It’s October the 4th, and believe it or not, tomatoes are still in season. Of course, this is the end of the season, but for many growers, they’re still coming in strong. I can’t exactly say that for myself, however, since most of my plants were mysteriously taken out by a cocktail of different blights and garden diseases. Neat, huh?
That said, I am still getting some tomatoes. The past week has seen nothing but rain, which sent my already sad looking plants into even further death and decay. But shockingly, there are still a few tomatoes hanging on for dear life. And while these ones may be looking a bit worse for the wear, they’re still meaty and juicy and flavorful and meant for so much more than the trash (or, uh, compost pile).
Cut around those little black cankers and there’s still plenty of tomato to be enjoyed. I put a lot of time, money and effort into growing these babies and you can bet your life I’m not about to see any of them go to waste. That’s why they’re perfect for this recipe: a creamy and rich risotto that actually doesn’t contain any cream at all. Or cheese. Or butter for that matter. In fact, this recipe is completely vegan (and gluten free, to boot).
In a strange twist of events, I forewent my usual instincts to load up a dish with as much butter and cheese as possible and instead, opted to let the natural flavors shine. It’s essentially a rule of mine, as well as every Italian and most other chefs, to always finish a risotto with lots of butter and parmesan cheese. But I felt this one actually benefitted from a lack of dairy. The flavors are so perfect on their own, the only finishing touch it needs is a little bit of olive oil and a slew of fresh herbs.
This recipe was inspired by these stuffed tomatoes that I used to make for a client. I always found that, no matter what I did, the tomatoes always turned to mush and leeched out tons of liquid that would pool up in the bottom of the pan and never actually absorbed into the rice. Overall, I found the recipe just didn’t work very well, but what did work was the combination of flavors, and they worked beautifully.
Fennel and onions get cooked down until they’re sweet and tender, then the addition of toasted fennel seed really drives home that fennely flavor. I happen to adore fennel seed. It’s that flavor in Italian sausage that some people hate, but personally, I find Italian sausage just doesn’t taste right without it. We use nothing but a little bit of wine, water, and the juice from the tomatoes as liquid, and it’s finished with a shower of fresh dill, mint, and parsley, plus a generous drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil. The flavors are so simple, and this is definitely one of those dishes that only works with the best tomatoes you can find, which – guess what, you guys – are still available for a limited time right now.
One thing to note about risotto… Or, okay, two things. Risotto should never be cooked into a thick glob of mushy rice. That description just sounds bad, but so often I find this is how people think risotto should be cooked. It should be on the soupier, or rather, saucier side; a bit loose. And the rice should be al dente, just like pasta, and not completely soft. Towards the end of cooking, you need to continuously taste, adding little bits of liquid and adjusting the seasoning as necessary until you get it just right. Your mouth is – and in cooking, should always be – your best friend.
This is a simple dish to throw together and can be served as either an entree or a side with chicken or fish. I love these shoulder season foods that showcase the best of lingering late summer produce, but with the warm and comforting cooking techniques of fall. I still can’t figure out how to dress myself this time of year (shorts are too summer but pants are too hot and one minute I need a jacket and the next minute I’m sweating), but I know what to eat, and to me, that’s far more important.
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 medium yellow onion, very thinly sliced
- 1 medium bulb of fennel, cored and very thinly sliced
- 2 teaspoons fennel seed, crushed with a mortar or back of a knife
- 1 tablespoon salt, divided, plus more to taste
- freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 1 cup arborio rice
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 6 cups diced fresh heirloom tomatoes (from about 4 medium)
- 3-4 cups of water
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
- Heat the olive oil in a large heavy bottomed pot or dutch oven over medium heat, then add the onion and fennel. Saute until softened and barely starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add the fennel seed and half of the salt, then cook for 1 minute more.
- Add the arborio rice, stir, and cook for about 2-3 minutes to toast the rice. Add the white wine and stir until fully absorbed. Add one cup of water and stir until absorbed, then add another cup of water and continue stirring.
- Place the tomatoes in a strainer over the pot and stir in their liquid. When the rice absorbs all of the liquid, add another cup of water and continue stirring. Add the remaining salt and season with pepper. Give the risotto a taste. Adjust the seasoning as needed, and take note of how done the rice is. You want it to be slightly al dente.
- Continue tasting every few minutes and add 1/4 cup more liquid at a time until the rice is to the right point of doneness. Add the tomatoes and keep stirring. They will release some liquid, but you want the risotto to be a bit on the soupier side. Taste to see if it's ready, and when it is, remove it from the heat and stir in all but a small amount of the herbs, along with a glug or two of olive oil.
- Spoon the risotto into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and garnish with the remaining herbs. Serve immediately.