Caramelized Onion, Spinach and Bacon Risotto

When it comes to risotto, there’s an awful lot of intimidating talk about right and wrong. This makes me sad, because I think it scares a lot of people away from a fairly quick and wonderful staple meal – and not just people who already think it’s adorable to say they store their shoes and guest linens in the oven. I’ve made many a risotto in my day, and I can’t say I’d unflinchingly serve every one to Lydia Bastianich; but as far as I know, no one has ever walked away a worse person for having eaten some. During CSA season, risotto is as versatile as a frittata for showcasing a huge variety of veggies; so it’s worth having a basic recipe in your repertoire.

This week we had a lot of onions left on Monday, between the CSA and the farmers market; and umami boy had somehow gone temporarily insane and bought a huge box of baby spinach at the grocery despite an (until then) unspoken season-long ban on buying extra greens. I decided to caramelize the onions to intensify the flavor and be able to use way, way more onions than you normally would in a risotto, and to add a whole lot of spinach at the very end of cooking. Both of these choices – and, I think, possibly the fact that I used some fairly geriatric arborio rice from the pantry – led to the risotto absorbing a lot more liquid than you would typically see. If you make this recipe, add the liquid slowly in case your rice is more spry than ours. In addition, I am including a link to a recipe for Basic Risotto at the end of the post. This recipe uses more standard proportions of liquid, rice and onion; so if you’re inspired to a risotto riff by future weeks’ ingredients, you might start with the basic recipe and play as you go.

Caramelized Onion, Spinach and Bacon Risotto

3 Tablespoons butter, divided
1 Tablespoon olive oil
3 onions*
1 cup arborio rice
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup of a white wine you like to drink, plus 1/2 cup water**
8 oz. baby spinach
4 slices Wellshire Farms Dry Rubbed Center Cut Bacon***
1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Salt and pepper

Halve the onions lengthwise and then thinly slice each half crosswise, to form lots of thin half-circles. Melt 1 Tablespoon of the butter, along with the olive oil, in a wide pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and a pinch of salt, and cook for about 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until they are dramatically reduced in volume and well on their way to turning a deep golden brown. You may need to reduce the heat to low after a while to prevent them from burning. You can ignore the onions for a while, but watch them carefully at the end, as they will start to change more quickly.

Meanwhile, line a dinner plate with two layers of paper towels. Lay the bacon slices on top and cover with two more layers of paper towels. Microwave on high for about 6 minutes, until crispy. (Mere mortal bacon can be cooked the same way but will take less time.) Chop bacon into bite-size pieces.

When the onions are almost done, pour the chicken stock into a medium pot and bring it to a boil, then immediately reduce the heat to low to keep the stock warm without evaporating it.

When the onions are caramelized, add the arborio rice to the pan and stir to coat with the butter and oil absorbed by the onions. Cooking, stirring occasionally, for about two minutes, until some of the rice grains are translucent at the edges and there is a toasty aroma (if you can smell it through all that oniony goodness). Add the chicken stock, one or two ladles at a time, and stir frequently. (There is a huge debate about stirring constantly to activate the starch in the rice versus stirring a little less to avoid glueiness and breaking the grains. With a pre-schooler in the house, being babysat only by the TV while you make dinner, this debate is mostly theoretical anyway; but luckily I’ve also had better culinary results over time with a little less stirring rather than a little more.) Wait until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rest turned into a starchy-looking broth before adding the next ladle-full of stock. The first couple of additions of stock will mostly go toward turning the onions into a sort of french onion soup base, which will later be absorbed into the rice – so don’t worry if the rice doesn’t start to get tender right away. After the last addition of stock, raise the heat to medium. Add the wine, water and chopped bacon to the pan and continue to stir until the rice is tender, with a little chewy bite, and there is still some thick, glossy broth. Add the spinach and stir for less than a minute, until just wilted. Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining 2 Tablespoons butter (optional, but worth it) and the grated cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Let rest for just a couple of minutes and serve in shallow bowls with extra grated cheese.

* I used mix of Texas Super Sweets and something called “spring onions” from the Red Bank Farmers Market that looked nothing like scallions (which are usually sold as spring onions). Ours looked almost like a cross between leeks and giant scallions with legitimate bulbs on the bottom. Anyone know what else they’re called?

** For the first time ever, I tried adding the wine at the end rather than at the beginning of the liquids, because I’d just read in The New Professional Chef that it is apparently a no-no to put the wine in first, since the acidity of the wine will prevent the rice from softening properly. This, despite the fact that every other risotto recipe I have ever seen says to put the wine in first. I can’t say I noticed a single bit of difference – if anything, the rice took forever to soften last night. Just putting that out there for your information….

*** This stuff will change your perception of bacon forever, both taste- and nutrition-wise. It’s available at Whole Foods in front of the meat counter.

Here’s the link to the Basic Risotto recipe, which uses more traditional proportions and techniques.

  • Johnny Falschgedank

    I wouldn’t say I’m scared by risotto… but I don’t think of it as quick. Am I doing something wrong?ReplyCancel

  • umami girl

    j.f.: Depends what you mean by quick. It’s not microwave burrito quick, but the time from the first addition of liquid to the end of the recipe shouldn’t be more than 20 minutes. Everyone seems to have a great grandpa whose risotto took six hours to make, but he must have been harvesting and polishing the grains before cooking. Thanks for your comment!ReplyCancel

  • Diana Pappas

    want. that. bacon.ReplyCancel

  • martha

    your website looks terrific. interesting stuff about stirring constantly vs, not and adding the wine early vs late.
    i already cooked the spinach so will strain the excess water out of it then chop it before adding.
    no garlic,???
    i think i might leave out the bacon and add garlic.
    thanks.ReplyCancel

  • Hi Martha, thank you! I’m not in the habit of adding garlic to risotto, but there’s no reason not to, you’re right. (Lord knows I add it to everything else, so I’m not sure why the restraint here.) Hope you enjoy the risotto.ReplyCancel

  • martha

    my boyfriend and i both LOVED the risotto. the caramelized onions gave it a depth like no other risotto i’ve ever made. i put about a 1/2 tsp of bacon fat in just for the essence of bacon and added about 4 cloves of garlic. it was world class!ReplyCancel

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