Carrot Risotto (or, choosing whom you cook with)

top photo of carrot risotto

My brother hasn’t been in the car with us twenty minutes before I hear him say something in passing about a spring pea risotto he’s tried the week before, and before I can stop myself I’m exclaiming, “Risotto! I want to make risotto! How do you do it? Was it hard?”

Then, to Tim, “Remember our carrot risotto in California?”

photo of carrots

That risotto we’d had at La Bicyclette, the highlight of our meal and maybe our entire trip, was the kind of entrée you never forget, so even though I ask him, I know Tim knows it, too: a carrot risotto so creamy and buttery, so cheesy and comforting, so beautifully bright orange the way things hardly ever naturally are, that I heard at least three other bloggers say they would tackle this recipe when they got home.

Of course, I wasn’t one of those bloggers saying I’d make it later, just so we’re clear. I responded by saying how much I liked it, how warm and savory and amazing it was, but I didn’t dream of going home and trying it myself because, between us, risotto scares me. In my mind, risotto is great chefs and top restaurants and five-star reviews. It’s talent and skill and precision. There was a time, once, when I approached it, but the results were hard and bland and crunched when you took a spoonful, so Saturday, when we’re driving down the highway and I say, “I want to make risotto!” to my husband and my brother in the car, I don’t actually mean I want to make risotto. I mean that I want to eat risotto! and if it’s the La Bicyclette kind, preferably by the mixing bowl!

Because here’s the thing: risotto is hard. Risotto is fussy. Risotto isn’t something I can do.

But then my brother comes to town.

chopped onions and shredded carrots

You know, when it comes to the kitchen, the idea of cooking with other people, any people, may seem charming at first, but the truth is that not all cooks make good companions. You don’t have to share your kitchen many times before you see this is true.

There are cooks who will come into your home and take over, for example, leaving you stressed out and insecure even as they rearrange your spice cabinet. There are cooks who will second-guess you, who will comment on the weird way you hold the frosting bag while they take it out of your hands.

But then on the other hand, there are cooks like my brother, the kind who already know you so well that they are easy partners whatever the project. They come to visit and tell you about a risotto they made and make it seem so approachable and possible that before you know it, it’s Monday afternoon and you’re standing with them over arborio rice cooking on your kitchen stove, learning as you watch them, gaining confidence as you work together. These cooks aren’t common, but when you’re blessed to find them, give thanks—these are the people you want to cook with.

adam holding carrot risotto

And so it is that Adam and I are making risotto together, frozen stock thawing on the stove, my hands pressing buttons on the food processor to shred carrots, his hands chopping parsley on the cutting board. It’s not night yet, but the sky is darkening as storm clouds gather overhead, and the kitchen seems smaller and smaller as it grows more dim, so he flips on the overhead light above the stove; I close the blinds in the living room. He stirs the risotto, moving a long wooden spoon steadily through the rice and wine and carrots; I add stock, half cup by half cup, letting it soak in and be absorbed and change the rice to soft and plump and fragrant.

The two of us, who have been cooking together for as long as we’ve been cooking, work side by side in the entire process, like four hands in the same singular machine, a product of lifetimes of shared experience and kitchens and food. Even as it seems strange to be doing it now in Nashville, in my home, the one I share with Tim that’s eight hours away from where Adam and I spent most of our lives, it also seems familiar, just like Sunday afternoons making pizza in his Chicago apartment or weeknights baking cookies at Mom and Dad’s.

carrot risotto

Today, while we scoop ladles of risotto into bowls and sprinkle them with parsley and chopped carrots and Pecorino, I think how this person standing next to me has known me all his life and most of mine and how he’s been the first friend I talk to about decisions and passions and, two years ago, Tim.

I think how nice it is to cook with him because he knows me, so I can say to him, keep your eye on this and know he will; I can trust him to anticipate the next step, to catch something I miss; I can go to turn the pepper grinder just before we finish the risotto and, when it releases half a jar of whole peppercorns instead of a light sprinkling of ground pepper, I can count on him to laugh with me even while we have to laboriously pick peppercorn after peppercorn out of the simmering food.

After the last bit of stock has been worked into the pot, we take our bowls of risotto to the brown leather sofa and plop down, side by side, putting our feet up and flipping through movie trailers on Apple TV, and I feel so thankful for this brother who cooks with me, even as I feel thankful for the thing we’ve cooked, the thing I feared, the thing we eat spoonful after spoonful on the couch: risotto.

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Chicken Roulade

The truth is, I’ve been wanting to tell you about this chicken roulade recipe for over a week now—ever since last Tuesday, when I pulled chicken out of the fridge and wondered what to make for dinner. I’d gone through all the usual options in my mind, things I’ve had before, things I’ve made, but nothing sounded like it would be worth the high price tag of the Amish, antibiotic-free poultry I’ve been buying, nothing until this beautiful, impressive chicken roulade.

sauteeing nuts and cranberries

Chicken roulade, if you’ve never heard of it, is essentially rolled chicken: the meat gets pounded and flattened into a large surface area; topped with cheese and a filling made of greens, onions, dried fruit, and nuts; rolled tightly; tied up with string; browned and baked. When it’s finished, you slice the bundled breasts into slices stuffed with flavor and color, and it’s the kind of thing that makes you go wow.

chicken roulade filling

This version comes from the lovely Angela of Spinach Tiger: she’d posted it as an idea for a spring picnic back in April; I’m posting it as a weeknight dinner in December. That’s what’s great about this dish: it’s versatile. Not only is it timely year-round, but it’s also adaptable to the ingredients you like and/or have on hand, whether type of greens, nuts, dried fruit, or cheese.

browning chicken bundles

As for why it’s taken me more than a week to post here, all I can say is I’m sorry. I could say I’ve been busy, but then so are you, and you’re reading this. I could say it’s the holidays, but truthfully my family’s Christmas is pretty low-key. So the best explanation I can give you is the same one I’m always giving, it seems: I didn’t know what to say.

chicken roulade unsliced

I keep wanting to tell you about how things are going around here, I mean beyond chicken roulade for dinner, but the words just don’t come. Do you ever feel like that? Like you’re full of stories but speechless? Sometimes you just have to wait it out. But sometimes, in blogging at least, when you’ve already posted the series of photos to Flickr and already typed up the adapted recipe and then still have nothing else beyond that, you just admit it.

chicken roulade sliced

So it’s like this: If we were on the phone today, you and me, or sitting across a table, or pounding some chicken breasts together while we worked on dinner, this is what I’d tell you: right now, even as we do this, there are a lot of things I’m trying not to think about, things like worry and doubt that I feel like I fight more often lately. And I’d say there are other things, things like these, which I’m repeating to myself over and over again. I’d say I’m, as always, overwhelmed by good gifts, don’t misunderstand, but hey, how about you talk for a while? And you could do me the favor of telling me about your day and what you’re doing for Christmas and how much you’ve whittled down on your shopping list. We could also make roasted carrots—baked for about an hour with coconut oil and drizzles of maple syrup—and maybe a salad loaded with vegetables.

chicken roulade and roasted carrots

And then, when we were done, I’d say, let’s eat.

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because it’s not about that (chicken with tomatoes and simple salad)

lunch with Kim

I wish I were better at having people over.

Did you know etiquette suggests things like this: “Set the dining table the night before and cover it with a bedsheet [because] it is too nerve-wracking to do this an hour or so before your guests arrive”? I’d like to respectfully suggest that it’s too nerve-wracking to be that well-prepared. I am much more likely to be the person running to the grocery the morning of, picking up a bottle of white wine for the chicken recipe and some Parmesan (scratch that, I grabbed Pecorino) for the salad, laying out a tablecloth and slicing up the bread while also stirring the couscous and snacking on dark chocolate, and then, just when I’m standing over the stove, ready to put the raw chicken in the pan, the doorbell rings.

It’s a funny thing, being reunited with someone who used to know you, after years of living separate lives, and Friday, the first day of 2010, my old roommate Kim was at my door, which I answered with my apron still on, out of breath, hugging her and then leading her to the kitchen. She’d remember better, but I think my first few words were something like, “How are you? Did you have any trouble getting here? So, seriously, how do you catch up with someone you haven’t seen in almost six years? I want to know everything! But first, I have to grab something,” after which, I fell up the stairs.

Thankfully, Kim’s a better sport than an etiquette guidebook would be, and she not only stood right next to me while I pounded chicken cutlets, sauteed garlic in olive oil (then adding tomatoes until they puckered, at which point they’re set aside), added sage leaves and laid the flattened, floured chicken inside the pan in two separate batches, but she also helped, particularly when I added the white wine and tomatoes back into the pan, which sent bursts of steam and sizzle into the already-hot and windowless kitchen and I near panicked at the certain fear I must have been putting in her about lunch. I hate that I get so flustered, but if I had to do it, I am glad it was with her.

chicken with tomatoes

So back to the chicken: I owe the original recipe to Sarah of In Praise of Leftovers, a site I very much love to read, and she had adapted it from a cookbook by Tessa Kiros (the same woman who wrote Falling Cloudberries, whose milk-honey-and-cinnamon ice cream I enjoyed so much).

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trust me on this

asparagus salad

As far as vegetables go, asparagus is really something: tall, peaked in pretty tips, stalks cast in deep shades of green, with knobby dark-purple bumps along the sides shaped in tiny triangles. It has no fat or cholesterol, few calories, little sodium, as well as lots of potassium, folic acid, vitamins A & C and fiber. Plus, this time of year it’s just finishing up its two-month-long season, meaning it’s still pretty easy to find at your supermarket.

Of course, just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s fresh—a lesson I learned all too well on Saturday when I pulled out the bunch I’d grabbed the night before and, gasping, extended my arm as far away as possible from my face, hoping to minimize the oh-my-gosh-what-is-it-that-smells-like-death odor assaulting me. A return trip to the store—complete with thorough examining of every remaining bunch of asparagus, conversations with the produce man and the manager, obtainment of two brand-new bunches hidden away in the back cooler— left me confident of three things: 1) Fresh asparagus should not, ever, ever, smell like dirty socks left in a hamper, 2) Nor should it, for any reason, have yellow slime building up between stalks and 3) There’s a reason I spend so much time at Dominick’s: those people are nice.

asparagus salad

When you’re choosing asparagus at the store, don’t assume bunches are fresh just because they all look alike. Search for firm, bright green stalks with tightly closed tips, where the ends look freshly cut, not dried out. And, fun fact: the thickness of the stalks reveals how late in the season the vegetables have been harvested. Thicker stalks = beginning of season. Thinner stalks = later.

Now, if you love asparagus like I do, you’ll already know how good it is roasted in a white-hot oven, smothered in olive oil, when the skin blisters and absorbs all the oil’s fruity flavor. It’s also fantastic grilled over open flames or, boiled and chopped up into Saturday morning omelettes.

But can I make one more suggestion? If you have in your hands a fresh bunch of asparagus, you absolutely have to make this salad. Trust me on this.

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