Wine With . . . Lobster Risotto
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
We usually celebrate New Year’s Eve by gathering together with a small group of friends. We all contribute a different dish for a long, luxurious dinner, and it is the one holiday when we indulge in the best wines our budgets can afford. This year it is our turn to make the first course, which will be lobster risotto. After some trial runs to come up with a great recipe, and sampling a variety of wines to go with it, we are convinced that this is going to be one of the most elegant, festive and delicious dishes imaginable for welcoming in the new year.
What makes a dish risotto and not just rice? It is both the kind of rice used and the method of cooking it. Arborio and carnaroli are the two types of risotto rice most readily available in the US, with vialone nano somewhat less easy to find. Risotto rice has medium-sized, round grains and is typically high in starch. The particular quality of rice starch (as compared to, say, starch in potato, corn or wheat) makes it possible for each granule to absorb more flavors on its surface. Rice also has a clean taste profile that allows flavors to come through faster and purer on the palate. The distinguishing characteristic of risotto rice is its ability to absorb liquid and release starch, so the rice is moist and soft, causing it to cling to the tongue and cloak the taste buds in a way that long-grained rice, for example, can’t. The soft gel and creamy mouth feel of these high-starch types of rice create a similar sensation to fat. These characteristics all affect not only the way the rice tastes, but also the way it will react with wine.
All risotto is prepared by following a simple, traditional formula. The rice is first sautéed in oil or butter (or both) which helps prevent it from absorbing liquid too rapidly and getting soggy. The second step is to pour wine into the hot pan, infusing the rice with rich flavor. Warm liquid—usually chicken stock or other broth—is then added in incremental portions; regular stirring helps the liquid get absorbed evenly and also serves to release starch molecules, which bind with the liquid to form a creamy texture. The final step is the culinary blessing of the risotto (called the mantecare in Italian), in which a knob of butter and dash of Parmesan are stirred vigorously into the rice.
Risotto can be partially cooked in advance, but once it is thoroughly cooked it must be eaten at once. Purists prefer to have it served on a flat plate rather than a bowl so that the grains of rice can be spread out rather than stacked on top of each other. When cooked to perfection, risotto rice is firm yet creamy, chewy yet soft, and plump enough to absorb and reflect the flavors of wine beautifully.
Use the meat from a whole cooked lobster or from two lobster tails. For greater indulgence, increase the amount of lobster.
Serves 6 as a first course, 4 as a main course.
One whole cooked lobster or 2 lobster tails
1 medium onion, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Arborio, carnaroli, or other rice suited for risotto
1 teaspoon salt
Red pepper flakes to taste
1 cup white wine
5 cups hot stock from lobster shells (or use chicken broth or water)
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
About 1/3 cup finely minced chives or parsley
Remove the lobster meat from the shells and cut into bite sized pieces. Reserve.
In a large sauté pan cook the onion over medium heat until soft. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until it becomes opaque. Turn the heat to high, pour in the wine, and stir constantly until the wine is absorbed by the rice. Season with salt and pepper flakes. Lower the heat and stir in about a cupful of the warm broth; let it simmer, stirring frequently, until all liquid is absorbed. Add another cup of broth, stir, and let it absorb. Continue in this fashion until the rice is soft and creamy but still has a subtle crunch in the center. (If you run out of stock, you can use hot water). Add the lobster, check for seasoning, and remove the pan from the heat. Vigorously stir in the butter and parmesan cheese. Dish up onto individual plates, garnish with chives or parsley, and serve immediately.
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We tried twelve different wines with this lobster risotto—two sparklers, one rosé, and nine different whites. We liked a lot of them, but certain common themes became clear when selecting our favorites. First, light-bodied wines lost character in this pairing. An otherwise lovely Sancerre, for example, turned simple rather than subtle, and a Sardinian Vermentino seemed watery. Second, as happens with many dishes we try for this column, overt woody notes from barrel aging proved distracting. Finally, the best matches all did two quite different things. On the one hand, they tasted fresh and lively—something that proved very helpful with such a rich dish. On the other, they had enough weight on the palate to complement that richness. This risotto tastes sophisticated. The wines that performed best with it did so as well.