Many years ago, three fellow culinary school instructors and I landed in Milan, headed for two weeks at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Costigliole d’ Asti near the towns of Asti and Turin in northwest Italy. Traveling through the spring-kissed Piedmont countryside, I noticed flooded rectangles of land evenly dotted with green sprouts. I leaned over to my Italian colleague and said, “Look, rice paddies!”
“That’s probably Canaroli rice,” he answered, “it’s grown in this region. Superfino rice like Canaroli and Arborio are very starchy, which makes the creamiest risotto and are therefore most desirable to many Italians. Canaroli has a fat kernel and Arborio, a longer one. Fino and Semifino rice like Vialone Nano (most popular with Venetians) is a little smaller, while the smallest kernel (and least expensive) is Comune, generally used in the area where it is grown.” My education on the Italian passion for risotto had begun.
Risotto is Italy’s riff on a rice pilaf. Both pilaf and risotto use flavoring devices like sautéed onions or other aromatic vegetables, stocks and broths and seasonings like herbs or spices. A pilaf uses long-grained rice, which you never stir so the rice ends up fluffy and separate. Risotto uses homegrown, starchy, short grain rice; you must stir it throughout cooking to end up with slightly firm rice bound together in a creamy, flavorful sauce.
A successful risotto depends on the right rice. No substitutes. In this country Arborio rice is most readily available but, most Italians favor the “king of rices,” Canaroli. With its extra fat and starchy grains Canaroli makes the creamiest risotto.
Risotto rices all have a high proportion of amylopectin, a sticky starch that’s responsible risotto’s creamy texture. In contrast, long-grain rice, like basmati, have a higher proportion of a less-sticky starch called amylose. This is why long-grain rice is fluffier and more separate when cooked, and why it doesn’t work in risotto.
Although pilaf makes fine leftovers, a good rule of thumb with risotto is to finish it at the table. You’ll find leftover risotto a changed animal, hard and chewy, not tender and creamy.
Risotto is a great alternative to pasta, can be a meal in under 40 minutes and will stand alone as a satisfying autumn lunch or dinner with nothing more than a green salad. Risotto is the perfect place to improvise seasonally. Do as the Italians do, pair asparagus and lemon in spring, shrimp and tomatoes in summer, squash and mushrooms in autumn and roasted root vegetables and pancetta in winter.
- Rule One: Most risotti begin with onion cooked in butter or olive oil or a combination of aromatic vegetables like carrots, leeks, celery, garlic or mushrooms. Cook these over moderate heat until tender then stir in uncooked rice.
Rule Two: Have flavorful liquids hot in a saucepan nearby. I prefer homemade or unsalted canned chicken broth, but vegetable broth, clam juice or fish broth, mushroom soaking water or shrimp shell broth are all fine, depending on the risotto’s other ingredients. Stir no more than 1/2 cup of hot liquid into rice at a time. Stir risotto evenly and constantly until broth is almost completely absorbed before adding the next 1/2
- cup. The rice will swim around with too much liquid, and won’t get enough friction to form its important creaminess.
- Rule Three: Watch your heat. If rice seems to be absorbing the liquid too quickly, reduce the heat. If rice seems to be absorbing liquid too slowly, increase the heat. Larger kerneled Superfino rice like Canaroli and Arborio take about 25 to 30 minutes to cook while smaller Fino and Semifino rice like Vialone Nano will take between 20 and 25 minutes. Set a timer so you can keep track. The risotto is finished when a spoonful of it is creamy, well-seasoned and the rice still offers some resistance to your teeth. It should not be crunchy or mushy but somewhere in between. Stir in remaining seasonings, herbs, cheese or pre-cooked vegetables.
- Rule Four: Serve your risotto immediately. Bring it to the table a little wetter and looser than you want it—as the risotto cools it will thicken. Because of the creamy starch you must serve this dish while hot or it will harden into a paste and the rice kernels will lose all their texture. There is a way to “pre-cook” a risotto: Restaurant chefs cook risotto about fourteen minutes, spread it out to a thin layer on a sheet pan and refrigerate or freeze immediately. When the chef gets an order he or she scoops the rice into a heated saucepan with little olive oil or butter, adds more broth or water and stirs until the risotto is done.
Risotto con Zucca Gialla e Zafferano
Saffron gives this risotto its distinctive golden color. Colorful, spiced dishes, designed to impress the rich and powerful, were popular with medieval Europeans; they show an Arab influence. Add 2 ounces diced prosciutto or bacon to the onions as they cook for increased flavor. For richer flavor roast the butternut squash cubes and add them at the end of cooking.
Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen
Yields about 9 cups, 6 servings
4 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 C. peeled and finely diced onion
2 C. peeled and diced butternut squash, (about 1/2-inch cubes)
2 t. finely chopped fresh rosemary or sage leaves
1/2 C. white wine, optional
6 C. chicken or vegetable stock, more as needed
1/4 to 1/2 t. crumbled saffron
1-1/2 C. Arborio, Canaroli or other Italian risotto rice
1 C. freshly shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, about 4 ounces
Heat 2 T. butter and olive oil in 6-quart pot. Cook onion over medium heat until tender and golden. Add squash and sauté until edges soften, about 5 minutes. Add a small amount of water if squash sticks. Stir in rosemary or sage and cook 1 minute. Meanwhile, heat chicken stock in small covered saucepan over low heat. Place a ladle nearby. Mix saffron in small bowl with 1/2 cup hot broth; set aside.
Stir rice into sautéed onion and squash, and cook over medium heat 1 minute to harden outside layer of starch on rice. Stir in optional wine and cook until dry. Stir no more than 1/2 cup hot liquid into rice at a time. (Don’t forget the saffron broth.) Keep risotto at an even low boil over medium to medium-low heat. Larger kernel superfino rice like Canaroli and Arborio take 25 to 30 minutes; the smaller fino and semifino rice take 20 to 25 minutes.
Stir risotto evenly and constantly until the broth is almost completely absorbed before the next 1/2-cup increment of broth. When a spoon is run across the bottom of the pot, a clear wake should remain. If the rice seems to be absorbing liquid too quickly, reduce the heat. If the rice seems to be absorbing liquid too slowly, increase the heat. Warm the serving plates.
Taste risotto and season with salt and pepper. The risotto is finished when a spoonful of it is creamy, well-seasoned and the rice still offers some resistance to the tooth. The rice should not be crunchy or mushy but somewhere in between. Risotto should be wet and loose, like a stew—as it cools it will thicken.
To Serve: Fold in remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Serve risotto immediately on warm plates topped with cheese or in a serving bowl on the side. Give guests a 5-minute warning and have them at the table when risotto is ladled. Serve immediately while hot.
Risotto con Funghi: Sauté 1-1/2 cups diced onion, 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1/2
- ounce dried porcini, soaked, drained and sliced, 8 ounces sliced fresh wild mushrooms and red wine.
- Roasted Vegetable Risotto: Stir 2 cups roasted mixed vegetables into risotto just before seasoning with salt and pepper and heat through.