Cook-Off: Risotto

Here at SAVEUR, we revere the home cook. Nothing inspires us more than tales of aging aunts who painstakingly create family feasts for every holiday, eager young cooks who devote their weekend hours to learning complicated new recipes, or moms and dads who manage to make a comforting dinner after a hard day at work.

For a long time, these everyday kitchen heroes have gone unsung (except, perhaps, by satisfied friends and family), but now, thanks to the rise of the food blogosphere and the growing popularity of cooking competitions, talented and ambitious amateurs are getting a bigger share of the spotlight. We couldn't be more delighted—and we hope that this new column, chronicling some of the many community cook-offs sprouting up around the U.S, will encourage further experiments in the kitchen.

The Risotto Challenge: Brooklyn, New York, April 2008

Last month I was invited by Cathy Erway, of the food blog Not Eating Out in NY, and Karol Lu, of Billiardsburg.com, to help judge the first Brooklyn Risotto Challenge. Along with two cojudges, Jenni Ferrari-Adler, editor of Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, and Adam Kuban, the managing editor of Serious Eats, I sampled risottos from 17 contestants hailing from around New York City. Their entries ranged from simple classics, like risotto made with chicken stock and artichokes, to more-complicated concoctions (one combined plantains and sage; another, wolfberries, coconut, goji berries, and Chinese five-spice powder).

Risotto is not a forgiving food, and most of the contestants had rushed to the event right from their offices, so the fact that so many of these risottos were delicious only confirmed their talents. Some were a little mushy, and one entry was decidedly undercooked, but still, the general quality was surprisingly high.

After half an hour of dedicated eating, my fellow judges and I selected some clear favorites. First place went to Shana Wright and David Roderick for their Scarborough Fair risotto, using a mixture of citrus juice, cashews, gruy`ere cheese, parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. The genius of Wright and Roderick's risotto lay not only in its well-balanced, appealing flavors but also in its use of brown rice, which helped its texture hold up well over the long evening of judging. (For more ideas about how to use brown rice, see the May 2008 issue of SAVEUR).

Second place went to Emilia Sicilia, for her inventive and well-balanced risotto made with gorgonzola, caramelized pears, and arugula. Third place was awarded to Arin Kramer and Alysa Casey's moist golden artichoke risotto.

In addition to the standard awards, we gave out a few special prizes. To Matthew Wills's Neoclassical Revival, a creamy risotto with maple-glazed ham that was permeated by the flavor of smoked-turkey stock, went an award for the meatiest entry. Molly Reese's inspired peach and pancetta risotto received an award for the best use of an unusual blend of flavors. And, for her Kitchen Sink risotto, Cristen Bradshaw scored the award for the best risotto using seasonal and local ingredients; it contained asparagus, artichoke, prosciutto, and lemon (all of which she had sitting around in her kitchen).

Each winner went home with a prize, ranging from some Principato de Lucedio Carnaroli rice (for—what else?—making more risotto) to cooking classes at the Brooklyn Kitchen. I went home full of risotto and dreams of other recipes that I might try sometime soon in my own kitchen. Corn, leek, and bacon risotto, anyone?