Trekquinox Episode 01: Risotto, or “Smorgas-Borg Cube”

Well now that we’re all conversant with the theme of the dinner, and the menu, let’s get down to brass tacks. But wait – the hallmark of science fiction (well, bad science fiction) is that one must mangle common idioms. Star Trek was in many ways groundbreaking, but at the end of the day it committed many of the sins of bad science fiction. For instance, no noun survives unadorned with either some alien planet name, or a techno-sounding suffix, or worse yet the epithet “space” – you know, to let you know that this is the future somehow. Alternatively is the use of the phrase “your Earth…”, as in “10 of your Earth minutes”, to let you in on the amazing secret that the speaker is not from Earth, as if you hadn’t guess by the profusion of tinfoil on the set and goofy costumes. So let us instead get down to Denebian brassium space tacks, and waste no more of your Earth seconds.

This was one of the last dishes I conceived of, despite its placement on the menu – at this point I had a lot of the main dishes fleshed out, but nothing in particular for appetizers. I did have the “Gorn Meat Gunpowder Shot” in mind, but that’s an amuse-bouche, really; not much to it. So I wanted something I could hand to people as they came in. But I had nothing in mind, and no Star Trek theme to hang it on anyway. Then my friend Paul, in a fit of genius while I was describing the dinner preparations to him, said “let me think… you need to have a Smorgasborg”. Brilliant! The best pun of the night. Of course, I wasn’t about to have an actual smorgasbord, since that’s kind of an entire meal idea. So instead I just dwelled on the Borg aspect.

For those of you not in the know, the Borg were big bad alien menaces to threaten the Federation in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They were half organic and half machine, or cyborg, hence their name. They had a communal hive mind thing going on, like a self-organizing machine, and so cared nothing at all for art or culture. To reflect their practical natures, their spaceships were simple giant cubes made of a partially open structure – the simplest form to build. So a cube was clearly in the works.

Eventually I decided on an excellent recipe I picked up from Tidings magazine, for miso risotto and duck breast. I did a quick test on the risotto and realized it was easy to form into cubes, if you had a form, like making a sand castle with a bucket. Only ours would be a rice cube. Then I could offer up pickles and olives as the self-serve portion, thus slightly justifying the “smorgas” part of the name. Success! The course was born. Here’s a still from the menu:

Menu for Miso Risotto with Duck
Menu Item #1: “Smorgasborg Cube”, or Miso Risotto with Duck

(The “Wolf 359″ reference is for the star system where the big battle took place in the show, which is where I took my footage from. A special effects extravaganza.)

Borg recharging station, with pickles and olives
Borg recharging station, with pickles and olives

I felt like I needed something for the serving, to “Trek” it up a little, and happily a little online store called ThinkGeek served me well – you can buy a little science toy which is essentially one of those Van Der Graaf spark balls, flattened into a disc, where green sparks arc in a futuristic way. It turns out these had been used in the actual show (well, a larger version) as the Borg’s recharging stations in their ships. So I threw that down behind the pickles and olives to make the presentation super-geeky (as if it wasn’t already, yes, I know).
You can find an animated clip of this on my friend Steve’s blog post about the dinner.

Now to make it “Modernist”, or at least technical, I did up the risotto using a pressure cooker. But that’s merely an option; this dish works just fine making the risotto in the traditional way. But let me tell you, if you do own a pressure cooker, then it is the only way to make risotto! So easy, so excellent. For those of you who are still risotto virgins in the kitchen, here’s the science of risotto, from Modernist Cuisine At Home.

Starch, released by short-grain rice during cooking, is what thickens dishes like paella and risotto. Natural starches are composed of two types of polymers, amylose (which is better at gelling) and amylopectin (which thickens by binding up water). Plants contain differing ratios of each, which is why short-grain rice works best for these dishes, but long-grain rice doesn’t.

Inside a plant cell, starch is typically stored inside granules, which have a layered structure like an onion. During cooking, the starch granules absorb water, swell, and become sticky. But the rice doesn’t thicken until the cells burst open and release the sticky granules.

That is why we stir the rice as it cooks: to break open the cells and release the starch into the cooking liquid, thereby thickening it. Continued gentle stirring then prevents lumps from forming. To see the gelling power of starch in action, allow a risotto to cool – it gels into a solid mass.

There is no need to stir rice when you cook it in a pressure cooker because the process forces so much water into the starch granules and plant cells that many more of the cells burst on their own.

There’s only one thing better than risotto, and that’s risotto that you don’t have to stir! I’m a total convert to the pressure cooker now, at least for the right applications. Risotto and paella definitely fall into that category.

Of course, nothing goes entirely smoothly. The first time I cooked this dish I didn’t have a pressure cooker, so I was doing it the traditional way, but that wasn’t a problem. However, the duck… ah, the duck. So the recipe calls for searing the duck skin on a frying pan in a hot hot oven (450°F) and simultaneously roasting the meat in the oven. I tried this in the Big Green Egg at the same time, going for a compare-and-contrast thing. Now, the BGE always does a fabulous job, and it does impart a delightful smoky flavour, but our taste test (Ellen as always serving as a willing volunteer for testing!) showed that when done on the Egg, you couldn’t really tell it was duck. It tasted just like chicken. Good, smoky, but that stripped away the subtle differences between duck and other birds. So the oven was the way to go for this one, or you might as well just use chicken breasts.

So you may know that duck is a very fatty meat, and so preparing it (in my experience) generally leads to something that is either quite fabulous or just plain awful – there has never been a middle ground in my life on that one. Total success or abject failure. Because of the fat. Now my first attempt led to total success on the flavour front; it was an easy choice. But on the cooking front? I mentioned that duck was a fatty meat, right? My oven was a disaster exceeding the scope and breadth of the Yorkshire pudding meltdown from the Feast of Thrones. I might as well have filled up a water balloon full of fat and put it in the oven until it exploded, except that would have actually been more work. The oven had a pool of fat at the bottom of it, and a thick coating on every single surface up to and including the roof of it. That pool? You could actually see ripples in it when I opened the door to extract the duck from what was now some kind of smoker, or fat-powered kiln. That weekend was a self-cleaning weekend, and I’m not convinced my oven doesn’t need another go-round at the full 5 hour cycle to finish the job.

This led to the purchase of a splatter shield – a simple bit of mesh, like a strainer, only flat – which goes over said dish. Cost me something like $2.89 at Ikea, just because I happened to be there with friends and spotted one; I’m sure they are readily available everywhere. Compared to my hourly rate at work multiplied by the hours of oven pre-cleaning and oven babysitting, a savings of Brobdingnagian proportion. If I never need it again, it was still totally worth it! On the actual day of Geekquinox, the oven survived unscathed and it had no effect on the cooking of the meat, exactly as it’s supposed to work. Dunno if that counted as either Modernist or particularly technological, but I was happy with that bit of gadgetry, let me tell you!

To finish off I shall attempt to always give a bit of Star Trek trivia before the actual recipe. In this case, the big battle against the Borg marked a two-part cliffhanger across seasons, and it led to two things: the first was that in the aftermath, in which the captain had been “assimilated” by the Borg (implanted with cybernetics and forced to battle his own people before being rescued), the writers of the show allowed actual consequences to sneak in. He didn’t just sail off into the next episode unaffected; they allowed it to colour his behaviour for the next year. Which marked a milestone in the franchise, of longer story arcs and consequences, which to my mind made it much better fiction. The other amusing bit turns out to be that when asked for a nail-biting cliffhanger, the Executive Producer had already made the decision to leave the show and let someone else have a turn in the big chair, and so he crafted a cliffhanger in which Captain Picard was stolen and assimilated, the Borg were invading our space, and nothing was capable of stopping them. And he had no idea whatsoever how it could be resolved. It was a bit of a practical joke on whoever came after him; he said himself he felt it was unresolvable. Then Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, managed to talk him into staying for one more season. So he was hoist by his own petard, painted into an insoluble corner by… himself! Heh. That amuses me.

So here is the recipe, both as it appeared in the magazine and the modified pressure cooker version I actually made. During the actual dinner this ended up being the second course served, but I really intended for it to happen sooner. Oh well! The wine was flowing, and so all was forgiven.

“Four Whistle Farm” Duck Breast with Wild Mushroom Risotto and Miso Broth

(From Tidings Magazine, profile of Brayden Kozak of the Three Boars restaurant)

3 tbsp   light miso paste (shiro miso, called “white miso” even though it’s not white)
4 cups   hot chicken or vegetable broth
3 tbsp   extra virgin olive oil
1   shallot, finely diced
1   garlic clove, minced
1 cup   mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (or minced)
1.5 cups   Arborio rice
½ cup   Shaoxing wine (or sherry)
2 tbsp   malt vinegar
2   duck breasts, cleaned and skin scored
2 tbsp   butter

  1. Dissolve the miso paste in the hot broth and set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet, and sweat the shallot and garlic until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. Add the rice and toast until white and opaque. (This instruction always puzzled me, since Arborio rice comes out of the box white and opaque. I just toast it for a while, until I feel good about it.) Add the wine and the vinegar, cooking until absorbed.
  3. Add enough broth-miso mixture to just cover the rice (about two ladles-full) and stir until absorbed. Repeat until the rice is cooked through and creamy. Reserve a small amount of broth to finish the plate.
  4. Meanwhile, heat a cast iron pan in an oven you are preheating to 450°F. Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the oven (using gloves, obviously!) and place the duck breasts skin down into the pan. Roast until the fat has rendered, the duck becomes crispy, and the meat is medium rare. Set aside to rest.
    Important note!: unless you love oven cleaning, you will want to put a screen over your cast-iron frying pan at this point to contain the inevitable splatter.
  5. Finish the risotto with the butter and adjust the seasoning to taste. Place the risotto in a shallow bowl and top with thin slices of duck breast. Pour a small amount of broth around the risotto and garnish with leaves of baby basil and Maldon sea salt.

Pressure cooker variant:

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 450°F, with your frying pan inside. (Obviously you need a frying pan that doesn’t have a wooden handle for this.) You can start the duck here, i.e. copy of Step 4 from above:
    Season the duck breasts with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the oven (using gloves, obviously!) and place the duck breasts skin down into the pan. Roast until the fat has rendered, the duck becomes crispy, and the meat is medium rare. Set aside to rest.
  2. (Just as above) heat the oil in the bottom of your pressure cooker, and sweat the shallot and garlic until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until softened. Add the rice and toast until you feel like it’s done some good (see above for why). Add the wine and the vinegar, cooking until absorbed.
  3. Add the broth, and the miso. Seal and cook for 7 minutes at pressure (start timing when the little stick pops up to say it’s at full pressure). Release the pressure and open. It’s possible you will need to either add a touch of water or to reduce it a bit more, just to fine-tune the process. But often it’s ready to go at this point.
  4. Form the risotto into a Borg-like cube on the plate, and add a slice of duck to the side.
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