Risotto can be a good starting point in creating a delicious, nutritious, wine-friendly dish--especially if the recipe includes Portobello mushrooms, which are notable both for their meaty texture and umami-rich flavors.
Contrary to what many people believe, risotto does not need constant stirring. Making it, though, does require a fair amount of the cook’s undivided attention (this is not a good moment to start checking your email). Most risotto recipes call for stirring in hot broth, but we have never found simmering the broth makes much difference—cool or warm, either option works. And if you want an extra jolt of umami, add a little soy sauce to the mushrooms.
Risotto with Portobellos and Fennel
(To serve as an appetizer for six people, allow one mushroom per serving. For four main course servings, serve each diner two Portobello caps, sandwiching the risotto between them.)
One fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 medium onion, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups Arborio or other risotto-style rice
1 teaspoon thyme
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon finely minced lemon peel
1 cup white wine
About 4 cups water or vegetable broth*
½ cup grated Parmesan, plus more to pass at the table
2 tablespoons minced parsley
* Use commercial vegetable broth or make your own by combining the mushroom trimmings, 2 or 3 stalks trimmed from the fennel, garlic, onion, salt and pepper, and some seasonings (throw in a few fennel seeds, for example). Simmer in 4 cups water and ½ cup white wine (optional) for 45-60 minutes, then cool and strain.
FOR THE PORTOBELLOS (this step may be done up to several hours ahead of time): Preheat the oven to 375°. Carefully cut out the stem from each mushroom cap, taking care not to pierce the flesh of the mushrooms (discard the stems or use them to make the broth). With the back of a spoon, mash together the garlic, paprika, salt and soy sauce (if using), along with a couple of teaspoons of olive oil to make a rough paste. Rub the inside center of each mushroom cap with a little of this mixture, then arrange the caps in a greased baking dish large enough to hold them in a single layer. Drizzle the remaining olive oil over them and bake for 15 minutes. Then flip the mushroom caps over and continue baking for another 15-30 minutes, or until they are soft and tender. (Add more olive oil during baking if the mushrooms look as if they are drying out). Pour off any juices that have accumulated and save to add to the risotto broth). Set the mushrooms aside until you’re ready to assemble the dish; then reheat them while you cook the risotto.
FOR THE RISOTTO: Over medium heat, cook the fennel and onion in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil until they have begun to soften. Add the garlic and cook another minute or two. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pot and add the rice, stirring steadily to coat all the grains with oil. Stir in the thyme, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and lemon peel, and turn up the heat. Pour in the wine and continue stirring until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Reduce the heat slightly and ladle in a cupful or two of the broth, stirring until almost all the liquid has been absorbed. Continue this process for about 30 minutes, or until the rice is tender but still has a slight crunch in the center of each grain. Stir in the Parmesan, and remove the pot immediately from the heat.
For six servings, arrange a mushroom cap in the center of each plate, adding a generous spoonful of risotto on top of each. For four servings, top the mound of risotto with a second mushroom cap. Drizzle with a little more olive oil and sprinkle each serving with parsley.
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This dish works equally well with red and white wines. Whites accentuate the creamy opulence of the risotto, while reds tend to enhance the earthy flavors of the Portobellos. We found, however, that regardless of color, some wines clash with the dish. It does not adapt well to those with a heavy oak overlay, and overt acidity proves disruptive. Look instead for wines with a smooth texture (to echo the risotto) and fruit-driven flavors.
Martin Codax, Rias Baixas (Spain) Albariño 2011 (Imported by Martin Codax USA)
Tasting of peaches and other summer stone fruits, with an enticing floral note in the bouquet, this fresh, lively white lightened the dish. The pairing itself was marked by a subtle sophistication.
Showing far less oak influence than most earlier versions of this wine, Ferrari-Carano’s 2011 Fumé tastes of melons, figs, and bright citrus. It enlivened our risotto, help the meal convey warm hints of spring.
Le Roc, Fronton (France) “La Folle Noire d’Ambat” 2010
(Imported by Charles Neal Selections)
Made primarily with the local Négrette grape, this is an intense red from southwestern France. Quite robust, it nonetheless feels lush on the palate, so made for a harmonious match. An especially good choice for cold-weather evenings, it helped give the risotto added heft and substance.
Hahn Estate, Santa Lucia Highlands (California) Pinot Noir 2010
A silky, smooth, and ever so slightly sweet Pinot Noir, with primary cherry fruit flavors and secondary notes of earthy spice, this wine helped the taste of the mushrooms come to the fore. .
Viña Zaco, Rioja (Spain) Tempranillo 2010
(Imported by Aveniu Brands)
A juicy Rioja, with flavors that echo plums and dried cherries, a smooth texture, and hardly a hint of wood, this contemporary-styled red packs plenty of flavor without ever seeming heavy-handed or excessive. Much like the Pinot Noir we are recommending, it accentuated the Portobellos without detracting from the creamy rice at the dish’s base.