minutes to go, taste a couple grains to make sure they are cooked enough-- they should be firm to the bite, but not hard at all in the middle.  If you're at that stage, add the scallops, stir for a minute, then add the cheese and butter, stirring well.  Taste for seasoning.  Serve immediately!

*Traditionally, no Italian recipe would include cheese with seafood.  However,  I've found that it is particularly delicious in this dish and adds a lot to it's overall taste.  I justify it because the dish also contains pancetta, which is almost always combined with cheese.  But really, there aren't any risotto police-- at least not in the USA!  

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