cucina bene; mangia bene (Make risotto tonight)
Risotto is a traditionally Northern Italian rice dish that is made with short-grain rice called Arborio, an aromatic such as onion, wine, hot stock or broth, a fat (usually butter), a protein or vegetable (or combination), and cheese.
The technique is to first cook the aromatic (which is finely diced) in the fat until it is soft and translucent, the rice is added and toasted to do two things: coat the rice in fat and begin building the flavor and to prevent too rapid of an absorption of the liquid. You will know when the rice is toasted enough when it turns opaque in color. Wine is then added to deglaze the pan and provide acidity to help balance the dish. It is important to add the right amount of wine as too much can be overpowering and too little will leave you with a bland risotto. Once the wine is absorbed, hot stock is added, usually a ladleful at a time. The liquid should be hot (heated in a separate pot) to ensure the risotto reaches the desired consistency. Stirring the rice is important, but it does not have to be done as frequently as you may think. If the rice is over stirred it could break and become mush, not enough stirring and the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan and burns. As the liquid is added and the rice stirred, the grains release their starches and create the creamy consistency that risotto is known for. Another flavor building technique is to add some of the ingredients to the risotto early. For example, if you are making a fresh asparagus risotto, you would first trim, cut and blanch the asparagus in preparation for the final dish. You could then add the chopped up stems to the risotto while the rice is cooking to enhance the asparagus flavor. Additionally, you could use the water used to blanch the asparagus as the cooking liquid to regain the lost nutrients and add even more asparagus flavor. The asparagus tips would be added at the end along with a protein if desired, and finished with a little more fat and some grated Parmigiano Reggiano or other cheese. The consistency of the rice should be al dente, and a little soupy. It’s important to remove the pan from the heat prior to the rice reaching the desired consistency to avoid overcooking it.
The choice of rice for risotto is also very important. In order for it to become risotto, it is important that Italian rice is used: Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano. There is domestic Arborio available, but it, unfortunately, does not cook the same. I have found that it becomes mushy during the cooking process no matter how little or much liquid is used. The most common and inexpensive Italian rice is Arborio and can be found in most supermarkets in either the bulk section or aisle where grains and beans are sold.
There are many traditional Italian risotto recipes: ones from Venice tend to be made with light stocks, vegetables, and/or seafood; while those from Piemonte, Lombardia, or Emilia-Romagna tend to be a bit heavier and are flavored with sausage, meats, game, and cheeses. You can easily come up with your own risotto recipe if you follow the basic steps I outlined above. Here’s a recent recipe I made for a client (a variation of the prawn and asparagus risotto in the 2nd picture):
Ingredients: (serves 2-3)
1 cup arborio rice
1 small shallot, finely diced
2 tbs. butter
1/2 cup white wine (such as pinot grigio)
1 bunch fresh asparagus, washed, trimmed and cut into pieces, tips reserved
3/4 lb. wild-caught prawns (16-20 count), washed, peeled, and deveined
Porcini Dust: dried Porcini mushrooms that have been ground into powder (about 2 tbs.)
1 quart of water
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small roll of fresh goat cheese
2 tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
Bring the water to a boil in a medium pot and blanch the asparagus tips for approximately 3-4 minutes or until slightly tender. Remove the tips from the water, and retain for the risotto (keep it on low heat). In a sauce pot, sauté the shallot and asparagus stems in 2 tbs. of butter until the shallot is translucent. Add the rice and toast until it becomes opaque. Add the wine and reduce the heat to low. Stir and cook until the wine has been absorbed. Add a ladleful of the asparagus water and stir to cover the rice (you might have to add more liquid depending on the size of your ladle). Continue to stir and add liquid as the rice cooks and absorbs. Season the rice according to your taste preferences with salt and pepper, and then add 1/2 to 3/4 of the roll of goat cheese and stir to incorporate. Just before the rice has reached al dente, add another ladle of liquid and remove from heat; taste and add more goat cheese if necessary. Add the asparagus tips and stir. While the rice has been cooking, season the prawns with salt and pepper and rub with a little olive oil. Coat the prawns in the porcini dust and sear in a sauté pan with a little olive oil on both sides until just cooked. Spoon the risotto in warmed pasta bowls and top with the prawns. Sprinkle with chopped parsley, drizzle with truffle oil, and serve immediately. Buon Appetitio!