Dinner · Sides · winter

Beet Risotto & Magawa the Mine Detecting HeroRat

Perhaps combining a recipe and a story about a rat isn’t the best idea – but it worked for Ratatouille so, we’ll give it a shot.

My husband and I don’t always see eye to eye about animals. Especially animals that one would want as a pet.

And listen, I’m not like a butthole or anything. I don’t hate rats or gerbils or snakes or spiders. They are important, cool, interesting, and often adorable. I do not think they’ll hurt me or run in fear of them. (Okay, one time I ran in fear because I was folding laundry in my basement and a snake started COMING OUT OF MY WALL but – that was shock, not dislike.) I just…I don’t really enjoy holding anything that I feel the internal organs of or that has more appendages than I do. That’s unfair, I get it. I’m not asking the world to no longer contain these creatures. I only wish that fate on Mosquitos. But, I don’t need to welcome the possibility of them accidentally being set loose in my house that already holds about four too many living creatures. Especially, and this is the really important part, ESPECIALLY because we already have a goober of a lab, two cats (the king and queen of this house), and a leopard gecko. Not to mention a 12 year-old, 1.5 year-old, and, you know, the two of us.

But, wow, does my husband want a rat. And I hate to deny him that. But, despite my feelings or concerns or apprehension, the really really really real truth is that we simply don’t have the space. So, I turned to the internet to find an alternative way to satiate the desire my husband felt to have a little rat friend added to our insane menagerie. And, in that strange quest, I found one of the best gifts I ever gave him, and one I continue to give him monthly because it is 100% worth it.

APOPO is an organization that allows you to donate by way of ‘adopting’ its Heros. Who are the Heros?

Rats.

I looked at all the rats available for adoption. And then, I saw Magawa.

Landmine detection rat, Magawa Photograph: PDSA/PA

Magawa is an African giant pouched rat who was born in Tanzania in 2014. He grew up in the training and research center at APOPO and learned how to detect the smell of explosives using his nose. He completed his training in 9 months and now lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Cambodia lives daily with the deadly legacy of an unbelievable number of untracked land mines. These mines have been the cause of untold tragedies – causing people working, learning, or even children simply playing to lose life and limb. I remember learning about the deep and complicated history of Cambodia from one of the human heros in my life – my Tae Kwon Do instructor and one of the most talented martial artists I’ve ever known, Master Dek. Master Dek fled Cambodia as a child. It wasn’t often he shared those memories with his class of fourteen-year-olds, but I certainly thought of all of things I can’t imagine he went through as a child, when I read about Magawa and his hard work.

Magawa has found 39 of these land mines and 28 items of unexploded ordnance. In the past 4 years, he has cleared 141,000 square miles of land, allowing children to play, parents to take deep breaths, and the history of fear to begin to dissipate, little by little.

Magawa is also the first rat in history to be awarded the PDSA Gold Medal for life-saving bravery.

So. I’m not a fan of holding rats. But, you can bet your butt I’d hug that little Hero with my whole heart if I ever met him. He’s out there saving the world. And my tiny contribution, in the name of my husband, as a gift meant to only last one year four years ago, has contributed to his award-winning success.

What’s this have to do with risotto, you weirdo, you might be saying right now. Well?

When I’m afraid of or uncomfortable with certain things, it’s generally because I lack understanding. When I push myself past that initial fear or discomfort, I am always pleasantly surprised. In the case of helping my husband partially own a superhero rat, I learned to overcome that particular discomfort (we’re still not getting a rat though – there are no vacancies in House Reilly currently).

But. In the case of food? Well, in the case of food, it can sometimes be more difficult. There’s no food that I simply refuse to eat – except those wax paper strips some people call shredded coconut. But, there are foods I feel I lack the ability to tame or prepare deliciously. My confidence as a chef flies out the window at the sight of them. The stress I feel flows right into the food I prepare. And it guts me.

One of those used to be beets.

Like, what was a beet? What does one do with a beet? What flavor even is a beet?

But then, after a trip to the farmer’s market a few years ago, when the sun was shining, I was wearing a cute hat, my legs were freshly shaved after a long winter, and I found myself thinking I would be a ‘Farmer’s Market Person’, I bought a plethora of items positive it’d be a breeze to put these seasonal items to good use. That evening I stood, with a wine glass in my hand, staring at these giant, beautiful, intimidating beets.

A ‘Farmer’s Market Person’? Come on, Maddie.

But.

I pushed myself to not let them slowly rot in my pantry. Instead, I did research. I looked up tips. I read dozens of recipes.

And I made beet risotto.

And my life changed. In a small, beet-loving sort of way. But, still.

So. Now I love rats. Or, at least, a rat. And beets. Not together. But they’ve both brought more to my life. Because I let go of my discomfort and leaned in, fully.

Weird how that works, huh?

This risotto is plenty as a main dish, but I happened to serve it with some chicken breasts I halved, pounded flat, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and marjoram, and sauteed in a little olive oil. And the combo was amazing. It was also delightful for lunch the next day.

Beet Risotto

Serves: About 6-8

Ingredients

  • 12 oz. beets, shredded
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1 1/2 C arborio rice
  • 3 C chicken stock
  • 1 C cream or whole milk
  • A handful of pecorino romano
  • 1 rounded tsp cumin
  • Salt & Pepper

Instruments

  • 1 medium saucepan
  • 1 large saucepan with lid
  • Stirrin’ spoon
  • Various measuring cups and spoons
  • Chef’s Knife
  • Cutting board
  • Food processor

Instructions

  1. Mix your chicken stock and cream or milk in a medium saucepan and put over low heat. Keep warm, but not bubbling.
  2. Shred your beats – I did this by washing, peeling and cutting them in half, then running through my food processor attachment that has a shredder.
  3. In a separate large saucepan, heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onion. Cook until softened.
  4. Add your one clove of minced garlic and cook about a minute more.
  5. Toss in 3/4 of your shredded beets, sprinkle with salt and freshly cracked pepper, and cook until the liquid from the beets evaporates and they begin to soften – about 10 to 12 minutes. Make sure to stir constantly.
  6. Add your rice and toss to mix evenly. Cook a few minutes to let the rice sizzle a bit, then begin incorporating your broth and milk mixture in about 3/4 C to 1 C increments. Wait for the liquid to be absorbed each time. You want to make sure you maintain and even medium heat – if it gets too hot the liquid will evaporate too much instead of being incorporated and cooking the rice. This whole process will take somewhere around 20 minutes.
  7. When you add your final liquid, add your remaining beets as well and stir to incorporate. Once that liquid is absorbed add your handful of cheese and cumin and stir to combine.
  8. When I served it, I loved the combo of the beets and the cumin so I added a tiny sprinkle of cumin to the top of each serving.

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