Leek and Mushroom Risotto

The longer I eat gluten free, the more I realize that it’s not about depriving myself of anything.  It’s about realizing what’s best for me, and going with it.  In the last 5 weeks, I’ve eaten virtually everything I love.  Bread and cake are simply made from different ingredients than I was used to.  Likewise instead of digging into a giant plate of pasta, I’m digging into spaghetti squash or rice noodles covered with my favorite pasta sauce.  We’ve made vichyssoise and big gorgeous salads and lentils with salmon and even hot dogs.  What isn’t already gluten free can easily be found in gluten free varieties.  I’m constantly learning how the new flours in my life work.

But I have to admit that I’m a bit daunted by the prospect of cooking for other people.  I mean, my husband gets pulled along with me wherever I go. If I decided to go completely vegan, or paleo, or whatever…  He pretty much wouldn’t have a choice for what to do about dinner.

But I love, love, LOVE feeding people.  I suppose it’s the Italian half of me.  Food is love.  If I invite you to eat at my house, you’d better believe that I want you to enjoy every bite.  And that I’ve enjoyed immensely the act of feeding you.  Because every bit of what’s on your plate came straight from my heart.

We did have dinner with friends a couple of weeks ago, and they kept everything totally gluten free (and vegetarian, actually – and it was amazing).  Yet it’s my first instinct to think about all the things I can’t serve other people if I’m going to be eating with them.  I’m not sure why – generally speaking I’m sort of obnoxiously positive and upbeat – but I was dreading sharing my food with people who aren’t gluten intolerant.  What if they hated it?  What if they felt restricted by my new diet?

My friends Liz and Juan just had a baby last week, and we made plans to go visit them last night and bring them a meal.  Ideally I like to bring my new mom friends things that I love.  Things I love to cook.  Negative Nora decided to rear her ugly head and I started to think about all the pasta-based things I couldn’t make for a few minutes, before sitting myself down and shaking myself off and coming up with a better plan.


I grew up with the stuff, although my grandmother and mom usually just ended up sort of making a spaghetti/rice hybrid that was far less fussy than the “haute cuisine” risotto you find in cookbooks and fancy restaurant menus.  It’s an inexpensive dish to make, but incredibly satisfying (like its cousin polenta, also the star of fancy menus, the fact of which my grandmother could not stop laughing about when she was alive).  It’s flexible and easily adapted, doesn’t require a ton of ingredients, and can be made in batches big enough to feed an army.

The new momma requested no tomatoes or onions, so I found some leeks at Trader Joe’s (oh how I love that place) and created this incredibly flavorful side dish.  I served it with chicken breast pieces tossed in almond meal, salt, and lemon pepper and sauteed in a little oil.  Oh, and steamed asparagus.  Since I’ve been sort of obsessed with spinach and kale lately, I thought about serving it with garlicky wilted spinach or kale, but I wasn’t sure if so green a veggie would hit her newborn too well!

Risotto has a nasty reputation for being fussy.  I only stir mine once every couple of minutes, unless I’m feeling like babysitting it.  I was also making some gluten free biscuits to bring over for their breakfast, and sauteeing chicken, and steaming asparagus, when I was making mine.  Needless to say, it didn’t get much stirring.  It had a great texture.

Now, before you go all Tom Colicchio on me, I do watch my Top Chef.  And I knew how to make risotto well before that, thankyouverymuch.  I didn’t have a single second to spare when I made dinner the night we took it to our friends, so this photo was taken the next day, at my desk at work, of my leftovers (which is also why the photo looks like a crappy cell phone picture, because it is).  Rice has a tendency to seize a bit when it’s refrigerated, but rest assured that when it was newly cooked it was silky and pooled slightly on the plate.  Perfect.

The meal was lovely.  The new momma was happy and full (with lots of leftovers!), we got lots of baby cuddle time, and I could eat everything I’d made.  No one even commented on the gluten, because no one missed it.  I think that’s the trick to hosting friends.  Make food where no one will miss it if the gluten is gone.  End of story.

Which is good.  Because I’m having friends over tonight.  I’m serving up some Mexican food.  With dessert.  Gluten free, of course.  Wonder if anyone will notice?


Elisa’s Leek and Mushroom Risotto (serves 4 people)

  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 leek, cleaned carefully and with both ends cut off, cut into small pieces
  • 1 handful of brown mushrooms, cut into small pieces (about 1/4 – 1/3 of a carton)
  • 1 garlic clove, smashed
  • 1 cup arborio rice (and if you can find it, and have the time to cook it, you can get brown arborio rice, which is AMAZING and way more nutritious)
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 – 1 3/4 cups good chicken broth (please check your broth for malt/barley, as it’s in a lot of them, and isn’t gluten free!)
  • grated black pepper, to taste
  • a pinch of rubbed dry thyme or two pinches of fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup grated good Parmesan cheese (optional but yummy!)
The method of making risotto is the same no matter what your ingredients are.  Sautee your aromatics over medium heat a bit until they get soft, add your rice and cook it until it starts to turn opaque and smell a little toasty (not burnt), add your liquid and black pepper or other seasonings, and simmer until the rice is soft (usually about 20 minutes), adding more liquid if necessary.  That’s really it.  And you can honestly make risotto with any rice you want.  Arborio rice has a protein inside that will make the texture of your risotto smooth and creamy, so it’s always my preference.  But if you don’t have it?  Don’t sweat it.
I like to add my wine before my chicken broth, letting the rice cook in just the wine for a few minutes.  I don’t know exactly why – I just do.  If it makes you feel better, say that the alcohol-soluable flavors in the aromatics are released that way.  But you can use chicken – or veggie – broth only and it’ll still taste good.  Just…  Don’t use bouillon, ok?  That’s all salt and fake flavor.  You may as well cook your risotto in salted water.  Which you could.  But then it wouldn’t taste quite as nice.
Once you have this method down you can make risotto in any flavor combination you like.  Personally I’ve never made it with leeks before this week, but I’m going to again.  And top it with sauteed crispy leeks.  Because I can.  Often I’ll just make this with garlic, but any vegetable you like should work here, in just about any proportion (in other words, add the entire carton of mushrooms if you like them!).  Just be aware that if you’re using a quick-cooking vegetable like beans, you should wait to add them until you’ve cooked your rice for about 10 minutes.  If you’re using more durable vegetables such as onions, carrots, or celery, you’ll want to add them to the pan before the rice.
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