Comfort food beckons as the weather changes.
Whenever I tell people I'm not originally from here, there follows a fairly standard set of questions, which usually includes, "Have you gone through a winter yet?"
Yes, I've lived through several Minnesota winters. Of course it would be wrong to say that there aren't days, especially in February and March, when the snow, ice and below-freezing temps make me pine a bit for the 365 days of warmth and sunshine that my native Southern California is famous for delivering.
That said, one of the things I love most about Minnesota is the weather, even the winter. Growing up in a part of the country where there are only two seasons -- the Warm and Sunny Season, and the Slightly Less Warm, But Still Sunny Season -- actually makes me appreciate all the more the stark changes that each of Minnesota's four seasons brings.
There's something special about fall. The air turns crisp, the sunlight has an added warmth to its hue, and food changes its focus from refreshing to comforting. Slowly, we leave our grills and return to our kitchens, where pots are simmering and ovens are roasting.
A change of focus
Like me, my boys look forward to some of the dishes that fall brings back into rotation. One of their favorites is risotto, a luxuriously creamy Italian rice dish.
Risotto is one of those dishes that doesn't really need a recipe. Once you understand the technique, you can make it without too much trouble. Better yet, it makes for an easily adapted, inexpensive meal that can be on the table in less than 30 minutes.
It isn't difficult to make a good risotto, but you have to use the right rice, in this case a short-grained rice. The easiest-to-find variety is arborio, now found in virtually every grocery store. The grains are stubby, with a high starch content, which is what gives risotto its creamy nature. This rice is stirred constantly, in a heavy, wide pan, with hot stock, which is added about 1/2 cup at a time. A bit of butter and Parmesan cheese are usually added at the end.
While plain risotto is one of life's simple pleasures, it lends itself beautifully to any number of variations. In the fall, I find myself compelled to mix in winter squashes, such as roasted butternut squash or a little pumpkin purée with just a touch of fresh nutmeg.
So welcome back to your kitchen. As an honorary Minnesotan, a title I admittedly bestowed on myself (I'm sure someone will eventually send me the necessary paperwork to make it official), I look forward to celebrating the season with you over the next several months.