Before I began studying Foods from Italy, I had heard of risotto, but I didn’t really know what it was. I asked the chef, “Risotto?” He seemed annoyed at so obvious a question. I watched him finish the risotto with a last cup of hot stock and a spoonful of grated Parmigiano. He ladled a taste into a bowl, and set it before me. I had never tasted anything like it.
There isn’t anything quite like risotto, a creamy, luxurious rice dish that you get by toasting hard-grained rice in a little butter, stirring in chopped vegetables and other ingredients and adding hot stock bit by bit, cooking slowly until the rice is al dente. Risotto’s consistency can vary from something resembling a thick soup to a creamy porridge. It can be as simple as rice, white wine, stock, and a little Parmesan cheese stirred in at the end, or more elaborate, studded with vegetables, seafood, or meat. Once you’ve mastered the basic technique, you can make an endless variety of risotto. Yes, even at home!
In Northern Italy rice rules the day. Rice first arrived in Italy sometime in the 10th century, probably brought to Sicily by Arab conquerors. The north of Italy took to rice farming four to five hundred years later, in an era when plague and famine were making simple survival difficult. The area has remained the premier rice growing and rice eating areas of Italy to this day. In the same way that people in the rest of Italy put plates of piping hot pasta on the table at every main meal, as do northerners of Italy who resort to rice.
Like pasta, risotto can be made from start to finish in less than thirty minutes. Both pasta and risotto are well suited to all sorts of occasions, from a fancy meal to simply cleaning out whatever happens to be left over in the refrigerator. Like pasta, risotto is great comfort food. Like pasta, it can be made with or without meat. They’re both great with cheese. And like pasta, risotto seems right to be eaten often. Once you get going on it, you may not get to eat it often enough. I know I don’t.
There are no shortcuts to risotto (and if anyone ever comes out with an instant version, don’t buy it). Real risotto needs gradual cooking and the right rice. The rice is the key. Simple and straight, if you want to make a great ― or even just a good risotto ― you’ve got to get the right rice. Arborio rice is an Italian medium-grain rice that is available at your local market. It is named after the town of Arborio, Italy where it is grown. Cooked, the rounded grains are firm and creamy due to the high starch content of this rice variety.
Rice is often cooked with twice as much liquid as rice. Not so with risotto. Because it’s cooked uncovered on the stovetop, much more liquid evaporates so plan on about three times as much liquid, and that liquid should be a stock or broth of some sort. Homemade is great if you’ve got the time. Use whatever stock you prefer ― chicken, vegetable, beef or seafood ― as long as it adds good flavor and matches the ingredients you’re putting in the risotto. Canned stock is perfectly acceptable, by the way. Just watch the salt and buy low-sodium when possible.
There are really three key ingredients to making a great risotto: the rice, the stock, and much more often than not, cheese. And all risotto starts with some onion and either butter, olive oil or both. Beyond that there’s not much to limit what else you can put in. I’ve yet to find anything reasonable that couldn’t be added to a good risotto. Vegetables of any sort, most any cheese, olives, meat, seafood, chicken, cream, herbs, nuts, saffron and spices.
From my experience though, additional risotto ingredients seem to work well in pairs, threesomes at best. More than four is a crowd that confuses flavor of the finished dish. So buy the best, but don’t try to fit everything you ever liked to eat into a single pot.
If I had to pick just one recipe, I think my favorite risotto would be one with wild mushrooms and Fontina cheese. Others on my top ten would be Gorgonzola and walnuts; goat cheese and arugula; asparagus and Parmesan; shrimp and saffron; roasted red peppers and pine nuts. Last month I made a great risotto with scallops, fresh herbs and finished with a drizzle of Meyers Lemon infused olive oil. Fabulous!
Start with a wide, heavy pot. You want the rice to have room to roam while the risotto is cooking. Non-stick pots can help keep your rice from sticking, though you’ll still have a lot of stirring to do. Don’t forget to use a wooden spoon, especially with a non-stick pot. Heat a little olive oil and or butter in the pot. When the oil is hot, sauté a little chopped onion. Sauté till it’s soft and golden. Add the rice. Don’t rinse the rice. Stir to coat the rice with oil and sauté it for a couple of minutes. We call this “toasting”. Look into the pot and you’ll see a mélange of soft golden onion pieces and hard white rice grains. In a couple of minutes, the rice should be hot, glistening with a thin coating. This stage of the cooking is an important part of what makes risotto so different from most rice cooking we’re used to. First it seals the rice’s high natural starch content into the grain. Secondly it introduces the flavors into the rice.
The stock should be hotter than the rice, so that when you add it to the pot it doesn’t cool down the rice, so be sure to simmer slowly right next to your risotto pot for easy ladling. Now, before you start adding liquid, repeat after me. “Add the stock slowly ― I will not dump all the stock into the pot at one time.” You may want to. But you won’t. Fight the temptation or your risotto won’t be the same.
There is a fair amount of stirring involved in making a good risotto. I stir with a wooden spoon, gently. How much do you stir? Enough so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan and that the liquid and rice stay evenly distributed. In my experience there’s plenty of time between stirs to create a simple salad; tear the lettuce, stir, slice some cucumber, stir, toss on a few olives, stir. You get the idea.
One of the things I’ve come to like most about making risotto is watching the grains of rice “grow up” before my eyes. It’s like watching the entire growing cycle in twenty minutes. The rice starts as a few handfuls of dry, hard, white grains, and then slowly begins to plump as it absorbs the broth. Like fruit ripening on the tree it gets softer, bigger and “juicier” as it moves closer and closer to the reaching the peak of perfection. You’ve hit the right degree of ripeness when you bite into the rice grain and you hit an ideal balance of soft creamy exterior with slightly firm, just slightly chewy center. You’re looking for the same kind of “al dente” texture you want in perfectly cooked pasta.
As a general rule, ingredients from which you are mainly looking for a contribution of flavor ― as opposed to appearance ― can be added early on. Chopped fennel, celery, shallots or carrots, also known as aromatics, might go in during the initial sautéing with the onion. Other ingredients can be added to stock as it heats, to add their flavor there ― mushrooms or asparagus for example. Salmon, shrimp, chicken and arugula come to mind as ingredients I’d add as the risotto reached the end of the cooking process. Cheese should also be added at the very end.
When the risotto seems done add one last ladleful of broth. This gives the risotto something to “sip on” as it sits in the bowl for a minute or two before you eat, leaves it with a fine creamy texture, and keeps it from getting too dry. In addition you may want to add a spoonful of butter at the last minute but not necessary if you are watching calories. Save the butter for special occasions and when you want to impress your guests! As the butter melts it coats each grain of rice, yielding a richer, creamier risotto.
Risotto is one of the great rice dishes that the world has yet to invent. Invent your own. Eat risotto tonight. Try my Asparagus Parmesan Risotto and let me know what you think!
Remember, you can’t rush a good risotto, nor can you rush life! You just keep stirring. After a while, good things happen.
Spring Asparagus Risotto
By Chef Mary
Once you’ve made this risotto recipe it will become a permanent addition to your repertoire. Remember to serve immediately!
1 lb fresh asparagus, trimmed
1 teaspoon kosher salt (optional)
1/2 cup of dry white wine (not cooking wine)
Asparagus cooking liquid combined with stock to make 6 cups
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons minced onion or shallot
2 cups Arborio Rice
1/4 cups chopped basil or Italian parsley
Fresh ground black pepper
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Braise asparagus in large pan filled with about 2 inches of water (asparagus should fit in one layer across bottom of pan) for about 5 minutes. Remove asparagus (reserve water) and rinse with cool water to prevent further cooking. Cut asparagus into 1-inch pieces and set spear tips aside to add to dish at the finishing steps. Pour cooking water into large pot and add enough chicken or vegetable broth to make 6 cups. Add the bay leaf and slowly simmer, as a warm stock will cook into the risotto more quickly and evenly. In a heavy bottomed pan, saute onions or shallots in 1 tablespoon of the butter and olive oil, (remaining butter saved for the end). After the aromatics have softened and slightly translucent add the rice and lightly “toast” in the pan. This step goes quickly. You will know it is ready when the rice turns translucent at the edges. Add the wine and simmer for two minutes. Add a ladle of the simmering stock and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is absorbed into the risotto. Keep the burner just high enough to barely simmer the stock and risotto. You must pay attention and stir but not be a slave to the stovetop. Continue the process till rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Be sure to discard the bay leaf from the stock.
The final step, called mantecare ― “to stir together” in Italian ― finish the risotto. Remove the risotto from the heat and add asparagus spear tips, pepper, fresh herbs, remaining tablespoon of butter, grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir quickly. This adds silkiness and flavor, and helps bind the ingredients together. Adjust seasonings if necessary. Serve immediately on warm plates.
Another great option is to add one cup of raw shrimp and cook for about 2 minutes before adding the asparagus tips and fresh herbs. (I skip the cheese for seafood risotto.)
Great risotto is all about technique. Once you master it, you’ll be free to experiment with countless seasonal flavors. Enjoy vegetable risottos featuring tender asparagus, English peas and zucchini, and fresh-flavored herbs such as mint and basil. Robust autumn and winter risottos made with ingredients such as sweet acorn squash, earthy Swiss chard, savory meats, and full-bodied herbs such as sage and rosemary are especially appealing.
Don’t think you can say you’ve really experienced great Italian food until you’ve had the chance to set your sights on, and touch your tongue to, a great risotto. When it comes to simple, stick-to-your-ribs entrées, risotto is tops. It conquers hunger, can be made healthy and comes together quickly in one pot. A spinach salad with citrus or berries provides a fresh counterpoint to dinner, as does a scoop of sorbet for dessert.
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ―Albert Einstein