Tuesday, September 7, 2010
A Delicious Failure: Wheat Berry "Risotto" with Hens and Squash, Cider-Thyme Cream
The report on wheat berry "risotto" is this: wheat berries do not make "risotto," no matter how many "quotation marks" you put around "risotto." I'll stop doing that now; I realize it's annoying....
And yet the dish was delicious, memorable, even. It had a concept, a conceit--hot cereal for supper--and that even worked. The picture I had in mind was of an island of, say, Red River cereal, hot and grainy, in a sea of milk. But in my savory version the grain mush would be studded with shreds of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and nuggets of squash, napped about with a rich reduction of cream and cider, infused with thyme.
In a sense, the whole thing came about because of thrift, and Rene Bartz. As for the thrift, I had most of a pint of Cedar Summit heavy cream in the fridge, two weeks past freshness date but still remarkably good; I had to use it before it went. As for Rene Bartz, well, she's our friend who runs the Bolen Vale cheese shop at the family's dairy farm on highway 64 in Connorsville, Wisconsin. We pass the shop coming and going from Bide-A-Wee most weeks, and we buy most of our cheese from Rene. We also occasionally buy whole wheat flour, and wheat berries, which Rene grows. I often put the sprouted wheat berries in bread, and it occured to me recently that maybe you could use the whole grain in a risotto-type dish. Barley is sometimes substituted for rice in risotto, why not wheat?
So I forged ahead with plans for a dish that would be extremely local, seasonal, and perhaps a revelation. I have a deep and abiding affection for rice, any kind of rice. I love risotto, paella, pilafs, sushi, rice noodles, rice crust; a fragrant bowl of jasmine rice with a Chinese meal, or basmati with an Indian curry. But rice will never make it into a Trout Caviar recipe, because it is the farthest thing from a local product here. I think you'd have to travel to Louisiana, or North Carolina, to find the nearest rice field. Wild rice is wicked local, of course, but it's not rice. I didn't think it would make a tasty risotto.
Hence, wheat berries. But a wheat berry, it turns out, is just a little too unprocessed to make a creditable risotto. It's really a wheat seed--soak it in water for a couple of days, it will sprout; plant it, you'll grow a wheat stalk. Very Northern in its character, a wheat berry keeps to itself, discreet and a bit stoic. For surviving life on the cold plains, these are admirable traits; for making risotto, not so much.
To get to the point, separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were: The wheat berries in my risotto, even softened by a couple of days' soaking, did not give themselves starchily, creamily to the pot, as the grain in a good risotto must. After 10 minutes cooking they retained a resilient al dente texture, after 20 minutes, exactly the same, and after 25 or so, no change, and we said, "Hey, let's eat." Since the berries weren't opening to meld in the pot, the typical risotto method of stirring while adding small amounts of stock didn't work. I wound up just putting the lid on and steaming it.
In the end, our jaws got a workout, our tastebuds were delighted. The textural contrasts were intriguing--both the wheat berries and the mushrooms had a crunch to them, but different sorts of crunches; the squash, buttercup that we picked up at the Dallas Farmers Market, which I was afraid would go to mush, be lost in the mixture, provided a really welcome creamy component.
The cider-thyme cream was a total winner. I reduced the cream by about a third with a small handful of thyme sprigs, added the cider and reduced by a third to a half. It seemed a little sharp, on its own, I was afraid I'd used too much cider, but a little salt balanced the sharpness, and spooned around the fragrant, grainy, not-quite-mush, it was a lovely, lovely pairing. We cleaned our plates. A sprinkling of grated smoked Marieke gouda from Holland's Family Cheese just a little ways east of Bide-A-Wee down highway 29, didn't hurt a bit.
I would not make this again, not exactly this way. I'll keep working on a wheat berry preparation that comes closer to the risotto ideal--cook the berries longer before starting, make in a pressure cooker? Soak them, then whiz them in the FP a bit to open them up? The quest goes on. All suggestions welcome. Thank you very much.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw