Risotto is an Italian specialty that is a universally comforting dish. Creamy, tender rice simmered with vegetables and a savory stock define the dish, but there’s so much room for interpretation beyond those basics. Proving that point, traditional Japanese ingredients are the secret to making a richer, healthier, and even easier version than the original.
Sugimoto Shiitake are the secret to creating a world of umami that’s completely plant-based. You could just hydrate them and toss in a few meaty chunks to dress up the dish, but with a little finesse, you can bring out the full potential of this key ingredient.
How Can You Maximize Your Mushrooms?
- For the sake of thrift and flavor, save all of that shiitake-infused soaking water as part of the cooking liquid, just for starters. It should be a crime to toss such savory stock.
- Once fully hydrated, slowly roast the sliced caps over low heat to concentrate the flavors while enhancing their toothsome, chewy texture. The edges begin to caramelize and crisp while the centers remain lusciously tender.
- A light dusting of Sugimoto shiitake powder drives the umami bus home. Who needs truffles when you can coax out many of those same woodsy, nutty, and earthy notes from a much more attainable source?
- Stash those stems away for safe keeping. We don’t need them for this recipe, but they’re ideal for other meals, such as tacos, chopped cheese sandwiches, and more.
The very best risotto blurs cultural boundaries, blending the best of eastern and western cuisine. Risotto was born from Arab influence in the first place, since they’re to thank for introducing rice to Italy during the Middle Ages.
Why Do Japanese Ingredients Work Best in Risotto?
- Sushi Rice: Rather than more expensive arborio or carnaroli rice, sushi rice is the most affordable short grain I can find. It’s readily available in bulk, but even more importantly from a culinary stand point, maintains a satisfying al dente bite while creating an effortlessly creamy sauce out of any excess liquid. I find it’s less temperamental to cook, demanding less active stirring to yield the same great results.
- Mirin: Standing in for classic white wine, the base of mirin is sake, which is also fermented from rice and thus more harmonious overall. Sugar is added for a light, balanced sweetness that enhances other flavors without overwhelming the dish.
- Miso: Subtly funky, salty, and savory, I simply can’t get enough miso. White miso contributes a more delicate flavor to this dish, creating tanmi without even trying.
- Wasabi: Bright and peppery, bold enough to cut through the richness, wasabi is an optional addition depending on your spice tolerance. You only need a tiny bit for the right touch of contrast.
That’s just talking about the base here. Things get really exciting when you consider the endless seasonal variations that are possible. You could easily eat a different risotto every day of the year and never grow bored.
First, let’s start with spring.
Celebrate the season of renewal with fresh green vegetables, like asparagus, snap peas, green peas, or artichoke hearts. If you forage, look for fiddle head ferns or morel mushrooms. Finish it off with tender young sprouts, microgreens, or delicate herbs like chives and dill.
Summer brings a rainbow of produce…
…but it’s impossible to consider the options without mentioning tomatoes first. Cherry tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, or beefsteak tomatoes; there are no bad tomatoes here. Pair them with sweet corn kernels, zucchini or yellow squash, bell peppers, eggplants, okra, or wax beans. Basil is a must, if you ask me, although hot sauce or pickled jalapeños could be a nice way to spice things up.
When the weather begins to grow colder for fall…
…hardier vegetables come into play. Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, chestnuts, turnips, and beets are at the top of my list. Bear in mind that this roster needs to be cooked before joining the party, so plan on roasting them on a separate sheet pan while the shiitake mushrooms caramelize.
Winter can be tough.
In some cases, it’s a time of scarcity, muted colors, and dampened flavors. Don’t let that outdoor chill take the warmth out of your food! Consider carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, and dark leafy greens like kale, collards, and Swiss chard. This is a perfect opportunity to break out the dried herbs to add some soulful rosemary, sage, and/or thyme to bolster that comforting broth. Top it off with toasted nuts like walnuts, hazelnuts, or pecans for a crunchy, satisfying finish.
Even if you just stick with the plain, simple shiitake foundation, you’re in for a heady umami experience. Vegan cheese is optional, though recommended for extra richness, guaranteed to push it over the edge into the realm of everyday decadence. Make a half batch to impress a hot date, double up to serve the whole family, or make it just as is for yourself and relish the leftovers all week.
Risotto is one of my favorite easy meals, and with this recipe, I bet it will become one of yours, too.