By Lolis Eric Elie
When it comes to his risotto, "It's all about that rice," says Donald Link. "It's the most unique rice I've ever cooked with."
The chef is talking about Cajun Grain rice, a jasmine rice grown in Louisiana by Kurt and Karen Unkel. It's a brown rice that includes stray bits of wild red rice that most farmers discard. Seldom is risotto made with brown rice. The slow-cooked dish is usually made with stock and short grain, white Italian arborio rice. Grated cheese is often added, which, when melted, lends a creamy texture to the dish. But Link's approach is to use acorn squash to add a note of creaminess. And, he says, the rice itself has a creamy texture. It's the rice and the seasonality of acorn squash that led to the creation of this risotto.
"It just has this super nutty flavor and I realized how creamy it was when we first made it," he says. "I noticed it lent itself to that preparation of risotto. It's kind of a classic Italian dish, the squash and rice. I'm sure it was the fall when I did it, so that's probably why I put the squash in."
In the second season of 'Treme,' Link visits chef Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) in New York at Lucky Peach. At that point, she hadn't decided to move back to New Orleans and open Desautel's on the Avenue, so she couldn't ask for any advice in that regard. But Link would have been a good person to consult; he has two James Beard Award-winning restaurants, Herbsaint and Cochon. Soon he'll be opening a third, seafood-oriented eatery in New Orleans Arts District.
"I don't have a name yet. For some reason we just can't quite figure one out," he says. "It's on Magazine and Julia streets. We've been tossing around this idea for a seafood place for some time now. Our trip to Uruguay set it off in another direction with all the open-flame cooking they do there." Further research will take place in San Sebastian, Spain. "A lot of the restaurants there, the asadors, have these hearth-type grills," says Link. "You get different ranges of temperatures and ranges with height of the grill. Ours will be a New Orleans seafood restaurant, but a lot of the cooking will be over coals and fires in a hearth."
There's no date yet for the opening of Link's as yet unnamed restaurant. But you can get a taste of things to come with this recipe which will appear in our forthcoming book, Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans.
Cajun Grain rice is the best choice for this dish, but other kinds of brown rice can also work. Depending on the size of the shrimp you use, they may well melt into the dish and become more of a seasoning element. Folks in New Orleans tend to like shrimp cooked longer than is the national fine-dining norm. Cooking time with risotto is always a tricky thing -- the key is to keep tasting it as it approaches doneness. Once it gets close to al dente doneness, pay close attention. Trust me, the dish tastes great.