Are you intimidated by risotto? Have you heard people saying that it is complicated and a lot of work? Then you probably are a victim of the Very Secret Risotto Cooking Society. It exists, I can only presume (it is Very Secret), to scare people off preparing this very delicious and simple dish and thus making the people who do prepare it (probably all sworn members of the VSRCS) look all the more accomplished and fabulous. It’s a conspiracy. I know it.
Because making risotto is neither complicated nor any more work than your average dish of pasta (there aren’t even a lot of dishes to wash, because we need just one pan and one bowl to hold the stock). And you can adjust it in many ways to suit your taste, with seafood or vegetables or meat…
Risotto, generally, is rice cooked slowly together with its flavouring ingredients by adding the cooking liquid one ladle at a time. The nice creamy consistency that binds the dish together comes from the starch that the rice releases during the cooking, and that, with the fairly little amount of liquid added, becomes a silky sauce. Plus, most cooks add more or less generous helpings of butter and/or cheese at the end, which contributes to the yumminess, but it isn’t strictly necessary.
Because the starch content of the rice is important, you should preferably use risotto rice. These are short-grained rice varieties that easily release their starches. There are a few types of rice that are commonly sold as risotto rice, the most widely available ones are Carnaroli, Arborio and Vialone Nano.
On a side note, other grains can be also used to make this dish with the risotto method. In Italy, it is not uncommon to use pearl barley (the dish is then called orzotto), and I have tried delicious versions made with quinoa and even lentils. You do not, however, get the creamy consistency that you will with risotto rice.
I recommend using hot stock (with a little wine at the beginning). If you hear someone recommending water, that would of course work just as well, but then you need to add some additional herbs, spices and salt along the way. Make sure the liquid is kept hot during the cooking process, or it will cook down the dish every time you add some.
- Always start by softening some finely chopped onion in butter or oil (on medium heat), then adding the dry rice, stirring it around to finely coat the grains with fat. If you are using ingredients that benefit by being fried first, such as bacon, sausage meat, bone marrow or similar, add them too at the beginning.
- When all grains are coated, add the first helping of liquid. I always use a splash of wine here, mostly white but rose and red work too, depending on the ingredients I am using. Make sure the liquid is evenly distributed in the pan. If you are adding ingredients that need to be cooked (but not fried), such as vegetables, mushrooms, seafood, fish or meat, add them now. They will gently cook/steam along with the rice, and the flavours will mingle beautifully.
- When the first splash of liquid has been absorbed, add the next helping of liquid – about a ladleful, so that the rice is just about covered in the pan. Wait until it is absorbed, then repeat. And again. And again. Until the rice is cooked. How long that is? About 15-20 minutes, but the best way to tell is by tasting. It’s perfect when the rice still has a little bit of a “bite”, because it will continue cooking, and you don’t want it to be mushy.
- When the rice is cooked, add any cheese you may be using (in general, it always benefits from a dusting of parmesan) and more butter if you wish. Stir, and serve.
That’s it. Complicated? Not at all. A lot of work? Well, it isn’t a drop-in-the-water-and-run-dish. You have to be near the stove, to stir and add liquid every few minutes, but that still leaves you free to prep a salad, set the table, or chat with your friends who have come to be bedazzled by your risotto cooking abilities.
One of my favourite risotto flavours is radicchio and taleggio, i.e. with a bitter leafy vegetable and a stinky soft cheese. Beautiful. Here’s how it works:
Prepare some vegetable stock. Cut a piece of taleggio into hazelnut-sized pieces (as good as you can…the cheese is notoriously runny and sticky, as well as smelly…pleasant chap really!). Chop a few radicchio leaves into slivers, and half an onion into small cubes. Soften the onion in butter, add two handfuls of risotto rice, then deglaze with a splash of rosé wine. Add the radicchio. Keep adding ladlefuls of the hot stock, until the rice is al dente. Stir in the taleggio cubes – they will mostly melt into the risotto. Sprinkle with a little bit of parmesan. Serve in deep plates with some more chilled rosé.