Wine With . . . Risotto with Pancetta, Spinach, and Walnuts
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
Risotto, like pasta, is one of the most versatile, simple, always-pleasing dishes, so worthy of a place in any home-cook’s repertoire. Spice it up, tone it down, make it either vegetarian or a treat for omnivores--it’s always a winner. If risotto has a downside it is simply that, for best results, it can’t really be made ahead of time. On the other hand, it takes only about twenty minutes, thirty at the most, to cook. And since it isn’t true that you must spend every single one of those minutes relentlessly stirring the rice, you can put the finishing touches on the rest of dinner while it cooks--as long as you do keep a watchful eye on the simmering risotto.
Serve small portions of risotto as a first course as the Italians do, or make it a hearty and satisfying main course as we did in this case. It was one of those evenings when we had to come up with what we think of as a “treasure hunt” dinner, i.e. one that involves searching through fridge and freezer for enough ingredients to make a spur-of-the-moment meal. Because it lends itself to impromptu preparation, Arborio rice is something we always have stored in our pantry. In the refrigerator we found a chunk of Parmesan (another essential staple in any good home-cook’s inventory) and half a bag of fresh spinach leaves. The freezer yielded up a couple of ounces of chopped pancetta left over from some other culinary project. We gave up on the pine nuts, which had mysteriously disappeared, but luckily we discovered a supply of walnut halves to use instead. One of us got to work mincing onions, the other began opening the wines we wanted to test with the dish, and—ecco!—a mere forty-five minutes later we were seated at the kitchen table digging into a sublime risotto.
Risotto with Pancetta, Spinach, and Walnuts
Serves 4-6 as a first course, 2 as a main course.
2 ounces pancetta, minced *
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 ½ cups Arborio type rice
1 cup white wine
4 cups warm chicken stock
2 cups coarsely chopped spinach
½ cup walnut pieces **
1 cup grated Parmesan
* Since pancetta can be fairly salty, do not add salt until you taste the fully cooked dish.
** Toasting the walnuts removes their characteristic edge of bitterness; do this in a toaster oven or on the stovetop in a non-stick skillet.
In a large sauté pan or other deep skillet cook the pancetta in the olive oil until it begins to brown. Add the onion and continue cooking until onion is soft, then stir in the garlic. Add the rice, stirring until it is completely coated with oil, then pour in the wine all at once. Over high heat, continue stirring until the wine has been almost completely absorbed. Lower the heat to about medium and stir a couple of ladles of stock. Stir occasionally, and cook until the stock has been almost completely absorbed (do not let the rice dry out completely). Meanwhile, toast the walnuts until browned. Continue stirring a ladleful or two of stock into the risotto. After it has cooked for about 15 minutes. stir in the spinach and continue cooking. Begin testing the rice from time to time, and when it is just tender, add one final small ladleful of stock, stir in about half the cheese, and remove from heat. Serve the risotto immediately, garnished with the walnut pieces. Pass the rest of the cheese at the table.
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Since our risotto was very much a weeknight, “treasure hunt” dinner, we decided to try only wines priced for everyday drinking with it, setting a limit of $10 a bottle. We weren’t sure about color, the dish having a meaty component but also a vegetable one, so opened six red and six whites. We liked some of both, but overall found the whites to be slightly better matches. The reds that worked best were fairly light-bodied, without astringent tannins or evident oak, while the whites all had a zesty, refreshing character. With both colors, the wines we kept going back to lightened the dish, making it taste refreshing as well as hearty, so doubly satisfying.