Risotto al finocchio e limone

When I first started learning to cook and bake all the way back in middle school, I found risotto -- much like Isabel S. and Amanda M., the reigning popular girls of my 8th grade class -- a bit intimidating (though in hindsight if it was only a few spoiled pre-teens and arborio rice scaring me, I wasn't doing so badly)My 13 year old self did lots of culinary self-teaching and cookbook reading back then, and from what I had gathered, risotto -- not unlike algebra -- was notoriously tricky. It required lots of continuous stirring, and if you didn't stir it as you should, your risotto would end up a gluey, stuck-to-the-pan mess; broth needed to be added in specific quantities, and added only when the previous ladle-ful had been absorbed, and not a moment sooner; and if you got that far, the risotto needed to be eaten immediately, or else (I wasn't sure what the else was). For a while, I stuck to what I had already learned to do well -- brownie pie, banana pancakes, any type of pasta -- which, similar to sitting in the last row during Math class, seemed a bit safer. 

As time went on, I grew more confident in my kitchen skills, and although I felt painfully out of place in gym class and overly self-conscious at lunchtime, I learned to be pretty cool in my own kitchen at least, conquering things like Baked Alaska and Cheesecake and homemade gnocchi. I eventually decided to give risotto a shot, and, to my great surprise -- pause for dramatic effect --  found it wasn't so difficult as I had expected it to be, not in the least. Sure, it required a bit of stirring and attention, but it was nothing I couldn't handle, and when it was all said and done, the rice's transformation from crunchy little grains to velvety risotto was kind of magical, up there with the rising of bread dough or the disappearing act of sauteed greens, one of those things that to this day makes cooking and baking so fascinating to me. Around the time I conquered risotto, I came to the conclusion that the Popular Girls were also harboring insecurities (so that's what made them so mean!) most everyone in the class were sporting braces, not just me, and anyways, high school was right around the corner. Moral of the story: both middle school and my risotto were both eventually overcome, conquered, brought down to size. Who knew grades 7-8 and risotto had so much in common?!

But you came here for recipes, not reminiscing -- on to today's recipe. You don't find much risotto here in Rome; it's a dish that is more common up in the north of Italy, especially in Milan, the home of risotto alla milanese (risotto with saffron). It's something then that I make for myself at home, most usually on Sunday afternoons, or after a long day at my less than dream-job, where lots of repetitive, methodical stirring does the mind good. This fennel risotto with lemon is one of my new favorites, one of those make-eat-and-repeat dishes. It's buttery and rich and creamy and comforting (butter + Parmesan cheese have this down pat) the richness of the finished dish tempered by the bright sunny hit of lemon, and the fennel! The fennel here is sauteed in said butter, then left to almost braise in wine and broth along with the rice, where it becomes sweet, almost caramelized, its telltale licorice flavor present but softened around the edges. Topped with a few extra fennel fronds, a dash more of cheese, and a grate or two of lemon zest, it's heavenly. Conquer any lingering risotto fears you might have and make this, asap, I mean it.

A couple of notes: This is another spot-on Rachel Roddy recipe from the Guardian. I found that the rice took a bit longer to cook than the 16 minutes Rachel mentions in her reicpe and also that I did not to use all 2 liters of broth -- see how things go for you. I used arborio rice here instead of the recommended carnaroli, which worked wonderfully. Risotto is most certainly best eaten right off the stove, and I've read more than once that it shouldn't be reheated or eaten the next day (if anything, any leftovers should be used to make suppli'). However, I found this reheated pretty well the next day -- I heated up a little broth in the pan, stirred in the risotto and let it absorb the broth and heat up again, and it was good as new. The next day, the fennel flavor is stronger, which was also delicious. Last thing: I doubled the lemon zest, because I like an extra hit of citrus, but I leave the choice up to you.

Looking for more rice recipes? I've got this Butternut Squash Risotto and this Risotto with Peas and Pancetta, these Rice-stuffed Tomatoes with Potatoes, and this Insalata di Riso. Looking for more recipes with fennel? I've got this salad with Fennel, Orange, and Olives. Looking for more Italian comfort food? I've got this Butternut Squash Lasagne, this Pici pasta with sausage ragu', these Canederli, this Polpettone, and this Polenta con funghi

(Fennel and lemon risotto - recipe from Rachel Roddy)

1 large fennel bulb
2 litres (2000 grams) vegetable or light chicken stock
5 tablespoons (75 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion
1 1/2 cups (320 grams) carnaroli, arborio, or vialone nano rice
1/2 cup (125ml) dry white wine
Zest of a lemon
1/2 cup (60 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Extra cheese and lemon zest, for serving

Start by preparing your fennel. Cut off the fennel fronds (the feathery greens at the end of the stalks) and set aside for garnish. Using a sharp knife, cut off the tough bottom stem, the stalks of the fennel and any of the tough outer layer. Slice the resulting trimmed fennel bulb in to thinnish slices. Peel and finely chop the onion. Melt half the butter in a large deep frying pan/saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the chopped onion and the fennel with a pinch of salt, or until soft and translucent.
Add the rice to the fennel and onion mixture, stirring for 2-3 minutes, to toast the grains and coat them with the butter. Add the wine to the pan and stir until it has been absorbed. As the rice is absorbing the wine, place your stock in a medium pan on another burner on the stove and bring it to a simmer over low heat. When the wine is absorbed, begin to add the stock to the rice a ladleful at a time, stirring constantly and allowing it to be absorbed before adding the next. Rachel says this process will take about 16 minutes, but I found it took a little longer. Taste the rice: it is cooked when it is tender, but still with bite.
Turn off the heat on the pan, and add the rest of the butter, the cheese and the lemon zest. Cover the pan. Let it sit for 1 minute, then beat the risotto vigorously with a wooden spoon until the risotto is creamy and glossy. 
Taste the risotto and add a little salt, if you think it needs it. Divide the fennel up between 4 plates, decorating with fennel fronds, some extra Parmesan, and a little lemon zest if you wish. Servse 4.