Friday, July 9, 2010

Asparagus, Mushroom and Green Peas Risotto

Knowing a food critic is dining in the restaurant, 'everthing improves: the seating, the service, the size of the portions.' Therefore, the one thing a food critic really needs - in addition to a healthy appetite and a willingness to sample different foods - is anonymity.

As a seasoned restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl is very aware of this. But she also learns, much to her dismay, that even before she has occupied her desk as food critic for The New York Times, the restaurants in New York have been gathering all information on her. Reportedly, they even have her picture posted in the kitchen with cash rewards offered for adavance intimation of her visit.

Under such circumstances, how does she ensure that she gives her readers an objective and unbiased view of the restaurants she's eating in?

The book club pick for June, Garlic and Sapphires: The secret life of a food critic in disguise, tells just how Ruth Reichl manages to hoodwink the restaurateurs - with the help of one of her mother's friends, she disguises herself - thereby giving the masses an honest insight into what they could really expect from the total experience of dining out.

"You shouldn't be writing reviews for the people who dine in fancy restaurants, but for all the ones who wish they could."

In keeping with that line of thought, the disguises she dons are very representative of the ordinary diner: she starts off as Molly, a meek, former school teacher, then, she is Miriam, inspired by her own cantankerous and opinionated mother. There is also Chloe, a sexy, divorced blond, Betty, an old spinster who no one pays much attention to; her favourite is Brenda a warm -hearted and friendly red-head, and she is most horrified by the brusque and unkind Emily. The disguises are more than just outward appearances - each has a personality of her own and with every disguise she dons, she learns something about herself.

She eats in fancy schmancy restaurants and smaller, lesser known ones with equal enthusiasm and derives as much satisfaction nibbling on foie gras as she does slurping on soba noodles, much to the chagrin of some colleagues and readers.

The city was filled with people who did not think that Shanghai dumpling parlors, Korean barbeque places, and sushi bars merited serious consideration. They did not want these restaurants taking up the space that properly belonged to the French, Italian and Continental establishments they were accustomed to seeing reviewed in their Friday morning paper. But I was determined to give Asian, Indian and Latino restaurants the respect they deserved.

Garlic and Sapphires is an extremely entertaining and insightful read into the world of a restaurant critic. The one thing I particularly liked was that Reichl minces no words when she talks about the restaurants she reviewed, her colleagues or even herself. What makes the book particularly appealing is the way the stories about her various disguises are interspersed with actual restaurant reviews and some recipes. Now, if only she'd included pictures of herself in all those disguises!

With so much food on almost every page, coupled with some very interesting recipes, deciding what to make wasn't very easy. In the end, I zeroed in on the risotto simply because I hadn't made any in a long time!


Arborio rice: 3/4 cup

Onion: 1 medium sized, finely chopped
Garlic: 1 clove, finely minced

Mushrooms: 10-12, chopped
Green Peas: 3/4 cup
Asparagus spears: 10-12

White wine: 1/2 cup (at room temperature)
Mushroom stock: 2 - 3 cups
Olive oil: 2 tbsps
Butter: 1 tbsp
Parmesan cheese: 2 tbsps (optional)


Heat the oil and add the garlic and onions, cook till the onions turn pink. Add the mushrooms and saute for a couple of minutes - I had some bacon bits that were fast approaching the expiry date and threw those in with the mushrooms.

Next, add the rice and stir till the grains are evenly coated with oil. Then, add the dry white wine and simmer over low heat until all the wine has been absorbed.

Now add the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly till all the stock has been absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 1/2 cup each time, allowing each addition to be completely absorbed before adding in the next.

When three quarters of the stock has been absorbed, stir in the asparagus and the green peas.

Add the remaining and cook another 7-10 minutes till the rice is completely cooked; once cooked, stir in the parmesan cheese and the butter, adjust the seasonings and serve.

Making the mushroom stock:

Very often, when I made risotto, I would use ready - made stock cubes. After all, risotto is something that I cook more as a 'on the spur of the moment' meal; often times, I'd have no patience to spend extra time in the kitchen to make the stock.

It all changed when I experimented and came up this way of making 'instant' noodles. It has been a hit at home and that gave me the confidence to also make and freeze some basic mushroom and vegetable stock. Not only is it convenient, it tastes way better than the readymade stock cubes.

To make the basic mushroom stock, slice about 12-15 large mushrooms, toss in one sliced onion and a chopped carrot. Add these to 2 lts of water. Season with salt, pepper and some fresh herbs ( I used rosemary and parsley) and bring to boil. Reduce to a low heat and simmer till the water has reduced to half.

I normally freeze my stock in ice trays and once set, transfer the ice cubes into re-sealable bags. I use these when when cooking pasta, for making risottos and for making soups and stews.

Frozen mushroom stock is my entry to Jaya's event, Back to Basics.


  1. lovely tempting and inviting dish.

  2. I have been reading the review of this book in couple of blogs. I am so tempted to read this book. Risotto looks appetizing and delicious. slurrp..

  3. Mouthwatering risotto, looks very tempting...

  4. A lovely risotto! Particularly flavorful. That mushroom stock must be very fragrant.



  5. I loved the book too and I was impressed with her dedication to her profession. Have yet to write the review though I read the book a few weeks ago.

    Thank you for the stock entry. It looks good enough to make a brothy soup out of.:)

  6. Great review - makes me want to read the book again! You obviously have a way with words... :-)

  7. Lovely risotto - and great idea for the stock...

  8. Loved your lines on food critics. Here's a great read about this subject, that I believe all respectful food critics should have a look at:


It is not just about the ingredients or the recipe, good food happens when it is served with love!!

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