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.
|4 (or 3 greedy people)||20 minutes|
- 8 ounces Italian sausage mild or hot, per preference
- 4 tablespoons butter divided
- 2 tablespoons garlic-infused olive oil divided (plus a few more drops)
- 1 bulb fennel bulb (med-large, approx. 1.5lbs with fronds)
- 2 shallots finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic (2 minced, 1 whole)
- 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine such as Chardonnay
- 5-1/2 cups cold water
- 1 1" x 2" piece (approx) Parmigiano-Reggiano rind
- 1/2 t-spoon fresh minced thyme
- 1-1/4 t-spoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley or fennel fronds
- Start by breaking down the fennel by removing the two outermost layers of the bulb. Trim the end, and cut the stalks off from where they protrude from the bulb. Remove some of the feathery fronds from the stalks and set aside for later. Roughly chop all the scraps and place them in a 2-quart pot. Pour the cold water over the fennel scraps, plunk in the whole clove of garlic (unpeeled is fine), and place over medium heat. Bring it to a gentle simmer, stir in a heaping ¼ t-spoon of kosher salt, and reduce the heat to low, simmering for 25 minutes uncovered. Once the broth is done, strain it into a large liquid measuring cup through a fine mesh sieve—you should have 5 cups left. Return to the saucepan, cover, and place over very low heat to just keep warm (with the parm rind, if using).
- Preheat the oven to 475°
- Cut the fennel into ¼” thick wedges, keeping the core in contact to keep the wedges together. Toss the fennel in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and place in a small roasting tray.
- Set aside for now—this needs 15 – 20 minutes to roast, so you’ll put it in the oven once you start stirring liquid into the rice.
- Next, add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sausage links to a Dutch oven and place over medium heat. Allow them to gradually warm and come up to temperature, cooking on one side for a few minutes until lightly crisped and bronzed, before turning them over. Cook an additional 2-3 minutes.
- Pour in the wine and cover with the lid, turning the flame down to low and steam the sausages for about 5 minutes.
- Remove the sausages to a foil lined plate and cover tightly with foil and set aside. Pour the wine out into a heatproof liquid measuring cup.
- Heat 3 tablespoons of butter and a few drops of olive oil in the Dutch oven over medium heat. Once the butter is melted and sizzling, add the shallots, and sauté for a few minutes until they are soft. Add in the minced garlic, thyme and some salt. Stir around for just a minute.
- Add the rice and stir about, toasting in the fat for a few minutes until the grains become slightly opaque and smell a little nutty without taking on any color.
- Pour in the reserved wine and stir around into the rice vigorously, turning down the heat to medium low immediately. Let it bubble a little until the wine is mostly absorbed in the rice.
- Put the fennel in the oven at this time.
- Now, a ladleful at a time, pour the stock into the rice, constantly stirring. This helps the rice to release its starches all the while absorbing the stock. Do not add any more stock until the rice has almost absorbed all of its current stock. In all, the stock absorbing should take about 20 minutes.
- In the last few minutes, slice the sausage on a bias into ½” thick pieces, remove the fennel from the oven—which should be bronzed and soft—and add to the risotto, along with any juices that collected on the sausage plate.
- Turn off the heat, stir in the Parmesan and remaining tablespoon of butter and serve immediately, with parsley or the reserved fennel fronds sprinkled over top of it. Serve this immediately for optimal quality.