Small, Good Things: Pucker Up!

Meyer Lemon Risotto

Risotto gets a bad rap as a finicky proposition.

stumbled onto an end-of-season bag of Meyer lemons on my weekly shopping excursion and was reminded of chef Jody Williams’ simple but sublime Meyer lemon risotto.

Meyer lemons are more perfectly globe-shaped than regular citrus lemons, and more orange, with a smoother texture. The edible rind is thinner and more fragrant, making them harder to ship and stock, and a bit exotic.

They are also juicier and less acidic than supermarket lemons, with a taste that’s a cross between citrus lemons and mandarin oranges. A tangy but mild sweetness makes them useful for sauces, salads, roasts and desserts. 

But Meyer lemon risotto? That might seem a bit precious for these hardscrabble days. Yet sometimes being happy, satisfied and comfortable with, grateful for what we have, and flexible and adaptable, are beneficial skills in both life and the kitchen.

Risotto gets a bad rap as a finicky proposition. In fact, it is amazingly adaptable, extracting maximum flavor from minimal ingredients with the least effort in the shortest time possible.

Meyer lemons are more perfectly globe-shaped than regular citrus lemons, and more orange, with a smoother texture

Traditional risotto rice — arborio (the most common), carnaroli, vialone and nano — are “soft,” absorbent short-grain varieties notable for a high starch content that gives a dish its creaminess. The culinary revolution of the late 20th century made these varieties widely available, but it also made a wide variety of substitutes available — sushi rice or varieties used in paella (bomba, senia) are culinary kin, and while not “authentic” will make an acceptable, even enjoyable, dish.

Particularly if labeled “pearled” or “semi-pearled, the hulled wheat grain known as farro is the basis of a heartier, nutty variation on risotto known as farroto. Williams’ recipe doesn’t even call for the traditional stock, merely warm water, which serves to accentuate the lemon farther to the front (although stock can add extra flavor and complexity and is of course, the chef’s prerogative). The wine is also discretionary.

Meyer lemons are not absolutely necessary and can be simulated with a 50/50 mix of the zest and juice of standard lemons cut with orange (or tangerine) juice and zest in equal proportions. Chef David Lebovitz posted a version using grapefruit and lime, adding a bit of the flesh for more texture.) 

To finish, Williams’ recipe substitutes mascarpone, an Italian cream cheese (coagulated by the addition of lemon juice) for the more traditional grated cheese, a brilliant touch that further pushes the citrus note and adds  creaminess. In a pinch you could substitute a similar measure of crème fraîche, full-fat sour cream, heavy cream, ricotta or mild goat cheese or in a real pinch, whole milk. (Or you could just use the traditional Parmigiano.)

This risotto stands on its own but the citrusy brightness can be augmented with a handful of fresh herbs or the addition of spring vegetables like asparagus or peas in the last few minutes of cooking. A more substantial topping with sautéed, roasted, broiled or grilled vegetables or seafood (particularly shrimp or scallops) makes for heartier main course. Farther downstream, combine leftover risotto with an egg or two and breadcrumbs, patted into small discs and pan-fried as risotto cakes.

Make it your own. You don’t need any pressure right about now.

Meyer Lemon Risotto

Adapted from Jody Williams; serves 4

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, butter or a combination
1 large shallot (or one small onion) minced
1½ cup rice for risotto
½ cup dry white wine
4 to 5 cups water
4 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice, plus 1 tablespoon grated zest
¼ to ½ cup mascarpone
¼ cup fresh basil, mint or tarragon, chopped fine, and/or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for serving

  1. Warm water or stock in a saucepan. Warm olive oil/butter in another saucepan (or deep-sided skillet) over medium high-heat; add shallot and cook for 2 minutes. Add rice and cook, stirring until translucent for another 2 minutes. Add wine, a pinch of salt and cook until wine has nearly evaporated (another 2 minutes).
  2. Reduce heat to medium, and add 1 cup of warm water or stock and cook, stirring until water has nearly evaporated. Continue adding water or stock in ½ cup increments, stirring until each is nearly absorbed, repeating until most of the liquid is gone and rice is creamy and cooked through. Add the lemon juice and zest and stir to incorporate for about a minute. 
  3. Remove from heat and add mascarpone and herbs. Correct seasoning and serve in bowls.
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