Spring Comfort Food: Lemon Mint Risotto

Hunker down with this comforting bowl of creamy risotto:

Lemon Risotto with Mint

Here is what I think about risotto: A good risotto should be creamy, but not gummy or soupy. The rice should be tender with a little give to each bite (al dente). Any accompanying ingredients should be minimal without muddying, and, ideally, they should reflect the season.

This risotto checks all of the boxes. It’s firmly planted in spring with a lemony brightness and pucker that cuts through risotto’s inherent richness. Flecks of fresh mint and lemon zest add color and the whiff of garden-fresh flavor. The finished risotto is creamy and elegant, without being heavy. You can easily dig into a steaming bowl of this risotto and call it a meal, but it also makes a simple starter or side dish to meat and fish.

When making risotto, there are a few rules to follow for success. For a traditional risotto, you will need to purchase arborio, an Italian rice grain that’s known for its high starch content which is key to a creamy risotto. Be sure to lightly toast the rice grains in the pan before adding any liquid. This step creates a protective shell around each grain, which prevents the rice from bursting or becoming soggy while cooking. And, yes, you must continually stir the rice while it cooks. This prevents the rice from sticking to the pan, and it will help to release the starch from the rice grains, which develops the risotto’s creaminess.

This may sound labor-intensive, but the process should only take 20 to 25 minutes, and it will allow you to take pride of accomplishment in the finished result. It’s also a window of time when the only task at hand is to concentrate on the rhythm of stirring – which in itself might be considered a simple pleasure – yielding delicious results.

Lemon Risotto with Mint

Active Time: about 30 minutes
Total Time: about 30 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable for a vegetarian option)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup (packed) finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely chopped mint leaves, plus more for garnish
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest, plus extra for garnish
1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Bring the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan. Reduce the heat to low and keep warm.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon butter and the oil in a deep skillet or pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in the rice and cook until the rice is well coated and slightly toasted, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes.

3. Add the wine and stir until the wine is absorbed, about 1 minute.

4. Add 1 cup stock and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Continue adding the stock, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until the liquid is absorbed before adding the next 1/2 cup, until the rice is al dente, and the risotto is creamy. (Depending on the age of the rice, you may not use all of the stock. Older rice requires more liquid to cook.)

Irish Beef Stew

Add a splash of Guinness to your beef stew and call it Irish. Just save some to drink.

Beef Stew with Stout Beer

This no-nonsense, comforting beef stew is guaranteed to warm you, whether you’re Irish or not. As most stews go, it’s a humble and forgiving recipe. Cubes of beef slow-cook and braise to melting tenderness in a meaty broth, brightened by tomato and fortified with a generous glug of stout beer. The stout makes its mark in the stew with its sweet and malty notes of chocolate and coffee, adding depth and richness to the simple beef stock. Stout has a hoppy bitterness, so you need only add 8 ounces to the recipe for effect – which conveniently provides leftovers for drinking while you cook. This stew is also swimming with chunky root vegetables, which add earthy sweetness and round out the beefy component, permitting you to call this a one-dish meal, vegetables and all.

You can make this stew in one day, but if you have time and can plan ahead, I encourage you to make it the day before and chill it overnight. Not only does this allow the flavors to meld and develop, the fat will also have time to rise and solidify on the stew. The next day you can simply lift off and discard the collected fat. Feel free to add your favorite root vegetables to the stew. I always include carrots, and then add a combination of celery root, parsnip, and/or rutabaga.

Irish Beef and Guinness Stew

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 1/2 to 4 hours
Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 pounds beef chuck, excess fat trimmed, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup stout beer, such as Guinness
1/3 cup tomato paste
3 cups beef (or chicken) stock
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 bay leaves
2 carrots, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 1/2 pounds root vegetables, such as rutabaga, parsnip, celery root, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 300°F.

2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or ovenproof pot with a lid. Season the beef all over with salt and pepper. In batches, brown the beef on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the meat to a plate and repeat with the remaining beef.

3. Add the onion to the pot and sauté until soft, scraping up any brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the beer and bring to a simmer, and then add the tomato paste, sand stir to blend.

4. Return the beef and any accumulated juices to the pot, and then add the stock, thyme, bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. The meat should be just covered with liquid. If not, add additional stock to cover.

5. Bring the liquid to a boil and then turn off the heat. Cover the pot, transfer to the oven, and cook until the meat is tender but not falling apart, 2 to 2 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. (The meat will continue to cook once the vegetables have been added.) Remove from the oven.

(At this point, the stock may be refrigerated. Let the stew cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove from the stew from the refrigerator at least 1 1/2 hours before serving and heat the oven to 300°F. Remove and discard any accumulated fat from the surface and gently reheat the stew in the oven before proceeding with the next step.)

6. While the stew is cooking (or reheating) heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the carrots and root vegetables and lightly season with salt. Sauté the vegetables until they brighten in color and are crisp-tender, 3 to 4 minutes.

7. Add the vegetables to the stew. Return the pot to the oven and cook, partially covered, until the meat is fork-tender and the sauce is slightly reduced, about 1 more hour, stirring occasionally. Remove the stew from the oven and taste for seasoning. Serve hot with mashed potatoes.

Improvised Ma Po Tofu

Feed the craving for homemade Ma Po Tofu with this fast and easy recipe:

Homemade Ma Po Tofu Soup

I call this soup Improvised Ma Po Tofu, because, when the craving strikes, and you have no intention to shop for specialty ingredients on a frigid Sunday night in your PJs, you improvise. For this soup, I used a David Tanis recipe in the New York Times as a template and dabbled with the ingredients I had, while adding extra smidges of this and that to ramp up the flavor and spice to my taste.

With that said – and in the spirit of planning ahead – I recommend preparing yourself for any future nocturnal cravings with two Asian condiments I relied on for this recipe. These ingredients add lip-smacking flavor to a smattering of dishes, Asian or otherwise. They also have a long shelf life and can easily be tucked away in your refrigerator, so they are worth the effort to purchase.

The first condiment I recommend is gojuchang. It’s a Korean fermented hot chili paste, which adds a smoky kick of heat, mild glutinous-rice sweetness, and that elusive umami flavor to sauces, marinades, and soups that makes them positively addicting.

Another useful ingredient is fermented black bean and garlic sauce, which has a murky, almost meaty quality that adds depth and savory flavor to stir-frys and marinades. Both of these staples can be found in most well-stocked supermarkets or in specialty shops, and they can be stored in your refrigerator for up to a year.

And while we’re talking about cravings, I’ll add that once the ingredients for this soup are assembled, you can whip it up in a matter of minutes. This is a close to instant gratification you can find on a PJ-clad wintry Sunday night.  

Ma Po Tofu

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Serves 2 to 4

1 ounce dried Porcini mushrooms
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large red jalapeño chile, seeded, chopped
2 tablespoons fermented hot chili paste, such as gojuchang
1 tablespoon fermented black bean and garlic sauce
2 tablespoons grated fresh peeled ginger
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons chicken or mushroom stock
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
15 ounces semi-firm tofu, patted dry, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar, optional
4 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced

1. Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a simmer in a small saucepan. Turn off the heat, add the mushrooms, and let steep for 15 minutes.
2. Heat the oil in a skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Add the chile, fermented chili paste, and black bean sauce and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ginger and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the mushrooms and water to the wok. Stir in the 1 cup stock, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Slide the tofu into the soup, reduce the heat to medium.
3. Whisk the 1 tablespoon cornstarch with the remaining 3 tablespoons stock. Stir into the soup and simmer until the soup is hot. Taste for seasoning and add sugar, if desired. Stir in the scallions and serve.

30 Minute Coconut Shrimp Curry

Greet January head-on with a steaming, aromatic bowl of coconut shrimp curry:

30 Minute Shrimp Curry Stew

Satisfying soups and stews heady with spice, spark the senses and hint of sunny far-flung destinations. You might call it escapism, but I can’t think of a better way to embrace winter. This curry is rich, bright, and potent with flavor. It’s also easy to make and extremely versatile. You can add additional vegetables to the stew, such as carrot and cauliflower. A squeeze of lime juice is essential to brightening the broth with a kick of acidity. Best of all, this dish can be prepared in 30 minutes – which leaves you just enough time to cook some rice.

Coconut Shrimp Curry

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves 4

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 green jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
2 tablespoons grated fresh peeled ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder
1 (28-ounce) can chopped Italian plum tomatoes
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise, each quarter sliced in 1/2-inch pieces
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus extra for garnish
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)
Cooked basmati rice for serving
Lime wedges for serving

1. Heat the oil in deep skillet or soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, jalapeño, and ginger and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the curry powder and continue to cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.
2. Add the tomatoes, coconut milk, and zucchini. Bring to a boil and simmer until the vegetables are tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Stir in the shrimp and cook until they turn pink and are just cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes.
3. Stir in the 1/4 cup cilantro, the lime juice, salt, and black pepper and taste for seasoning. If desired, add 1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar to balance the flavor.
4. Ladle into bowls with cooked basmati rice. Garnish with additional cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

’Tis the season for Armagnac – in your food as well as your glass:

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

In this window of time between Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas excess, take a break from fancy feasts and indulge in a robust and rustic one-pot meal. This wine and brandy-laced stew is guaranteed to warm you in the cold weather. After all, while libations are certainly for sipping, don’t overlook their power to enhance flavor in food, such this pork and prune stew fortified with Armagnac. If this recipe doesn’t warm you, I’m not sure what will.

Armagnac is a brandy produced in the southwestern region of France. Like cognac, Armagnac is derived from grapes – but the difference veers from there. While cognac is twice distilled, yielding a smoother pour, Armagnac is distilled only once, which lends more nuance and character to its flavor. And while this certainly makes for intriguing and wonderful sipping, it also adds delightful complexity to soups, stews, sauces – even desserts.

In this recipe, Armagnac teams up with luscious prunes and pork to create a rich and homey stew perfumed with juniper and rosemary. Just remember to pour yourself a splash to enjoy while you are preparing the meal.

Pork Stew with Prunes and Armagnac

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 3 to 3 1/2 hours, plus steeping time
Serves 6

20 prunes, pitted
1/2 cup Armagnac brandy
3 pounds pork shoulder, excess fat trimmed, meat cut into 1 ½ -inch chunks
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces bacon, coarsely chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
3 medium shallots, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 bottle full-bodied red wine
1 cup high quality beef stock
1 bouquet garni: 4 juniper berries, 3 rosemary sprigs, 2 thyme sprigs, and 2 bay leaves wrapped in cheesecloth and tied with a kitchen string

1. Combine the prunes and Armagnac in a bowl and let stand at least 1 hour.
2. Preheat the oven to 325°F.
3. Season the pork on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a Dutch oven or oven-proof pot with a lid. Add the pork in batches, without overcrowding, and brown on all sides. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining pork.
4. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon pork fat from the pan. Add the bacon and sauté until its fat renders. Add the carrots and onion and sauté until the onions soften and the carrots are crisp tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
5. Return the pork and any accumulated juices to the pan. Add the prunes and Armagnac, the wine, bouquet garni, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover the pan, transfer to the oven, and cook until the meat is very tender, 2 1/2 to 3 hours, stirring once every hour or so.
6. Remove the stew from the oven, discard the bouquet garni, and taste for seasoning. Serve with mashed potatoes, polenta, or crusty bread.
(The stew may be prepared up to two days in advance. Warm over low heat or in a 300°F oven before serving.)

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Butternut squash mingles with its fall friends in this festive soup:

Curried Butternut Squash Soup

There is something magical about roasted butternut squash. Its brilliant orange flesh softens into buttery squidginess, and when roasted, its natural sugars are coaxed out and gently caramelized, accentuating the squash’s inherent nutty flavor. It’s hard to believe something so rich and sugary can be loaded with nutrients and beta-carotene, but so it is. One cup of butternut squash provides a health nut’s worth of Vitamins A and C, as well as a robust shot of potassium, manganese and fiber. In this recipe, roasted butternut squash mingles with its fall buddies – apples, cider, and loads of warming spices – yielding an essential autumn soup. Serve it as a starter to any meal, or dress it up in little shot glasses as a fancy soup starter when hosting a crowd. It’s a great way to kick off the holiday season.

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Makes 4 to 6 large bowl servings or 16 to 18 small appetizer shots, depending on size of glass

1 medium butternut squash, about 2 pounds
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, diced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne, or to taste
3 cups chicken stock (or vegetable for vegetarian option)
1 cup apple cider
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat the oven to 375°F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Lightly brush the exposed flesh with olive oil. Place squash, cut-side-down, on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until the flesh is fork tender, 50 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly. When cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and set aside.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the apple, curry powder, cumin, coriander and cayenne. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add the roasted squash and chicken stock. (There should be just enough stock to cover the squash and apples. If needed, add additional stock to cover). Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and simmer until the apples are very soft, about 20 minutes.
3. Carefully purée the soup in batches in a food processor (or with an immersion blender). Return the soup to the pot and stir in the apple cider, brown sugar, salt and pepper. Warm thoroughly over medium-low heat and taste for seasoning. Serve warm, garnished with a small spoonful of crème fraîche or sour cream if desired.

Chicken Tortilla Soup with Corn and Black Beans

Rely on your leftovers for this warming Chicken Tortilla Soup

Hearty Chicken and Black Bean Tortilla Soup

My inspiration for making soup is often a convergence of too many vegetables in the refrigerator combined with leftovers from a roast chicken dinner. This recipe is not an authentic tortilla soup, as I managed to empty most of the contents of my veggie drawer into it. It’s chock-a-block full of corn, beans, zucchini and peppers, simmered with a few must-have aromatics (onion and garlic) and pantry staples (canned Italian plum tomatoes and black beans). I spiced up the stock with warming southwestern spices in defiance of the dreary drizzle outside, and finished the soup with a shower of shattered tortilla chips, which happened to be leftover remnants in the bottom of their bag – too small for swiping through a bowl of salsa. Leftovers never tasted so good.

If you don’t have leftover chicken on hand, a store bought rotisserie chicken and packaged stock will do the trick. Season and spice the soup to your taste. Ideally it should have a little heat, but since our family is divided on what constitutes “spicy,” I pass a bottle of hot sauce around the table so everyone can fire up the soup to their taste. This soup is meant to be thick. More chicken stock may be added for a soupier consistency

Chicken Tortilla Soup

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 poblano pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 sweet red pepper, stemmed and seeded, diced
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 small zucchini, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
4 cups chicken stock
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juice
1/4 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/8 teaspoon cloves
3/4 pound shredded cooked chicken
1 cup fresh corn kernels (or defrosted frozen)
1 cup cooked black beans
1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)
1/4 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Tortilla chips, broken in pieces, for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the peppers and sauté until crisp tender, about 2 minutes. Stir in the garlic and zucchini and sauté briefly, about 1 minute.
2. Add the chicken stock, plum tomatoes with juice, tomato paste, cumin, coriander, salt, pepper, cayenne, and cloves. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes.
3. Stir in the chicken, corn, and beans. Simmer, partially covered, until thoroughly heated through. Taste for seasoning. Add 1 to 2 teaspoons brown sugar if desired.
4. Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve warm, garnished with the tortilla chips.