I've been feeling a bit like a wrung-out dishrag lately, creatively speaking, I mean. A reader very kindly pointed out the other day that you all would be a lot happier if I posted more often, to which I could only bleat "I'm so sorry, I know!" at the screen and sink my head in defeat. I mean, I'm the first to feel bereft when my favorite blogs go silent for more than a few days.
I guess I poured so much energy and heart into finishing the book that now that it's over, instead of feeling full of inspiration and moxie, I'm feeling a little empty when it comes to cooking and writing about it. For a few weeks after I finished work on the manuscript (and the final testing of the recipes), I could not turn on the stove to save my life. I just couldn't. I couldn't stand the sight of the measuring cups, the mixing bowls, the sink waiting to be filled with dirty dishes. I had to stop seeing it as the final frontier, the final battle zone between me and the finished manuscript before I could enter it again with hunger and a lust for cooking.
Add that to the fact that I am now single-digit weeks (eeep!) away from giving birth and you'll understand why sometimes I sit here in front of the computer trying to think of things to tell you, but coming up empty. I mean, I can spend hours thinking about organic baby mattresses, what on earth - WHAT - we should name our baby and, uh, trying to wrap my head around labor, but then dinnertime rolls around and I'm eating a handful of sliced cucumber and a peanut butter sandwich. You know?
But enough about that.
Remember Elaine Louie's wonderful The Temporary Vegetarian column in the New York Times? The source of such delicious things as Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez's Chana Punjabi, Aytekin Yar's Zucchini Pancakes and Julie Sahni's Green Beans Bihari? I loved that column so much. (It no longer exists, but you can buy the book it was turned into right here.) Slowly but surely, I'm hoping to cook my way through most of the recipes she published (Cabbage Strudel, anyone? I'm still kicking myself for having lived mere minutes away from the strudel shop on Queens Boulevard for almost three years and never having made it there.).
The recipe with which Louie retired the column was from Diane Kochilas, Greek food writer and consulting chef at Pylos: a Greek riff on the classic Italian risotto, using ouzo instead of white wine and feta cheese instead of Parmesan and butter. I made it for dinner last night and the one thing I kept thinking as I ate it was, forgive my ineloquence, woah.
The risotto looks like it will just be a sweet little tomato-ey thing, flecked with some well-meaning oregano, but it turns out to be a flavor bomb, an umami explosion, if you will, almost too intense to actually eat. The convergence of the feta and the anise liqueur and the fresh tomato and the lemon zest is sort of epic, really. I practically had to wipe my brow as I worked my way through the bowl. (And this was without adding any salt besides what was already in the broth, people.)
I left out the garlic that was in the original recipe, because I think garlic in risotto should be against the law, and I used Pernod instead of ouzo because that's what I had in the house and if I made this again, I would use water instead of broth, probably, and also a bit less feta, because I actually don't really like to feel like I'm fighting my way through dinner, even if it does taste very good. But eating it in the soft dusk light that came in from the balcony and being reminded of our trip to Greece last September was lovely, really, and just the kind of thing that makes me want to cook again and again and again.
Diane Kochilas' Tomato, Oregano and Feta Risotto
Note: To grate a tomato, halve crosswise and grate the cut side with a coarse grater over a lipped cutting board or bowl. Grate as close to the skin as possible, then discard the skin.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth
1 cup Carnaroli or Arborio rice
1/3 cup Pernod
1 1/3 cups grated ripe tomato (about 3 or 4 large plum tomatoes)
2/3 cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh oregano leaves
Finely grated zest of a lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, optional
1. In a large, deep skillet over medium-low heat, heat olive oil until shimmering. Add onion and stir until soft, about 6 minutes. Place broth in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.
2. Raise heat to medium, and add rice to skillet. Stir until well-coated with olive oil and starting to soften slightly, 2-3 minutes. Add 1 cup of the simmering broth. Keep stirring gently until the rice absorbs all the broth. Add Pernod and stir until absorbed.
3. Add grated tomato and stir gently until the mixture is dense. Add remaining broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring until each addition is absorbed, until the rice is creamy but al dente, 25 to 30 minutes.
4. Add feta and stir until melted and risotto is creamy and thick. Stir in oregano and lemon zest, and season to taste, if needed, with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and serve immediately.