Have I mentioned how much I love bistro-style cooking? I'm not sure how to define that, exactly, but I would direct you to this dish and tell you that this is the kind of food I get excited about. This is comfort food that is a little more sophisticated, a little different, very fresh-tasting and not very complicated. Think of this as a tower of building blocks. Every component is part of a whole and when they are all put together, it's something to be very proud of indeed.
It's right about this time in mid-winter that I start craving fresh flavors. Honestly, slow-cooked short ribs always sound good when it's 14 degrees outside, but I definitely spend more time in the produce aisle these days dreaming about what to make with lemons, oranges and grapefruit. This recipe from Food and Wine magazine caught my eye and I decided it would be fun to re-create it for dinner. It may actually be a starter/appetizer, but it was perfect for two of us. It was filling, but not heavy or overly rich (impressive, since there is a sizable amount of butter and cream involved). The citrus, fennel and white wine give refreshing notes of brightness in this dish, but my favorite part of this meal was the shrimp stock that is created as a base for the risotto and also is used to poach the shrimp.
This takes a little bit of time, but it's worth every minute to create a broth that tastes so complex. It's the backbone of the dish. There's carrot, fennel, fennel seeds, garlic, onion, celery, shrimp shells and even a pinch of pepper flakes. Sounds like a lot going on, but they all have their part to play. It's this combination of aromatics that gives the rice and shrimp the flavors that make this something you would expect to find in a little restaurant in a big city. If I owned a bistro, this would be on the menu.
My other favorite part of this meal was the fennel salad the crowns the whole thing. It's just part of the fennel bulb slice paper thin, mixed with sliced scallions and lemon juice. So simple, but this is a genius addition to the creamy rice, the sweet shrimp and the savory shrimp stock. It brings a fresh-from-the-garden crunch that I could have by itself for lunch any day of the week. If you plan on making this dish, please do add the leaves of thyme at the end. You'll be surprised how much that herbal note lends to the entire meal. I was surprised, myself by how well it went with all the other flavors. It was distinct and subtle and I would miss it if it wasn't there. I highly recommend keeping some herbs in small containers through the winter. I have parsley, rosemary, thyme and marjoram in various rooms of the house (to give them as much sunlight as possible). Winter is when I miss my herb garden the most, but with these herbs on hand, I can still have fresh flavors at my fingertips.
Shrimp with Saffron Rice and Fennel Salad
adapted from Food and Wine
1 c. Carolina Gold/Arborio rice
1 T. vegetable oil
16 lg. shrimp (1 lb.), shelled, shells reserved
1 lg. fennel bulb, quartered, 1 quarter finely chopped
3/4 thinly sliced on a mandoline
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 t. fennel seeds
1 t. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 t. crushed pepper flakes
1/2 c. Riesling ( I used a Pinot Grigio)
3 c. chicken broth
1/2 c. cream
pinch of saffron, crumbled
5 T. butter, in tablespoon-size pieces
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1 T. lemon juice
1 t. thyme leaves
Bring large saucepan of water to a boil. Add rice and cook, stirring, until just barely tender, about 16 minutes. Drain in a colander. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat oil until shimmering. Add shrimp shells; cook over medium-high until lightly browned, 3 minutes. Add chopped fennel, onion, celery, carrot, garlic, fennel seeds and Aleppo/ pepper flakes. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until onion is golden, 6 minutes. Add wine and cook until nearly evaporated. Pour in 2 cups of broth and simmer over medium heat, 12 minutes. Pour through a sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids to get every last drop of stock. In another medium sauce pan, combine cream with saffron, 1/2 c. of shrimp stock and last cup of chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add partially cooked rice and cook over medium heat, stirring, until thickened and rice is tender, 3 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper, cover and set aside. In large skillet, bring rest of shrimp stock to a simmer. Add shrimp and cook over medium-low heat, turning over once, until pink and curled, 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and whisk in four pieces of butter, one tablespoon at a time. Season with salt and pepper to taste. In a small bowl, toss sliced fennel and scallion with lemon juice; season with salt and pepper. Warm rice over medium heat and then stir in last tablespoon of butter. Spoon rice into shallow bowls. Top with shrimp and fennel salad. Sprinkle with thyme leaves and serve.