My ultimate goal, rather than simply providing recipes, is to demistify the process of creating a recipe, particularly a plant-based one. So many of us grow up learning how to cook meats, eggs, and cheeses without recipes, it’s simply second nature. When transitioning to a more plant-based diet, it can be overwhelming to feel you have to look up a recipe every single evening for dinner. Towards my blog’s beginnings, I posted a basic formula for cooking without a recipe. However, this formula doesn’t cover special cooking techniques. I teach myself how to cook more complicated meals simply by reading other people’s recipes, taking one idea here, another there, and combining them. This is how I learned to cook risotto.
Also, when putting together a meal, I want it to be as seasonal as possible. Last fall, when butternut squash was in season, I used it in many dishes, including a risotto. This spring, I tweaked the recipe to create an asparagus-based risotto. How did I know what flavors to use? Well, I knew that leeks are in season, and thought their light flavor would go nicely with asparagus (a lovely thing about life is that seasonal vegetables often compliment each other). Because I was going to use leeks, I decided to not use garlic, as I didn’t want it to overpower the leek’s flavor. I’d noticed that asparagus was often paired with thyme and lemon in recipes, so I used these flavors in mine. I only used a tablespoon of fresh thyme, again to keep a light “springy” flavor.
Practice this yourself. Take one of your favorite meals, and use that cooking technique, but substitute the vegetables, protein, or herbs and spices for a different, maybe even seasonal combination. When you’re beginning, you might just take a flavor combination from one recipe and just stick it into another. Take your favorite curry recipe, and use those spices to season a tofu scramble from a cookbook. Take some of the herbs and vegetables from a pasta recipe, and toss them together with greens in a salad. I think practicing this way helps you internalize flavor combinations that you like, making it easy to cook according to what’s in your yard or at the farmer’s market, and of course, without recipes.
Here’s what my risotto recipe ended up as. Enjoy this, or use just a few of my ideas to create your own masterpiece.
4 Tablespoons of olive oil
2 medium leeks, sliced, white parts only
2 – 3 cups asparagus, cut into 2 inch pieces and steamed until just tender
2 cups arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine (or use an extra cup of broth if you’d like to leave out the wine)
6 cups vegetable stock or broth
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon thyme or regular thyme
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Freshly grated lemon zest, for garnish
1. Steam the aspagus until just tender. Once it’s steamed, put it in a colander, run it under cold water and set aside.
2. In a large pot, heat the oil at medium heat. Saute the leeks for about five minutes, until tender. While this is happening, make sure you are also warming the vegetable broth in a saucepan.
3. Add the arborio rice to the leeks and saute for 1 to 2 minutes.
4. Add the white wine, and cook, stirring, until absorbed.
5. Add the broth, 1/2 cup at a time (this is about two ladles – which is how I like to do it). Once you add the broth, you’ll stir the risotto until it’s absorbed, then add, and repeat. Make sure you’re listening to some good music (and possibly drinking some of the remaining wine from that bottle). Keep an eye on the heat – if the liquid is being absorbed right away and the mixture is sticking at all, you may want to turn the heat down. If it seems like it’s taking forever, you might want it up a notch. I keep my heat between medium low and just under medium. Also, as the broth gets less, you may want to turn the heat down on its burner to just a simmer.
6. Once all of the liquid is absorbed, add the nutritional yeast, steamed asparagus, and fresh herbs. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. Serve at once, garnishing each bowl with about a teaspoon lemon zest.
Note: I’ve never seen lemon thyme available at the store, but it’s easy to find at a nursery. Thyme is a perennial and can handle some shade, so it’s a wonderful plant for your garden.