risotto

Risotto, an Italian rice dish, is generally eaten as a primo (starter), but this recipe is one I developed to be a full meal. Italian Americans often adapted the traditional multi-course Italian meal into one that could be eaten as a single course at the end of a long work day instead of during a long afternoon break. This dish also mixes seafood and cheese, something that many Italians will rage against, but growing up as an Italian American, we often put cheese on seafood dishes, so just think of this as an Italian-American dish and don’t worry about its authenticity. It tastes great and is quite satisfying, so let’s make some seafood risotto. 

Other than the exceptions above, this is a standard risotto preparation. Risotto is short-grained rice cooked in broth, usually with some kind of soffritto (chopped and sautéed aromatic vegetables), wine, and butter. Just because we’re not worried about authenticity here doesn’t mean we’re not worried about quality though. Good risotto requires quality rice. Use a quality arborio (superfino) rice that will develop starches and give the dish a richly textured broth.

The broth in this case is fish stock. There are various options for fish stock. You can usually buy it frozen at a fish market, you can make it yourself from fish heads and shrimp shells, or you can use a concentrate. I keep a tub of concentrated fish base in the refrigerator and often use it because it is less expensive than buying stock and it is always available. My one caveat with concentrated base is that it is high in salt, so I tend to mix it just a bit over half-strength. That makes for a less fishy and less salty final dish.

You can vary the seafood, but don’t go over a pound for this recipe or it will be overbearing. I often use half shrimp and half scallops. The method is the same: cook it in butter and then chop before adding it in during the last step of the recipe. 

Seafood Risotto
Serves 4
A hearty seafood risotto recipe that is a complete meal in a bowl.
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Prep Time
20 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Prep Time
20 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Ingredients
  1. 2 cups of arborio rice
  2. 8 cups of fish stock
  3. 1 lb of shrimp or scallops (1/2 pound of each works well)
  4. 1 white onion
  5. 3-4 cups of baby spinach
  6. 4 oz of quality unsalted butter at room temperature
  7. 1/3 cup of dry white wine
  8. 2-3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  9. 1.5 cups of grated parmesan or Romano cheese
  10. Salt (if needed, test after stock and cheese)
  11. Fresh cracked pepper
Instructions
  1. In a large saucepan, sauté pan, or paella pan, sauté the seafood in half the butter. When it's cooked, transfer it to a bowl and let it cool. Be careful not to overcook the seafood.
  2. Heat the fish stock in a saucepan and leave over low heat.
  3. Dice the onion and, in the same pan used for the shrimp, sauté it in olive oil until it's translucent. Stir regularly and don't let the onion brown.
  4. While the onion is cooking steam the spinach until it's just past wilted. Strain and press out the liquid. Set aside to cool.
  5. Transfer the seafood to a cutting board and chop into coarse pieces. Retain the butter left in the bowl and add the chopped seafood back to the butter.
  6. Chop the spinach in the same method and transfer back to a bowl.
  7. When the onion is translucent, push it to the side to clear the center of the pan. Add the rice and stir into the oil and onion.
  8. Stir the rice into the oil and onion until all the rice is coated in oil. Keep stirring over medium-low heat until the rice starts to crackle and becomes translucent with a white "eye" in each kernel.
  9. Before the rice starts to brown, add three to four ladles of hot broth and stir.
  10. Continue stirring every 1-2 minutes until the broth is nearly absorbed and then add another ladle or two of broth.
  11. Continue stirring and adding broth until the rice is cooked. Risotto, like pasta, is cooked al dente. The rice should be firm in the middle, but not hard. There should be some "broth" left in the pot, but it should not be soupy. You probably will have a small amount of stock left unused.
  12. Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the remaining butter and cheese.
  13. Stir in the chopped seafood (including any butter in the bowl) and the chopped spinach.
  14. Serve in warmed bowls with fresh cracked pepper
Notes
  1. You can make risotto in various types of pots. The pot you choose needs to be large enough to hold the completed recipe with room for stirring and have enough surface area for evaporation. The pot should also be heavy to prevent sticking or burning. I like a pot with rounded sides as pictured.
  2. The spinach is optional, but makes in a nutritious single-course meal. You can substitute other steamed greens such as kale or chard as well.
Herodotus http://herodot.us/

I often see an argument against scientific theories about the origin of the universe that goes something like this,”no one was around to witness the beginning of the universe, so we can never know for sure what happened.” This statement is meant to cast doubt on scientific theory via an argument of empiricism and raise religious explanations to an equal standing. “No one knows, so either might be true…”

Errors in logic abound, especially since religion, which values belief, is counter to empiricism on most points. That said, analysis of scientific evidence is a far more reliable record than any observation. Take this scenario for example:

People see a man standing in front of a building at night. He takes out a cell phone, punches in a sequence and the building explodes. The man runs away, apparently unharmed, and witnesses tell police that they saw the man detonate a bomb and blow up the building.

Law enforcement is brought in and they do a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the blast. The evidence determines that there was no bomb and that the explosion came from a gas leak. The man with the cell phone sees the news and comes forward as a witness. He says there was a sign on the building with a phone number and all he was doing was dialing that number on his phone when the building exploded and scared him into running for safety. Cell phone records corroborate his story.

Which story tells the truth, personal witnesses or scientific investigation?

Omnifocus Contexts

My current context list

My contexts in Omnifocus just weren’t working for me anymore. Using the traditional Getting Things Done approach, about 80% of my tasks were tagged with the context “computer” or “online.” Given the ubiquity of computing devices and network connections, this system just didn’t make sense anymore. I alway have my iPhone and I often have my iPad with me wherever I am. 

Being between jobs gave me the opportunity to rethink my contexts, so I started doing some online research and this post on Simplicity Bliss just made a lot of sense, so I adapted his list to my own workflow. I won’t go over everything in the original post here, including the justification for energy-level contexts, so it probably makes sense to read it before I describe how I’m using the contexts below. 

        •  I like the Short Dashes context. GTD says if it will take less than two minutes, do it now, but that leaves a lot of five and ten-minute tasks in the list. It is nice to be able to hit these when a block opens up on your schedule.
        • Full Focus is almost the opposite of Online. Sure, you might still be connected for reading or analysis, but it is when you shutdown your social media and email and, well, focus. I divided it up into the types of tasks that I find require my full attention. The last item, “Formigny” is the name of our house, so for those items, I need full focus and I need to be at home. BTW, the name comes from a small village in Normandy that we visited shortly after buying the house.
        • I haven’t used the Thinking context yet, because I get much of my pure thinking tasks done while running or riding my bike. Maybe this winter though…
        • I also haven’t used the Brain Dead task yet, but I’m saving it for when I go back to work. There are certainly tedious things that need to get done that don’t require much thinking. I’m considering this a “work” context.
        • I have used the Hanging Around context and it is a bit like the personal version of Brain Dead. I label my Pay Bills task with Hanging Around because I can do that while I’m watching television. 
        • I retained a Calls context because being on the phone does require special circumstances. Sure I always have a phone, but it is not always quiet around me while I have a phone.
        • Routines are for tasks that are part of the GTD process, reviewing my Inbox, weekly review, etc.
        • I added an Errands context because I don’t drive often. Once I’m in the car, I want to be able to see what else I should do while I’m out and about. I thought of labeling this Car instead, but I also run errands on my cruiser bike and I can still do more than one per trip.
        • The Others context is my way of saying that someone else needs to be present to complete the task. I can’t have lunch with Lisa if Lisa isn’t there. This context will grow when I go back to work. I generally keep a context for key people that I work with and when I have them on the phone or I am with them, I sort by their context. I chose not to make these On Hold contexts, because I can be proactive about reaching the people.
        • Waiting is for all tasks that are on hold and there are various reasons something could be so. I added SnailMail when I was waiting for some paperwork to arrive in the mail. I couldn’t do my task until the papers arrived. If the context is a person’s name, I’m waiting for the person to finish a task before I can complete my task. This list will grow when I go back to work too.

I haven’t had the chance to try this context approach in a truly high-pressure task environment yet, but I will carry it it into my next job and build it out as needed. So far it seems more applicable to the way I work in this connected age and it works well with the mobile and Mac versions of Omnifocus. 

I’ve been listening to the audio version of this book by David Sedaris during my runs for the last two weeks and just finished it up while doing some chores around the house. The short assessment, if you like David Sedaris, there is a lot to like here. I wouldn’t rank it among his top books, but it is quite funny and is perhaps a bit more unified than some of his other works. By that I mean that he consciously extends some of tropes and references throughout the stories, like his father’s calling anytime in the evening “one o’clock in the morning.” I often found myself laughing out loud while running and I have to say that the live recordings are the best ones. I always opt for audio versions of David’s books and this one is no different. He reads or performs each piece himself and he has a delivery that you just can’t get reading it on your own. Great exercise listening. 

The essence of Italian cooking is simplicity and polenta is about as simple as it gets. In its most basic form polenta is nothing more than boiled cornmeal, cooked until it is a thick porridge; however, most people add salt and pepper at a minimum, and cheese and butter also really help to bring out the flavor. Polenta can be served soft, fresh out of the pot or can be left to sit until it firms up, sliced, and then served under sauce. Many people also like to fry the pieces of firm polenta, but I rarely fry foods at home.

Polenta is a staple of northern Italian cooking and is traditionally not eaten at all in the south. In fact, since food is one of the areas of division between the north and the south in Italy, southern Italians sometimes call northerners “mangia polenta” or “polentoni,” in other words, polenta eaters. In return, northerners call southerners “terroni” or farmers, and they don’t mean it as a compliment.

Regionalisms aside, polenta has become common in fine dining, despite it’s humble beginning. You can find everything from truffled scallops to osso buco served over polenta these days and you will pay well for the experience. The good news is that polenta is easy to make at home and it is quite economical. All you really need is time and quality corn meal. I learned the secret of great polenta reading Heat, by Bill Buford, who learned it in the kitchen of Mario Batali. While the book is well worth the read, I’ll cut to the secret here. Cook your polenta for at least three hours.

The long slow cooking method ensures that you break down the starches in the corn, releasing natural sweetness and flavor that you won’t get using quicker methods. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway; don’t even consider instant polenta. It is pasty and flavorless and will put you off of polenta for good. Slow-cooked polenta is creamy, nutty, and sweet and it doesn’t require much attention while cooking. Your polenta can be bubbling away in a pot while you cook the rest of the meal or do other things around the house. As long as you can give it a stir every twenty minutes or so, it will be fine.

Since polenta is little more than cooked cornmeal, the quality of that ingredient is of the highest importance to get a tasty dish. I use heritage cornmeal from Anson Mills. It is the best tasting polenta I’ve found.  I buy the ten-pound bag and keep it sealed in the freezer. If you don’t want to order online, I’m told that Bob’s Redmill makes an acceptable cornmeal for polenta and should be available in most stores. You can use either yellow or white corn, but I prefer yellow, since it has more nutrients. I recommend a whole-grain corn meal that includes the germ, but keep in mind that the germ spoils and that is why you should store it in the freezer. Degerminated cornmeal doesn’t really benefit from the long, slow cooking in this recipe.

Enough background, let’s make some.

Polenta
Serves 6
A simple staple of Northern Italian cooking.
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
3 hr
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
3 hr
Ingredients
  1. 2 heaping cups of Anson Mills (or other high-quality) corn meal
  2. 8 cups of filtered water, plus more as needed
  3. 6 Tbs of butter or mascarpone cheese
  4. 1 cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
  5. Salt and pepper to taste
Instructions
  1. Bring 8 cups of water to a boil in a large pot. You will want an oversized pot with high sides because polenta splashes as it bubbles.
  2. Whisk polenta into boiling water pouring a thin stream and whisking briskly. Add a small bit first to prevent the water from boiling over.
  3. Simmer for at least three hours over very low heat (occasional bubbles). Add more boiling water as needed, if the polenta thickens before it is done. After 3 hours, it is done when it is a thick porridge.
  4. Remove from heat and stir in butter or mascarpone and parmigiano-reggiano.
  5. Stir in salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
  6. Serve directly to warmed plates or bowls if serving soft. Pour in a 9 x 13 pan and let sit for 2 hours at room temperature if serving firm and re-warm in the oven.
Notes
  1. Soft polenta pairs well as a side for meat dishes like stracotto di manzo or leg of lamb. Firm polenta is served with sauce, usually a thick sauce like a meat ragù. The rule for saucing polenta is to use any sauce you would use over broad pasta like pappardelle.
  2. It helps to use a heavy pot that distributes the heat well to prevent sticking. I like to stir with a heat-proof rubber spatula so I can scrape down the sides of the pot with each stirring.
Herodotus http://herodot.us/
 

I just finished the audio version of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown and definitely recommend it. I listen to audio books while running, cooking, and doing chores around the house and Brown’s work is a compelling listen that stimulates thought, but doesn’t require undivided attention.

Brown has an accomplished narrative style that overlays the events of his scientific and personal lives to tell an absorbing story about his discovery of large objects in space and how he sacrificed the personal fame of finding a new planet for what he thought was right and scientifically sound. Aside from my new understanding of the solar system and it’s bodies, the personal commitment to knowledge and science is what I found most compelling in this book. It is refreshing to see someone doing what is right over what benefits him most. I’m also now convinced that Pluto is not a planet.

The narrator of the audio book is pleasant and you can easily think that you are listening to Mike Brown tell his first-person tale. I would also find this book worth my time as a conventional read, but I prefer to save those moments of concentration for more complicated works. This audiobook was an ideal listen to keep me interested but also to pardon the occasional drifting of my attention.

Earlier this year I took down the weblog on this site and replaced it with one that was focused on my photography, using a WordPress portfolio theme. Well, it turns out that WordPress is not ideal for a photography portfolio, so I neglected the site and it got hacked.

I’ve decided to return the site to a traditional weblog format, but I’m still not restoring the old posts. Sometimes it is good to start clean and that was my intention when I overhauled the site before. I’ve returned my old WordPress theme, but it still needs some work and it should improve over time. This site will still talk about my photography and offer some photos, but my main photography site is here.