Chanterelle & Speck Risotto

Back in the Alps in northern Italy, where I come from, fall season means mushroom season. Whenever I am back home, I go on hours-long walks with my dad, hunting for these little jewel in the forest.

Well, I went shopping the other day and I was lucky enough to catch a bunch of fresh chanterelles at the market! Chanterelles are a wild forest delicacy. They are golden looking, with a fleshy cap and body, and a vaguely peach-like aroma. Contrary to most mushrooms that you would find on the shelfs of grocery stores, they cannot be grown commercially. Which means they are rare, and tend to be expensive. But they are so delicious that they are worth every penny!

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There are many ways to cook chanterelles and enhance their flavour. One of my absolute favorite is a chanterelle-speck risotto. Speck may also sound exotic: it is a kind of cured meat that is typical of the Italian region I come from (Trentino Alto-Adige). It is obtained by curing a boned pork leg in salt and spices like laurel, pepper and juniper, then slow-smoking it with smoke from pine or juniper wood for several months. It is rare in the US, but I was lucky enough to find a small market in Washington DC that has it.

Put all these jewels together, and you get the chanterelle-speck risotto that I have been eating every fall while growing up in the Alps. Chanterelles and speck may be difficult to come by in the US, but you can easily substitute shiitake for chanterelles and diced pancetta for speck. This recipe will work perfectly well  with them too (I tried myself)!

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Ingredients (for 2)

  • 1 cup rice (Arborio or Carnaroli)
  • 1 cup chanterelles (mushrooms lose a lot of liquids when cooked, so you want to start with more than 1 cup of raw chanterelles, see directions below)
  • 2-2.5 cups vegetable stock
  • 1 tablespoon butter (divided)
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 1/4 cup white wine
  • 1/4 – 1/3 cup grated parmesan
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of black pepper and thyme
  • 1/3 cup chopped speck (ask for a thick slice so that you can chop it yourself)

First, pre-cook the chanterelles. This is necessary for three reasons. First, chanterelles are very fleshy mushrooms, so they need some cooking time before they become soft. Second, while they cook, they release a lot of water that you don’t necessarily want in your risotto because it could complicate the management of the rice’s cooking time. Third, due to the water loss chanterelles may decrease significantly in volume, so you want to measure them cooked rather than raw, to avoid surprises.

Clean and cure the chanterelles, taking away any earthy residue but without trimming them to much. Put them in a pot with just 2 tablespoons of water, cover with the lid and cook on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Do not add salt or spices until they are cooked, you want to preserve their original flavour as much as possible. Drain the excess water remaining in the pot after cooking

When you are ready to cook the risotto, bring the vegetable stock to a boil in a pot. Once it’s boiling, lower the heat so that it remains hot but does not evaporate quickly.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Add the diced onion, thyme, pepper and the chanterelles. Cook stirring regularly, until the onions begins to soften and turn translucent (don’t let them brown).

Add the rice to the pot and toast it over medium heat, stirring regularly for a minute (or until the rice feels warm to the touch). Then turn the heat to high and after a few seconds throw in the 1/4 cup of wine. Let it evaporate, while constantly stirring.

When the wine has almost fully evaporated, add one large ladleful of boiling stock to the rice. From now, cook on medium heat for about 18-20 minutes without ever stop stirring the rice (you need to stir frequently because this allows the rice to release starch, which is what ultimately yields a creamy risotto). Add stock whenever you see that the stock in the pot is almost evaporated, but just enough to prevent the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. You don’t want to “boil” the rice, so it should never be fully drowned in water.

After 10 minutes, add the speck to the pot and stir it into the rice. The reason for not adding it at the beginning is that speck tends to become very salty, when cooked for a long time. Keep adding water and stirring until the rice tastes al dente (ideally you should get to this point without having too much liquid left in the pot).

At this point add the parmesan and the remaining tablespoon of butter. Cover with the lid and let it rest (without stirring) on low heat for a few seconds (this will allow the butter to melt on top of the rice). Take off the lid and stir very energetically for a few seconds, until butter and parmesan are incorporated and your risotto reaches a proper creamy texture. Serve with a sprinkle of freshly crushed black pepper .

[ Note: If you substitute shiitake for chanterelles, you do not need to pre-cook them. Just add them in the pot with the onion and follow all the other steps in the same order.]

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