In college I sang in a jazz combo with 5 guys. Besides me singing, we had piano, bass, drums, saxophone, and trumpet/flugelhorn. We all got course credit at the university for being in the jazz combo, but we spent most of our time getting little gigs around town, maybe at a fancy tailgate party or a wedding reception. Even though the pickins were slim when it came to hiring a jazz band in Waco, we were pretty baffled as people continued to hire and pay us with actual money.
When I look back at myself, I think I was really brave. I grew up with a paralyzing fear of public speaking. It’s kind of remarkable that I worked up the courage to stand up and, not talk, but SING in front of people on a regular basis.
Still, on gig days, I became a sort of monster-robot version of myself. My friends would ask me for simple things, like, say, directions to my gig. My reply? “Sighhhhhh. I just — can’t.”
Friend’s face: o.O
Me: “I have a gig. I can’t think about that. Should have asked me sooner.” (what a jerk!)
On gig days, I went into this hyper efficient zone. No extra talking. No caffeine. Lots of water. No ice in my water. (Don’t want the vocal cords seizing up). Cough drops galore. Don’t talk too much. (Trying to memorize lyrics over here). Three hours blocked off for making sure I can tame my hair. Double- and triple-checking that the monitor rental is available. Three-hole punching everything. So many lists.
I call it Performance Crandle Syndrome, or PCS.
Really, PCS didn’t just hit on gig days. After a while, it was a near constant. Before a concert I did where I sang “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in harmony with two other girls, my poor husband Shorty (then boyfriend) heard the same eight bar solo hundreds of times. He would walk around the house with this crazed look on his face just muttering, “boogie woogie boogie. woogie.” And that’s the issue with PCS. It doesn’t just affect Crandle; it has repercussions for everyone in the near vicinity.
That’s why, for my husband, my early days of cooking were rather…stress riddled. Even if he got to reap the benefits of my compulsive college cooking, he really earned it by fielding my PCS.
The first time I had risotto was the first time I cooked it. I had read that risotto was a creamy rice dish; starchy and slow-cooked, it was the best dish born of Italy’s low and slow mentality. When I couldn’t find the dish being served anywhere in Waco, I decided to just make it myself. I had read and read about the wonders of risotto and the rituals surrounding its preparation. All the recipes I found started with a sort of disclaimer. “Making risotto may seem like an insurmountable task, but with a few tries…” or “Risotto is worth the extra work it takes…” or “There is no exact way to cook risotto, because so much depends on atmospheric variables, but overcooked risotto is a special kind of torment.” Things like that meant I had prepared and prepared, and I was going to do everything. exactly. right. I was a wreck, and Shorty suffered through my PCS with me.
Fastforward to 9:14pm. There’s Shorty, wine glass in hand, wooden spoon in the other, sweat dripping down his neck as he leans over a steaming dutch oven. He lets the spoon rest for a moment to scratch his forehead. Immediately I’m on him. “I don’t hear a spoon! Stir CONSTANTLY, the recipe said!” Back to blanching asparagus.
I can save you and your loved ones from all that. Unlike preparing for a jazz gig, making risotto can be fun and stress free. You don’t have to get all the notes right..ahem…I mean, you don’t have to stir for every second of 40 minutes, and no one is going to swoop down and tell you you didn’t interpret it well. There is so much bad risotto out there in restaurants; your version is going to be better. Believe me.
No matter what version of risotto you’re making, you’re going to follow the same basic steps:
1. Sauté the aromatics. That means you sweat some combination of onions, garlic, and maybe herbs to make the flavor base.
2. Toast the rice. It’s important to toast the rice in the pan when preparing risotto. It has to do with the way the rice releases starches.
3. Cook off some alcohol. Whether it’s white wine or vodka, adding and cooking off a quality libation will add a depth of flavor and aroma.
4. Stock, stir, repeat. Most of making risotto is adding the simmering cooking liquid to the rice in spoonfuls, stirring to release starches and only adding more liquid when what you have has absorbed. Cooking the rice this way instead of just boiling it changes the way the starches develop and gives risotto its signature creamy texture.
5. Serve immediately. Paramount importance! Rice keeps cooking as you let it sit. Leftover risotto is best transformed into fritters or something. Don’t miss the moment.
What all this means is that you don’t need to panic, and that the only way to make perfect risotto every time is to taste it frequently. I repeat: taste the risotto to tell when it’s ready. When it’s done, it will be creamy and starchy, with just a little bite. It won’t stick in your teeth, but you’ll be able to define each rice grain in your mouth. Sorry if that sounded gross.
Pro tip: Add salt at the end. As the stock reduces, it salts the rice. Don’t want to overdo it.
Dandelion Green and Spring Onion Risotto
Serves 2-4 (2 as an entree, 4 as a side, or 2 lunches with leftovers for fritters!)
1 cup spring onion, white and light green parts, sliced thin on a bias
2 garlic cloves, sliced thin
¼ cup vodka
1 cup arborio (or other risotto) rice
4-6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 cups dandelion greens, any tough stalks removed, chopped in 1- or 2-inch pieces
½ cup spring onion, dark green parts, sliced thin on a bias
½ cup freshly-grated parmesan cheese
Salt & fresh-cracked black pepper
Juice of 1 lemon
Extra virgin olive oil
1. In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a gentle simmer. (Keep the lid on, fool! Don’t want your liquids evaporating!)
2. In a heavy bottomed pot or Dutch oven, sauté spring onion over medium heat for 3-5 minutes, until sweating and translucent. Add garlic and sauté for another 1-2 minutes.
3. Raise heat to medium-high. Add rice and toast until the rice is just beginning to stick (stir near constantly).
4. Deglaze with the vodka, making sure no rice is sticking to the bottom of the pan. Stir frequently, until vodka is fully absorbed.
5. Begin adding stock to rice, 1 or 2 ladlefuls at a time. Each time rice absorbs the stock, add a few more ladles. Stir very frequently. This stage can take anywhere from 15 – 30 minutes, depending on how dry your climate is. When rice is just beginning to soften but still very chewy, add the dandelion greens.
6. Continue adding broth a little at a time until the rice is almost finished. You’re looking for a creamy texture with a tiny bit of bite left in the rice grains. It shouldn’t stick in your teeth, but it should not be mushy. It can take anywhere from 5 – 15 more minutes to finish this process, depending on your climate, your stove, etc., etc.
7. When ready, remove from heat and add most of the sliced spring onion (green parts) and most of the parmesan cheese. Taste and season for salt. Season with a few squeezes of the lemon, just to deal with any extreme bitterness in the dandelion greens. Stir and serve immediately, sprinkling with more parmesan cheese and the remaining green onion. Drizzle with olive oil. EAT IT NOW.