Omnivore - Get in Ma Mouth: Risotto Edition
Digging in to one of Bruce Logue's ever-changing risotto specials
At BoccaLupo, before you get to the lauded black spaghetti (with hot calabrese sausage, red shrimp, and scallions), or the 20 yolk tagliatelle (with wild mushrooms, tuscan kale kimchi, and butter), there's usually a line on the menu that simply reads, "Risotto, daily MP." I urge you, in fact I beg you, to inquire. And when you do, you're likely to hear a description of a dish that defies typical expectations of risotto. One week, it might be a seafood étouffée / risotto mashup. The next, a rice and green farro combination with artichoke barigoule and black sea bass. What stays the same is the kitchen's deft touch with flavors and textures, and the distinct impression that BoccaLupo's risotto is like no other risotto you've ever had.
On a recent Saturday night, I shared that seafood étouffée risotto with a table of six, passing the plate around and watching everyone's eyes light up in pleasure as they took a bite (and then prayed that the plate would make its way back around). In a meal full of chef Bruce Logue's fabulous pastas, the risotto stood out as even more fabulous than the rest. I felt compelled to pen Logue a note afterwards in hopes of finding out a few of his secrets. While he understandably declined to share a specific recipe, he did offer plenty of insight into what makes BoccaLupo's daily risotto special so... special, as well as a few tips for home cooks interested in trying to make something like BoccaLupo's risotto at home.
First, tell us about what you try to do with the daily risotto specials - how do they change over time?
The risotto on our menu usually changes twice a week. Maybe only once if we have a really cool one and an ingredient that we are enjoying working with. Beyond that, we are always looking for ways to expand what we consider “Italian American” cooking. Etouffée is a dish that's pretty much native to our country, and is usually served with rice, so I figure that is something we can work with. The whole local, seasonal thing is built in (to what we do), so that just plays out on its own through the year.
Your risotto tends to be a bit creamier and slightly thinner than what people might think of as traditional risotto, with a finer texture...
We never use traditional risotto rice. Anson Mills sells middlins, AKA rice grits, collected from the Carolina Gold rice that they grow. This is basically broken pieces of rice that cook relatively quickly and maintain a good “bite” when cooked like risotto. Is it really risotto? Probably not. Does it taste good? Most of the time. Does it fit the “Italian American” mold? F*ck yes.
We follow a traditional risotto base cooking technique using vegetable stock, but we do some things differently - we rarely put large ingredients in the base, other than things like green farro, beans or herbs. And we prefer to “sauce” our risotto base with the ingredients on top like the étouffée or a mushroom ragu. This creates layers of concentrated flavors and textures. We use a butter emulsion instead of chunks of cold butter to finish our risotto, which keeps our risotto on the thinner side (which we find pleasing). Italians that know how to make risotto use the expression “la onda” to describe it, which means "the wave." The visual reference is that the finished risotto should make a crashing wave when the pan is shaken. In the summer, we will surround a thicker base risotto with a chilled tomato water, which really makes the flavor and texture of the risotto pop in a lighter sense.
For incorporating stock, do you use it hot or at room temperature? And do you heat the plates before plating? (just curious)
The plates are about 90-100 degrees, AKA kitchen temp. The stock is always hot.
Other tips for the home cooks out there?
I honestly cannot give a recipe for making risotto at home that is going to be any better than a recipe off the internet that has been executed in a test kitchen. My advice would be to make sure to have plenty of stock ready to go. If you come up short on the stock, your risotto will suffer. I know this sounds lame, but making risotto is a life long journey of honing your craft.
Note: You can read more about Carolina Gold rice grits in this piece from Smithsonian Magazine.