I created this recipe based on the recent Food52 challenge to combine the flavors of sage and walnuts. Toasting the walnuts and gently crisping the sage in the rendered pancetta fat transforms the ingredients and intensifies their flavors.
After traveling for the holidays last month, I came home to a DVR loaded with episodes of Chopped and spent last week catching up. In one episode a contestant was eliminated because she cooked a risotto using only simmering water, not stock. I’ve written before about how the clerks in my neighborhood shops prefer skipping the broth in favor of water. When I make my own stock, I do tend to use it when I make risotto, but if you’re making a dish with more subtle flavors or without a central protein, the saltiness can overwhelm other ingredients. With this recipe, I dilute a few cups of stock with water, which lets the flavors of the toasted walnuts and crisped sage come through. Then I stir in a small amount of Parmesan cheese to add a little depth.
A tip for making this recipe is to toast the walnuts thoroughly. Toasting nuts doesn’t take long, so keep an eye on the oven when they’re cooking so they don’t scorch or burn. They should be quite fragrant when they’re ready. I found that if the nuts are undercooked, though, the flavor can be a little sharp and jarring, which detracts from what otherwise is a coherent, comforting winter supper.
Sage & Walnut Risotto
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped
1/4 pound pancetta, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
15 sage leaves, whole
2 cups chicken stock
1 medium leek
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1) Heat the oven to 400-degrees. Spread the walnuts evenly on a baking sheet. Toast the walnuts for about 10 minutes, until fragrant. Check on them around 5 minutes to be sure they don’t burn. Meanwhile, combine the chicken stock and 3 cups of water together in a small sauce pot on a back burner and bring to a simmer over low heat.
2) In a large skillet, heat the pancetta over medium heat. Cook until fat has rendered and pancetta is browned and slightly crisp on the outside, about 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the pancetta to a plate lined with a paper towel. Add the sage leaves to the fat remaining in the pan and allow to crisp, another 5 minutes. Remove the sage and transfer to a cutting board.
3) Chop the leek and shallot. Add them to whatever pancetta fat remains in the skillet. Add 1 Tablespoon olive oil to further grease the pan, if needed. Cook until the vegetables are soft, but not fully browned, about another 10 minutes.
4) Add the Arborio rice to the skillet and cook the grains until the edges start to turn translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the white wine and stir until it is absorbed. After the wine is absorbed, add 1/2 cup of the simmering chicken stock to the rice. Stir slowly, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid. Cook the risotto over medium heat until creamy; continue adding stock by the 1/2-cup periodically as the liquid absorbs. Cooking the risotto will require about 30 minutes and 4 cups of stock. Add more water to the sauce pot containing the chicken stock if more liquid is needed.
5) When the risotto is fully cooked, chop the crisped sage, then add it to the skillet along with the pancetta, toasted walnuts, and Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.