Risotto is the ultimate comfort food for me, and one of the few that suits all seasons. When I’m feeling low and in need of succor—or walking on Cloud 9 and ready for celebration for that matter—a bowl mounded with creamy, buttery mashed potatoes sounds ideal, but in the throws of a hot summer I can’t quite bring myself to that the same way I have a hard time even wandering down the freezer section to gawk at the ice cream offerings in subzero temperatures. Now, that’s not to say that I only eat hot foods when it’s cold outside and vice versa, but it seems that when the snugness and swaddle of comfort foods are in need they usually counteract the current season.
Risotto transcends all that; high summer or the dead of winter and it still manages to work. Roasted butternut squash and sage for the fall, grilled corn and Fresno chilies in the summer (with a broth made from the cobs—so good), my Green Garlic Risotto in the spring… it fits any season. This one, my Italian Sausage and Roasted Fennel Risotto, is perfect for the winter months.
Partnering pork and fennel is a no-brainer; the seeds are used in most Italian sausages and porchetta, fennel roasted pork loins are a classic, and if you’ve never dusted a pork chop in ground fennel seeds or braised some with wedges of the bulb you haven’t lived. With this risotto you get a triple whammy of fennel—a fennel TKO, if you will. There are fennel seeds in the sausage, and thinly sliced roasted fennel rippling throughout the Arborio. Then there’s the broth… Oh yeah, the broth.
I mentioned it before in the Green Garlic Risotto recipe, but it bears the repeat. With any risotto that I make I use vegetable or chicken stock, but weaken it with some water; something about the starches that the Arborio rice releases makes a risotto made solely out of stock taste and feel like gravy to me. In the aforementioned recipe I had a personal revelation; rather than using a store-bought or homemade chicken or vegetable stock that, even having been diluted, would overpower the delicate taste of the green garlic I made a broth out of green garlic scraps. It was light and brothy—nothing remotely in the realm of rich and hearty like a good stock—but still flavorful enough to make the dish really sing and not muddy up the subtle flavors of the risotto. Since then I have been making quick broths out of singular scraps—that is, one to two ingredients only—constantly. So, for this risotto I take the scraps from the fennel bulb—the tough outer layers that you peel away, the stalks, core, and most of the fronds—and simmer them in water for a little while to make a quick fennel broth. On its own the broth is the essence of fennel, but when the risotto is all finished you don’t get bashed over the head with fennel flavor. It’s flavorful, but still light.
Even the biggest of fennel-phobes, who recoil at its raw anise-heavy crispness, will love this. The fennel is roasted, taking the edge off of it. It sweetens, looses some of that grassiness, and mellows considerably.
When it comes to the sausage itself, pick a good quality Italian pork sausage. Sweet, mild, or spicy all work perfectly for this (I have to have spicy myself). I start them in an unheated pan with a little oil and let them gradually heat up over medium heat rather then slapping them into a screaming hot pan. The method to this madness is that it prevents the skins from bursting by heating up the meat itself slowly and gently. You’re just doing it long enough to crisp the casing of the sausage—a few minutes each side—for that meaty, caramelized flavor. Pour in some wine, cover the pan, and let them steam until they’re cooked. Perfect.
It’s no secret that risotto is a bit needy, having to be stirred constantly from the moment the rice hits the pan until it’s done, but it’s twenty minutes of mindless stirring in which to get lost in the swathe of those pearly grains staring back up at you. Nothing could be better.
I’m on BLOGLOVIN’ too. Tell your friends.