As summer reaches the middle mark — the height of the growing season — the gardening to-do list grows long. The tomatoes need constant staking and pruning (not so much picking yet, but we’re getting there. Pure torture, I tell you, all the waiting). The relentless army of cucumber and flea beetles need battling (a losing war, so far — the leaves of my cucumber vines and eggplants are filigreed finer than my grandmother’s lace wedding veil). Fall crops must be sowed; summer favorites like carrots, dill, and cilantro, succession-seeded. Compost piles to turn and supplement. Weeds, weeds, and more weeds.
And the basil must be pruned.
Basil is an amazing herb. Easy to start from seed, it grows uncomplaining through high heat, miserable drought, and tree-leveling storms. And for that matter, prolonged chill, drenching rains, and overcast skies. Most years, it lasts right up to the first hard frost.
Around the end of July, early August, basil begins flowering aggressively, sending up pointy spikes of seed-bearing shoots seemingly overnight.
Cutting back the basil stalks about halfway, just above a leaf node, accomplishes two wonderful things: it saves the fingers from plucking off all of those flower shoots (necessary for continued green growth on the plant), and this heavy pruning encourages the basil plant to produce new, branching growth, coming back stronger than ever for the remainder of the summer and well into autumn.
And you know what an armful of freshly cut basil stalks with dozens and dozens of beautiful, fragrant leaves means?
Yessirree, it’s pesto time at Casa SoupAddict. Pesto goes so well with many dishes … including risotto. Traditional, no. Delicious? Absolutely.
This dish is also a great place to sneak in a good helping of zucchini. Grated and lightly sauteed, it blends in beautifully.
I often get questions about brown rice in risotto. You can absolutely use brown rice — it’s a healthier grain than white arborio — do note that brown rice takes twice as long to cook. I’m a big fan of brown rice, but I don’t often use it in risotto, simply because it means standing at the stove for an hour.
However, since the night’s dinner included a simple entree of baked salmon, pulling up a bar stool and pondering life’s surprising (and recently wonderful) twists and turns over a pan of simmering rice was an A-okay use of a Sunday evening.
If you can find it, use short grain brown rice. It will produce the same creamy texture as arborio, but with brown rice’s lovely, more substantial flavor. Whole Foods will carry it, as do some grocery stores that have bulk grain bins in the natural foods section (my nearby Kroger does).
Pesto zucchini brown rice risotto
Pesto is such a natural flavor pairing with risotto, it’s a wonder I haven’t posted about this before. I call for a 1/4 cup of pesto here, but use your own judgment, based on the strength of the pesto you’re using (homemade will be far more flavorful than jarred). Two tablespoons might be plenty, or a 1/2 cup might hit the mark better.
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, plus extra extra as needed
1 small zucchini, grated
1 small shallot, minced
1 cup short grain brown rice
1/2 cup dry white wine, plus a splash extra
5-6 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup prepared basil pesto
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Heat the vegetable stock in a medium sauce pan over medium until it simmers. Lower heat and keep warm.
In a large sauté pan or deep skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil until shimmering. Add zucchini, a splash of the white wine, and a big pinch of salt. Sauté for 5-6 minutes, until the zucchini soft and aromatic. Remove zucchini from the skillet to a plate, and set aside.
Pour in a bit of additional oil, if necessary – the bottom of the pan should have a very shallow coating of oil. Add the shallots to the pan and sauté for several minutes until soft. Add the rice and stir well to mix and coat with oil. Pour in the white wine and cook until most of it has evaporated.
Ladle 1/2 cup stock into the rice along. Stir the rice frequently until the stock has been absorbed. Add another half cup, and repeat, allowing the stock to be absorbed, stirring frequently, before adding the next half cup. (Note, the standard ladle holds 1/2 cup of liquid.) Keep the heat steady – the stock should come to a simmer in the rice.
The rice will be ready when it’s plump and ad dente – this will take about 50 to 60 minutes. During the last half hour, the rice will absorb the stock at a much faster rate, requiring more frequent stirring and more frequent stock additions. You might not use all of the stock, or you might need more (use hot water as a quick substitute), depending on the heat of the pan.
Stir in the pesto and Parmesan cheese and mix well. Finally, add in the zucchini. Taste and season with salt, if necessary. Serve hot.