Don’t we all love Shauna over at Gluten Free Girl? If you don’t know her, check out her site and see how she’s not only the sweetest and the coolest but she also has a way of asking thought provoking questions that make us all want to think about things (think in a good way, as opposed think in that sort of way that makes my head hurt when AJ switches over to professor mode and tries to explain to me what thermal enthalpy is). Just as she asked her tweeople (good grief, I just used that term in a non-ironic way) a couple of weeks ago what their first thing that they learn to cook (mine were snickerdoodles) which lead to an avalanche of fantastic posts from people all over the place, she recently asked everyone to complete the sentence “Cooking became easier, and more enjoyable when I learned…”. It was a harder question to answer than I thought it would be, and it was the question that led me to post about my shrimp risotto – a savory dish and not what I usually post about (desserts, baked goods, etc). But that’s Shauna for you. Always getting you write thing that you wouldn’t normally write about – and I mean that in a good way.
I had read the tweet during a period of time at work, when I was slammed with a project (when is there NOT a time when I am slammed with a project there? More and more the insanity has escalated) but it got me thinking; too many thoughts actually. When did cooking become easier and more enjoyable for me? Because I’ve pretty much always love to cook, at least as much as I can remember. Sure there are times when it’s a chore, but I’m one of the rare birds that goes into the kitchen to cook and calm down when I’m stressed.
My college roommates used to joke that every time they found me in the kitchen baking in our ridiculous tiny ghetto kitchen, they knew I had a test, essay or art critique I was procrastinating from. Oh man, that kitchen was terrible. Cramped with no counter space, the largest mega microwave you have ever seen because I accidentally killed the previous microwave by sticking some Chinese take out with a metal handle in it and my roommate deemed that an opportunity to buy the largest one he could find – the Cadillac of microwaves (and I mean that from a size perspective), warped stained linoleum floors, and a dinky tiny stove that looked like the older cousin of an E-Z Bake Oven, it was probably the worse kitchen I have ever lived in. That didn’t stop me from baking or cooking though. I pretty much didn’t know any better.
I mulled Shauna’s sentence over in my head while trying to meet a crazy deadline for work. I was going away on a much needed vacation the following week, and I needed to get a major project done because there was a presentation while I was gone. But my mind was thinking about the sentence. “Cooking became easier, and more enjoyable when I learned to chop onions properly.” “…when I learned to appropriately set my mise en place.” “…when I learned to get use my kitchen scale.” “when I learned how to appropriately use all the attachments to my KitchenAid mixer.”
All of them were true. But the reality is that cooking and baking is an ongoing learning experiment for me. Every new recipe, every new attempt at a different dish and every time I make the same thing and it turns out different makes me realize that there are so many factors involved in making food, and I want to learn all of them to make myself better.
For me, making food is both easy AND hard at the same time; enjoyable and frustrating and ultimately rewarding. And that’s when I realized I was looking at the sentence the wrong way. For me, it wasn’t about learning a new technique or learning how to use a new piece of equipment.
For me it was starting to cook with my partner AJ.
“Cooking became easier and more enjoyable when I learned to cook with the love of my life. AJ.”
I always viewed making food as a social thing. AJ never really enjoyed cooking that much. He professes to have made certain dishes from before meeting me (quiche for instance), but I’ve actually never had his quiche before. He’s only made his soft pretzels once for me (and now he says he likes my soft pretzels better so I probably won’t be getting any of his soft pretzel from him again). And we first started cooking together AJ got really nervous when he made food for me. I think he saw how comfortable in the kitchen I was, and how he would struggle with chopping ingredients (he still hates chopping). And at times he would just freeze up and get really anxious. I started referring to it as his “KPA” which stood for Kitchen Panic Anxiety. I think labeling it helped. Or maybe it made it worse.
Either way, AJ’s over his KPA now (with an occasional flare up when he’s tired or stressed). I think he finally realized that I don’t have any judgment on food that someone else has made for me (if it’s a restaurant that’s different, I’m paying for it, but when it’s just a friend or loved one, the fact that they are making food for me, and I don’t have to lift a finger, is enough to make me love it, and love that person, universally). And so he learned to love to cook as well.
And we learned to cook together. It’s one thing to cook for yourself; it’s quite another to cook for others and to cook together. I chop, he sautés. I clean and chiffonade, he stirs and cooks. I make the rub, the paste, the marinade, he preps, rubs and grills. Just as we are a team together in life, we’re a team in the kitchen and that makes everything more fun. And because of him, I ended up making things I normally wouldn’t have tried to make.
I’ll confess that AJ and I rarely bake together in the kitchen however. It’s a little harder to divide the tasks when we bake, and though he’s a scientist in his day job and gets very excited when I use the kitchen scale or the mortar and pestle in the kitchen he has little interest in baking and making batters or doughs – though he loves partaking of the final product. Thus it’s savory dishes that we make together, not a dessert or baked good.
One of our favorite things to make together is shrimp risotto. It’s the perfect dish to make together, as one person can start with the cooking of the rice (which needs to be stirred pretty constantly) while the other can cook the shrimp and prep the other ingredients. In the end you have an amazing dish that you would never think to make at home – the sort of thing that you might order at a restaurant. But now you have total control over the ingredients and what you want to put in the dish. And you have the satisfaction cooking with someone and eating with someone. You’re eating their love.
Shrimp Risotto with Summer Vegetables
Freely adapted from Bon Appetit, March 2003 issue
Roughly 5 to 5 1/2 cups of homemade chicken or turkey stock (see note)
1 cup dry white wine
1 pound uncooked large shrimp, peeled (save the shells), deveined
3 to 4 Tbsp extra virgin fruity flavored olive oil
1 ½ cups Arborio rice (about 9 ½ ounces)
1 ½ cups chopped yellow onion (about 1 medium onion)
1 garlic head (yes the entire head), minced
2 medium shallots, chopped
1lb spinach leaves, thoroughly cleaned of sand and tough stems removed
½ lb sugar snap peas, ends snapped off
¾ lb white button mushroom, sliced
½ lb asparagus, cut into 2 inch pieces, tough ends removed
1 lb vine ripe tomatoes, chopped (preferably heirloom)
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh basil
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Additional grated Parmesan cheese for finish
1. In a medium pot, put the shrimp shells in the chicken or turkey stock and heat on medium. Once the shells have turned bright orange and you’ve brought the stock to a rapid boil, turn off the heat, cover and set aside to let the shells steep.
2. Pour ½ Tbsp or so of oil into a heavy large saucepan and heat on medium until the air directly above the oil is shimmering (but not smoking). Add about half the garlic and cook for 5-10 seconds (don’t let it burn) and then add the shrimp along with a little fresh cracked pepper and sea salt to taste. Cook until the shrimp are opaque in the center (about 2 to 3 minutes). Removed shrimp and garlic onto a bowl and cover with foil to keep warm.
3. In the same saucepan, pour another ½ Tbsp of oil and heat on medium until shimmering. Add asparagus and cook for 3 or 4 minutes until they start to soften but are still crisp. Don’t let the asparagus burn or carmelize too much. Move into a large bowl and then sauté the sugar snap peas the same way for 3 or 4 minutes. Remove into the same bowl as the asparagus and cover with foil. Repeat with mushrooms, cooking until they are soft and start to shed water. Remove into same bowl as asparagus and peas, pouring all liquid into bowl.
4. Pour the remaining oil into the same saucepan and heat again to shimmering. Add the shallots and the onions to the oil and sauté for about 5 minutes until the onions start to soften. Add the rest of the garlic and cook for a minute or two longer until it starts to get fragrant.
6. Remove the shrimp shells from the chicken/turkey stock and discard.
7. Add the Arborio rice and cook until the rice starts to look translucent around the edges but still opaque in the middle – roughly 2 minutes. Add ½ cup of white wine and stir and cook until it is absorbed (about 2 minutes). Repeat with the rest of the white wine, stirring until the liquid is absorbed.
8. Repeat this process with stock (using about ½ to ¾ cup at a time) stirring constantly. You’ll notice that the more stock you use, the slower it takes for the rice to absorb. You’ll want to use up most of the stock (about 5 cups), until the mixture starts to look creamy and the rice is tender.
9. Once you’ve used up 5 cups of the stock, add the vegetable and mushrooms, shrimp and any juices that have accumulated from the vegetables and shrimp. Stir and cook until they have absorbed the liquid. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook and stir for 3 minutes. Check the rice and if it needs more liquid add the remaining ½ cup of stock.
10. Add the spinach in handfuls (it’ll look like a lot of spinach but it’ll totally wilt and shrink down) stirring and cooking until the spinach has wilted (about 2 minutes). Stir in the basil and remove from heat.
11. Stir in the ½ cup parmesan cheese. Then season with fresh cracked pepper and sea salt to taste (don’t forget the salt – if you don’t add enough salt, the risotto will totally taste flat). Serve in shallow bowls with more parmesan cheese.
Note 1. The instructions for making this dish are written for one person making the dish. If you have two people making the dish, have one cook the rice, while the other one chops and cooks the vegetables, mushrooms, and shrimp. That’s how AJ and I do it.
Note 2. The better stock you use, the better the risotto will taste. I use homemade turkey stock that I made from my Thanksgiving turkey carcass. I reduce the stock after making it, and then freeze it into cubes, that way I can take out incremental chunks of it to use and dilute it with water. If you don’t have homemade stock you can totally use canned broth, the risotto will just not taste as robust.
Note 3. The original recipe called for baby spinach but I find the bigger spinach to be more robust in flavor. However, feel free to use the baby spinach if that is more convenient.
Note 4. This risotto is really adaptable to whatever seasonal vegetables you have. Try it with regular peas (frozen works just fine, add it at the very end when you add the tomatoes) or fresh grilled corn (grill the corn and cut them off the ear to add to the risotto with the vegetables) or zucchini (add it where you add the asparagus). I usually just see what’s at the grocery store or farmer’s market and go from there.