Cheddar Cheese Risotto – Top Chef Masters Night

Think you can’t make a restaurant-quality meal at home in less than an hour?! You’re wrong. This isn’t a commercial for crappy frozen pizza, it’s a tale about choosing a favorite dish from a favorite restaurant and going for it.

The second season of Top Chef Masters started last night. We were psyched and K found a recipe from one of our favorite chefs and Top Chef Masters alum Graham Elliot Bowles. To celebrate the Top Chef Masters return, we would be making cheddar cheese risotto with beer glazed onions, bacon powder, apple paint and Cheez-its. This sounds like it should take hours and would be really complicated. It took less than one hour and was as easy as making a pot of risotto.

The recipe can be found here, but a note of caution: K and I think this was from a local Chicago TV appearance done by the chef. It appears an unpaid intern (perhaps “Chad”, the Bravo intern [in my imagination anyway] who continually and comically omits things from their recipes) frantically took down the recipe as they cooked it during a three-minute segment. Measurements are missing, the recipe inexplicably calls for the risotto to sit in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before reheating it, etc. Do what you will with this recipe. We certainly did.

Instead of onions for the risotto, I sautéed shallots. This is a replacement I frequently make since shallots have a much milder flavor and my eyes burn to the point of blindness when I chop onions, not so much with shallots. We also used shallot rings instead of pearl onions for the beer-glazed onions. Fresh pearl onions are hard to find. Frozen pearl onions frequently turn into squishy liquid bulbs of mush. No recipe calls for squishy liquid bulbs of mush.

While I added warm white wine and water to the risotto and stirred, stirred, stirred, K julienned the apple and started making the apple paint using the peel, some grenadine and apple cider vinegar. And wow, was that vinegar strong. Our eyes watered while the sauce reduced and the only thing we could smell in the kitchen was vinegar. This bit of foreshadowing (if you’ve seen Top Chef) may or may not mean the vinegar ruined the sauce. Stay tuned.

More stirring of the risotto, and K sautéed the shallot rings in butter before adding some Premium (an on-hand replacement for the PBR the recipe called for) to them to simmer. The apple paint was thickening nicely. I added some fresh tarragon to the risotto because the recipe’s ingredient list called for that and bay leaves, but neither ingredient was ever addressed in the actual recipe. We punted on that one and skipped the bay leaves, flummoxed as to how they might be used.

Suddenly the risotto went from unpleasantly crunchy to al dente done. I quickly turned off the burner, added the cream cheese (the on-sale substitute for the mascarpone) and the shredded cheddar.  I stirred in the beer glazed onions and K prepared the plate with the really thick and really pink apple paint. He sprinkled the bacon “powder” (really home-made bacon bits he’d made the night before) over the risotto, added the julienned apples and dotted the top with Cheez-it crackers and boom … the best grown-up “mac and cheese” ever. I overruled the recipe and did not let it sit in the refrigerator for 20 minutes before rewarming it. This could only lead to mushy and overcooked risotto.

The result was creamy and the cheese was sharp. The apples added a beautiful tart crisp and the bacon bits a smoky, salty crunch. The apple paint was a sweet sauce to swirl in, the crackers were cheesy and zesty and the whole thing touched every taste bud. K said next time he’d use prosciutto to make the bacon bits/powder. And next time I’d use warm chicken stock instead of warm water in the risotto. It was missing that underlying richness chicken stock provides so I had to add a lot of salt.

As a bonus, we had leftover apple peel lacquered in apple paint so I tossed in some of the julienned apples and had an amazingly and shockingly pink sweet apple dessert. Girly! And yummy.

Next time you’re tempted to pull out the blue box of mac and cheese, skip it! If nothing else, stir up a pot of the risotto and throw some Cheez its on top. In less than an hour you’ll have happy kids, happy adults and seriously happy stomachs.

Cheddar Cheese Risotto

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