Thursday, November 18, 2010

Risotto 101

Many years ago I read about an exotic Italian dish called risotto, and decided it was something I could make at home.  The cookbooks said to use arborio rice but I couldn't find it in my supermarket, so I used plain old long grain white rice.  Otherwise I followed the recipe, starting with toasting the rice in butter, then adding broth and hot water as the dish cooked over high heat.  The dish tasted great -- a big step up from the plain white rice of my childhood -- and became our regular preparation when rice was on the menu.

I can't remember how many years this went on before I ate risotto in a restaurant in New York, made with arborio rice and no doubt including other fancy ingredients.  I realized this was a different animal entirely from the faux risotto at home.  Eventually arborio rice made it to stores in the sticks, and I switched my preparation to the official version.  At the same time, risotto switched from a side carbo to the entree.

Best of all, I realized that just like pasta and soup, risotto could be the vehicle for infinite permutations of whatever was hanging around the refrigerator, which you may have realized by now is my favorite genre of cooking.  It's great for absorbing vegetables, anywhere from a couple of stray leaves of arugula to a big bunch of broccoli.  A little meat, whether it's leftovers or something new, goes a long way toward pepping up a dish of risotto, and of course the parmesan cheese grated in at the last minute adds protein as well as flavor.

Today's risotto, with radicchio, butternut squash and leftover chicken

As with pasta and soup, imagination is the key ingredient in fixing risotto.  Whatever you have around is probably going to work as an additive.  Some of my favorites:

-- Winter squash makes a classic Italian risotto.  If you have leftovers, just put the cooked squash into the skillet and mash it up a bit with your spoon; it will practically dissolve in cooking and turn the rice orange (beautiful!).  If you're starting from scratch, you can cut the raw squash into thin bite-size pieces, no more than 1/8 inch thick, which will retain their shape.

-- Another classic is radicchio.  In Italy, the words trevisano or trevigiana on a menu indicate the presence of radicchio, after Treviso, the city where farmers developed a technique to blanch the leaves and make the plant prettier and less bitter.  In Milan, the rice capital of Italy, I ate risotto trevisano con gamberi, with shrimp -- a magnificent combination that is easy to do at home.  But even without shrimp, radicchio makes a fine risotto.

-- Summer vegetables can all go in risotto, but you have to be careful not to overcook them, particularly zucchini.  I often saute the zucchini first, then take it out of the pan and let it rest on a plate until the rice is almost done.  It goes back into the skillet only long enough to warm it through and meld the flavors.

-- Olives add color as well as a concentrated flavor kick. 

I'm partial to risotto with mostly vegetables, but a cookbook check will reveal many ways to up the meat content for heartier versions.  Clams, squid, fish and of course shrimp are classics.  Sausage, pork, chicken and veal show up in various combinations with vegetables.

If you don't have risotto in your home repertoire, here's the quick technique recap. 

Risotto has the reputation of being tricky, difficult, beyond the scope of the beginner or hesitant cook.  But that rep is undeserved.  The tricky part consists solely of the fact that for 20 minutes you have to stand there, watch and stir.  You won't be able to do anything else during this time period, but so what? 

Make the rest of your menu beforehand, or put your helper in charge of the last 20 minutes worth of cooking other things.  Pare, chop or slice in advance whatever ingredients you're going to put in the risotto, place them right by the stove, and figure out whether they need to cook for 20 minutes (in which case, add them as soon as you add the liquid) or less (in which case, add them later in the cooking process). 

Maybe you want to saute your ingredient first, rather than just add it to a pan of liquid, but don't want it to cook the whole 20 minutes.  If so, saute it in the skillet, unload it onto a plate, and add it back to the risotto at the appropriate time.

Get a big skillet so your rice will cook in a wide, shallow layer.  Decide what kind of liquid you're going to use and have it at hand, can or bottle opened, ready to pour.  I always use about a half-cup of wine and a can of chicken broth, but you could also use other kinds of broth or vegetable juice.  When the moment comes to add liquid, you want it NOW, lest your rice burn.

Put a generous serving of olive oil in the skillet and get it hot.  Dump in as much arborio rice as you would normally use in other rice preparations.  I have a little measuring cup that came with my rice cooker, and one measure (it's probably about 3/4 cup) is what I would use to serve two of us.  The same quantity of rice serves two of us in risotto.

The rice is starting to turn brown -- time to add the liquid.

Stir the rice in the hot skillet and watch very carefully as the grains begin to toast and turn opaque white, then begin to get brown.  A few seconds after I add the rice I also add finely minced garlic and keep stirring so it doesn't burn either.  When the rice looks like it's starting to brown, pour in about a half-cup of liquid.  It will sizzle furiously and begin to cook away. Don't let the pan dry out; add some more liquid a half-cup at a time and keep stirring.  You want the rice to cook in liquid over high heat the whole time. 

Bubbling away, with only enough liquid to cover. 

Italian cooks will heat up a pan of broth and keep it at a simmer on a separate burner, adding it a bit at a time to the skillet with the rice.  I'm not quite that finicky; I add broth straight from the can but in small enough doses that the rice mixture never stops bubbling away.  And after I use up my can of broth, which isn't enough, I add hot water from my electric kettle.

Adding raw sliced squash

So when is it done?  The rice grains should be al dente, not soft.  And the whole preparation should be almost soupy, not so you need to eat it with a spoon but so it has a definite sauce-like quality.  The arborio rice sheds starch as it cooks and makes the liquid creamy.  But you do have to make sure the liquid doesn't cook away.  I find that when the rice is almost done and I issue the two-minute warning for people to get to the table, it's a good idea to add a half-cup of hot water and stir that around to make sure the risotto isn't dry.

You can grate parmesan cheese into the risotto in the pan and stir it around to melt, or you can let people cheese their own plates at the table.  A big grind of black pepper is usually pretty good too.  Mangia!

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