Andrea Maunder, locovore, wine expert and pastry chef, is the owner and creative force behind Bacalao, a St. John's restaurant specializing in "nouvelle Newfoundland" cuisine.

Romance & Risotto

While thinking about what recipe to include in honour of Valentine’s Day this year, it occurred to me that risotto might just be the perfect romantic gesture. Requiring thoughtful care and 30 minutes of nearly undivided attention – a balance between stirring and adding stock – the result is a creamy, comforting and exquisite dish. So it really is the food of love, no?

Risotto is made from a short-grained Italian rice, usually Arborio, which is cooked slowly in an open pot, gradually adding hot stock while stirring almost constantly, coaxing the rice to give up its starch, which creates a rich, flowing dish. In properly made risotto, the rice grains remain separate, hold their shape and texture, and just give under the tooth – neither mushy nor too firm. Naturally, the flavour is important, but what makes risotto more challenging is texture – and that’s all about time…and timing. Risotto is a nearly blank canvas, so you can add all sorts of flavours. This recipe is classic, and elegant in its simplicity – perfect with the shrimp. The rice is widely available at supermarkets now: look for rice labelled Arborio or risotto. Don’t buy packaged, pre-seasoned or partially cooked risotto side dishes.

Because I want you to focus on a perfect risotto, I have created a foolproof, oven-roasted scampistyle shrimp recipe to serve with it. The original Italian dish, scampi, is made with langoustines, little lobstery crustaceans the size of very large shrimp or crayfish. In North America, scampi is typically made with shrimp, which are more readily available. It’s a simple but decadent dish, full of flavour. Use shrimp labelled “16/20,” which are the perfect size to cook this way in time with the risotto. (The numbers on a package of shrimp refer to the average number of shrimp in a pound. The lower the numbers, therefore, the larger the shrimp. For example, 16/20 means there are 16 to 20 shrimp in a pound, or 16 ounces, so the shrimp will be around an ounce each. Shrimp marked 8/12 are very large – nearly 2 ounces each.)

To get the timing right, prepare all ingredients in advance, and have the shrimp dish ready to go in the oven, before starting the risotto. Plus, be sure to set the table, cue the music and light the candles as everything will be ready 30 minutes later. Pour up a couple of glasses of wine and get cooking!

Fennel Risotto with Oven-Roasted Scampi-Style Shrimp
Oven-Roasted Scampi-Style Shrimp for 2

  • 1 lb large, raw shrimp (about 16/20 per lb, shells removed but little end bit of tail left on) 
  • 1/2 cup salted butter, room temperature 
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced 
  • 1 large shallot, minced Zest of one lemon 
  • 2 tbsp chopped, fresh parsley, plus more for garnish 
  • 2 tsp chili flakes 
  • 1/2 tsp salt Freshly ground pepper, to taste 
  • 1/4 cup white wine Lemon wedges, to garnish Crusty baguette, sliced (optional) 

Fennel Risotto for 2

  • 6-7 cups water Pinch saffron
  • 2-3 strips lemon zest, peeled off with a potato peeler 
  • 1/4 fennel bulb, finely diced (fern-like stalks reserved for stock) 
  • 2 tbsp olive oil 4 tbsp butter 
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely diced 2 bay leaves 
  • 1-2 sprigs fresh thyme 
  • 1 cup Arborio rice 
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced 
  • 1/4 cup white wine Salt and pepper to taste
  • Lemon juice to taste 
  • 4 tbsp grated Romano or Parmesan cheese 

Shrimp Into the room temperature butter, mix well the garlic, shallots, lemon zest, parsley, chili flakes, salt and pepper. Place in the centre of a large square of plastic wrap and form into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, 4-5 inches long. Roll up tightly and twist the ends to seal. Place in the freezer to chill.

Next, prepare the shrimp by removing the shell, except the last joint of the tail, and placing them in a single layer in a greased casserole dish. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350°F.

Risotto While the butter log continues chilling, prepare risotto ingredients – finely dice the onion, fennel and garlic; set aside. In a small saucepot, prepare the stock: simmer 6-7 cups water with the lemon zest, saffron and a handful of ferny top parts of the fennel. (You will use about 4 cups of stock; the extra cups allow for any evaporation.)

Shrimp When the butter is fully chilled, unwrap and slice 1/4" thick slices and dot all over the shrimp. Pour the white wine into the bottom of the casserole dish. Place the shrimp in the oven.

Risotto In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepot, on a burner set to medium-high, heat 1 tbsp each of the butter and olive oil. Add the fennel, onion, bay leaves and thyme and stir-sauté 3-5 minutes until translucent. Melt in another tbsp each of butter and oil and add the rice, stirring to coat.

Continue to stir the rice a minute or two, allowing it to toast the tiniest bit. The rice will begin to take on a translucent sheen – this helps keep the grains separate. Add the garlic and stir a moment. Stir in the white wine and let it bubble and evaporate. Reduce heat to medium and begin stirring in the hot stock, a ladle or two at a time, just until it barely covers the rice.

Continue stirring – this is important as it’s the stirring that creates the creamy texture we are after. Season as you go with a little salt and pepper, tasting and adding more to suit your taste. Add additional stock (one ladleful at a time) as the rice absorbs the liquid – neither allowing the pot to go dry nor adding too much liquid; you want to just see the top of the rice as you stir. Continue this process for 25-30 minutes: adding stock, seasoning and tasting. (Do not over-season with salt, since you will be adding salty cheese at the end.)

When the rice is very creamy and no longer crunchy, turn off the heat and add one more ladleful of stock. Remove the bay leaves and thyme stems. Add a squirt of lemon juice, the last 2 tbsp of butter and the cheese. (If the cheese thickens the risotto too much, stir in a little more stock. It should be flowing, not stiff.)

Shrimp Remove the shrimp from the oven. Garnish with a couple of lemon wedges and a scattering of chopped parsley.

Hustle it all to the table and serve on warm plates. Have crusty baguette slices on hand – your sweetheart might not be able to resist mopping up the juices from the shrimp casserole dish. Wait for your Valentine to take their first taste and prepare for the adulation. You just scored some serious romance points.

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