My mother taught me to read a recipe, but I didn’t really start to cook until I learned to play with my food.

Enough with adhering to the printed word! Once you learn the basic formula of how something is made, start to experiment. Try different spices (saffron is my favorite). Ingredients that are new to you. (Fresh fennel, anyone?) Different flavor combinations (currants and escarole!) depending on the season and what looks good at the market. Believe me, cooking will become more fulfilling and fun.

Go ahead … play with your food! Risotto is the perfect dish to start experimenting with.

Risotto is, hands down, one of the easiest entrees to play with. It’s also one of the easiest dinners to make when you haven’t given much thought to what you’re going to feed your family. Don’t fret when the purists tell you it requires nonstop stirring. It doesn’t. Yes, you need to stir risotto, but you can leave it to simmer on its own a bit between liquid additions. Best of all, it takes just 30-40 minutes from the moment you think of it to its arrival on the table.

The basic recipe:

Bring 3 cans chicken or vegetable broth to a simmer on the stove. In a large saute or frying pan, melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add a chopped onion and 1-2 cloves garlic, some salt and pepper, and saute until translucent.

Add 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice and stir for 3 minutes. (You want the rice to begin toasting and popping.) Add 1/2 cup white wine and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Add the simmering broth, 1 ladle at a time, stirring after each addition until all the liquid is absorbed. After about 30 minutes, you’ll have a pan of creamy, hot, toothsome rice that needs only a handful of parmesan and a squeeze of lemon juice to make it table-ready.

But here’s the fun part. Once you realize that 1 1/2 cups of Arborio and about 6 1/2 cups of liquid make risotto, you can play around to your heart’s content. My favorite variations on the risotto theme:

  1. Soften 1 ounce dried wild mushrooms in 1 cup boiling water for 30 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and chop them. Strain the liquid into a saucepan and heat along with 5 cups broth. Add the chopped mushrooms to your risotto right after stirring in the wine.
  2. Use 1/2 cup red wine instead of white for a pink-hued risotto. Stir in a handful of grated beets to really ramp up the color and flavor.
  3. Grate 1-2 zucchini or yellow squash and add them with the first ladle of broth. They’ll essentially melt as the risotto cooks, and your kids will get a surreptitious serving of vegetables.
  4. Put a pinch of saffron in the broth as it simmers. Your risotto will come out golden and faintly spiced.
  5. Wash and spin-dry 2-3 handfuls of baby arugula, baby spinach or escarole and add after the wine has evaporated.
  6. Take advantage of summer’s basil bounty and stir in mounded tablespoons of pesto to taste after your risotto is done. Pesto turns the dish a lovely shade of green and adds a spicy, garlicky kick.
  7. Fold in currants and toasted pinenuts after removing your risotto from the heat. Your savory dish will turn crunchy and slightly sweet.

Risotto is the perfect dish to start experimenting with. By it’s very nature, it’s a blank canvass. So go ahead … play with your food! Cooking will become less of a drudge and much more fun.

I promise!