Risotto is Italian version of rice

Published 8:17 pm Friday, March 6, 2009

Risotto is perhaps the most enduring culinary tradition from Italy after pasta. I never cooked risotto in the past, but have begun to cook it recently and I really like it. It has a wonderful taste.

Perhaps you think that it is pasta, but no, it is really rice. Actually, you see it on the grocery store shelf where the rice would be and it is usually known as Arborio rice, which is really extra fine rice.

Most Arborio rice is grown in the Po valley of northern Italy. It is the classic short grain rice that easily absorbs liquids and flavorings, cooking to a velvety consistency while retaining a pleasing firmness to each grain. Most Arborio rice is vacuum packed to retain its freshness, flavor and nutrients.

Some purists insist that risotto is make “to order” and that your guests need to be ready to have the dish delivered the instant it is finished. Actually it can be stopped just short of finishing and refrigerated, then reheated when ready to serve. One needs to add more steaming broth and then stir in the butter, cheese, and herbs.

I have found that you can make risotto for every season. I use Frank Stitt’s ideas from his book, Botega Favorita (My husband gave me Stitt’s new cookbook for Christmas). You can add what is in season to the risotto and it is so divine.

Summer: corn, cherry tomatoes, zucchini, butter beans, and basil

Fall: pumpkin, carrots, mushrooms, and greens

Winter: leeks, celery, and black truffles (if you can afford these or even find them)

Spring: asparagus, peas, artichokes, spring onions, and mint

I did risotto today and added chopped fennel and it was great. Just use your imagination.

A few hints for making risotto:

Have the stock simmering on a nearby burner for easy additions.

Use a wooden spoon. With all the stirring required, it is easier on the pan and your hand than a metal one.

After sautéing the aromatics—onions, leeks, etc.—toast the rice in the fat remaining in the pan, stirring until it is well coated with the oil, a matter of a minute or two.

Add about ½ cup stock at a time. Allow each addition to be almost completely absorbed before you add the next one. Do not be in a hurry. You will be rewarded if you take your time with each addition.

Finish the risotto by tasting for doneness and flavor, then add a generous portion of cheese and butter at the very last moment to enrich.

Never add cream. Some “super-fancy” Italian restaurants and the French do this, but it makes for an overly rich, heavy, and gluey consistency.

This is a basic risotto recipe from Botegga Favorita. Remember that you can make this a one-pot meal by adding shrimp, scallops, chicken, quail or even lamb to the dish. Stir in the cooked seafood or meat at the last minute and bring it to the table family style.

Basic Risotto

5 cups chicken stock

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup finely chopped onion

1 celery stalk, thinly sliced

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

2 cups Arborio rice

½ cup dry white wine or dry vermouth

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Scant ½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana padano

Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan, then reduce the heat to keep it at a bare simmer.

Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until foamy. Add the onion and sauté for five minutes or until softened. Add the celery and garlic and cook for five minutes, or until softened. Add the rice and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat the grains with oil and lightly toast, for about one minute. Add the wine or vermouth and cook, stirring, until it evaporates. Reduce the heat to medium, add about ½ cup stock and a little salt and pepper, and stir until the liquid is absorbed; adjust the heat if necessary to keep the stock at a simmer. Continue adding stock ½ cup at a time once each addition is absorbed. After 15-18 minutes, taste to test the grains for tenderness; the rice should be al dente, tender but not mushy. If necessary, continue stirring and adding stock, then taste again. (You may not need all the stock.)

Stir in the cheese and the remaining tablespoon butter. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as necessary. Then beat briskly with the wooden spoon, the risotto should be creamy. Serve immediately.

Patricia Wells in her cookbook, Trattoria, has a really good recipe for baked risotto. It is a quick main dish, and served with a side salad makes a wonderful meal.

Baked Risotto with Asparagus, Spinach, and Parmesan

1 tablespoon extra virgin-olive oil

1 small onion, minced

Sea salt to taste

1 cup Italian Arborio rice

2 cups vegetable broth or chicken stock

4 cups loosely packed fresh spinach leaves, rinsed, and finely chopped

10 thin spears fresh asparagus, rinsed, trimmed, and cut into thin diagonal slices

¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

½ cup freshly grated Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a 1½ quart saucepan, combine the oil, onion, and salt over moderate heat. Stir to coat with the oil and cook until the onion is soft and translucent, for three to four minutes. Add the rice, stirring to coat with the oil. Add the chicken stock, spinach, asparagus, nutmeg, and salt, and bring just to a simmer over moderate heat. Stir in half the cheese. Transfer to a 1-quart soufflé dish, and smooth out the top with the back of the spoon. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Cover the soufflé dish.

Place the soufflé dish in the center of the oven. Bake until the rice is cooked through and has absorbed most of the liquid, 35-40 minutes. The baked rice should be moist but not soupy. Serve immediately, as a vegetable side dish or a main dish.

Serves six.