While I adore tomatoes in general, I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of the yellow varieties. They look beautiful, and they fit their Italian name (literally “golden apples”) better, but in my opinion they also tend to be mealy and weaker-flavored than their red garden-mates, lacking the acid to balance their sweetness properly. The cherry and grape varieties are better than the full-sized ones, tending to be less watery too. Still, apart from my best-beloved Green Zebras, I will always prefer red tomatoes.
Nonetheless, I had a bunch of yellow ones on my hands this week because they were in my basket of mixed heirlooms, so I decided to just embrace the yellow by using them in a saffron-tinted risotto which also used the lovely fennel and shallots from the same market run. Though these particular fennel were young and fragrant, I find that cooking fennel really dulls the anise flavor, so I also added a good spoonful of fennel seeds to really get the point across, and also provide an occasional contrasting crunch to the creamy rice. In order to avoid similarly dulling the tomato flavor into nonexistence, I pureed the insides and used the tomato puree as the last addition of liquid to the rice, and only added the diced flesh off the heat, when you also stir in the cheese.
This risotto is a very nice vegetarian summer main course, and would also work well as a side dish with grilled meat or fish for your Labor Day barbecue.
Golden Tomato and Fennel Risotto
(Very loosely adapted from Basic Risotto in Mark Bittman, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, 2007)
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 as a side
5-6 cups vegetable stock
1 small fennel bulb, stalks and fronds still on
1 – 2 shallots
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
2 pinches saffron threads
1 ½ cups Arborio rice
½ cup white wine
6 small or 2-3 medium golden tomatoes
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
Add the top stalks and fronds of the fresh fennel to the stock in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Keep it simmering while preparing the rest of the ingredients.
Dice the bulb of the fennel and the shallots finely. Heat the butter and olive oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over medium heat until the butter has melted. Sauté the diced fennel, shallots and fennel seeds until the vegetables are softened and turning translucent, then add the rice and stir well to coat each grain with the fat. Continue toasting the rice until it also begins to go a bit translucent, 3-4 minutes more, sprinkling in the saffron in the last minute or so. Pour in the wine and stir until it has absorbed, then begin adding a ladleful of the simmering stock at a time (leaving the fennel tops behind), waiting until the last addition has mostly been absorbed before adding the next. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom, but constant stirring isn’t necessary.
While the risotto is underway, slice the tomatoes in half and scoop the seeds and their surrounding flesh into a liquid measuring cup. Using an immersion blender, puree the tomato guts until uniformly liquid. Dice the hollowed-out tomatoes, and set aside.
When the rice is creamy and only barely still chewy, stir in the tomato puree and continue cooking until any excess liquid has evaporated. Off the heat, mix in the diced tomatoes and cheese, correcting for salt as needed.
Serve immediately, preferably in warmed bowls.
Arborio, carnaroli or another Italian risotto rice will give you the creamiest texture and absorb all the yellow color best, but you really could use any short- or medium-grain rice, or even another relatively quick-cooking and chewy grain, like barley. Grains that take a very long time to cook, e.g. wheat berries, are probably not ideal, but if you have the patience, you’re welcome to try and let me know how it goes!
This could easily be made vegan by using only olive oil at the beginning and leaving out the cheese at the end.