Monday, December 14, 2009

About Risotto

For some reason, the desire to learn to make perfect risotto hit me while walking through the market a few weeks ago. It began when I saw a beautiful piece of bright orange pumpkin and from then on I could think of nothing else but the creamy/chewy taste of pumpkin risotto in my mouth.

The first time I had risotto was while we were still living in Slovenia, which borders northern Italy from which risotto originated. I had ordered seafood risotto not really knowing what it was but wanting seafood. After one bite I was so impressed, I asked the waiter more about it. He said, "It's mice" Seeing my expression, Sean leaned over and said, "I think he means rice". "Rice!", I said, "its not possible. Rice is boring and steamed, this is chewy, yet creamy with such amazing depth of flavour." That was 12 years ago and I have been a fan ever since. Sadly, I had never quite achieved what I tasted from Italian cooks.

After much reflection and research on my failure, I realized that mainly two things were stopping me from my goal: patience (of which I have very little); and my aversion to using butter in cooking. In Tuscany we pride ourselves in mainly using olive oil in our kitchens (except for desserts). Risotto comes from the North of Italy which has less olive trees and alas uses more butter in their cooking. Furthermore, I don't like the affect butter has on my body and so generally tend to avoid using it. You can start Risotto off with olive oil but you have to beat 5 tablespoons of cold butter into the risotto at the end to emulsify it and achieve the desired texture. I had been sort of skipping this step.

The patience part comes from the need to stir continually and apparently slowly to create the perfect texture. You can't abandon risotto or rush it. As you stir, the starch is knocked off the rice and is key to "building up" the dish. An Italian once said to me, "The risotto will feel your stress and absorb it". Perfect. Stress is my middle name. Usually I have a few kids running around saying "mom, I need" and a plethora of other things vying for my attention during the meal preparation. But maybe I could manage, now that the boys are older, to announce, "I'm making risotto!", close the kitchen doors, start with a little prayer, pour a glass of wine and commence without stress. Hmmm, that could work!

So, apart from patience and butter, I think I had all the other important elements of risotto mastered. Actually a lot can be said about risotto but I will try to keep it to a minimum. Just make sure, in addition to the following elements, that you have good quality fresh ingredients.

Rice. You must use a short grained rice. If you use long grain rice it isn't Risotto. For years I used Arborio but then I took a cooking class and the unanimous consent was that Vialone Nano is what they use "up North" where Risotto originates. Here in Italy you always go back to the original, traditional recipe to get it right. You can also use Canaroli. The important thing about these rices is they have the proper combination of starch to achieve the creaminess of Risotto and yet an inner core that will stay intact.

Brodo (stock). The hot stock of course is added a ladlefull at a time and needs to be good quality. Italians usually make chicken brodo by throwing a cut up chicken in a pot with an onion, couple of carrots, a few celery stalks with leaves, bay leaf, and peppercorns. There are slightly more complicated brodo's which involve roasting the meat for 15 minutes first with a bit of tomato paste brushed on but the simple version seems to work fine. I've also learned to make fantastic vegetable brodo which is sometimes needed instead of chicken broth, from Giorgio Locatelli's cookbook which is deserving of a recipe entry all by itself. I usually keep some in the freezer for making risotto so I have this step already done when I start.

Soffritto- This is the aromatic flavor base of the risotto and usually involves sweating onions or shallots in olive oil (or butter/olive oil combo) until they are soft but not brown. Sometimes other things are added like porcini mushrooms or sausage at this stage but needs to be able to withstand the cooking time at a fairly high heat.

Tostatura- This is the toasting of the rice in the pan which comes after the soffritto and lasts for about 3 minutes.

Mancatura- This is the part I had been skipping. Once the rice reaches the al dente stage after about 17-20 minutes you pull it off the heat and beat in cold butter and parmesan cheese. This achieves the perfect creaminess while maintaining the body and texture of the dish.

So with all this said, I will begin posting my recent risotto recipes which I must say have not disappointed me anymore! Make sure the table is set and the family notified when you start stirring the risotto because it must be served immediately once it is finished.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


I had been on the quest of learning to make real Carbonara when I met Michele. Michele is a cocky, young chef from Calabria that lived above us last year when he was working in the kitchen of San Michele, a hotel in Fiesole that charges 1500-3000 euro a night. During the summer when we were eating in our very small yard, he would lean out the window and mock my cooking. "You call that Carbonara?"he'd say as I set the plates of pasta down for the family. Or he'd shake his finger at me and say "Non va bene". Finally I put my hands on my hips and said in my best italian, "If you're so smart get down here and show me how to do it!" To my delight, when he wasn't working or chasing young girls he would show up at our door and ask, "What do you have in the kitchen?" The first time, it was the ingredients for "the perfect pasta" which I will share with you later. The second time I made sure I had fresh eggs, pancetta, red onion, and parmeggiano so we could make La Carbonara. I also had panna (cream) in the refrigerator which he wound up using but which I think is a cop out. What does he know about real Carbonara anyway, he is from Calabria. Real Carbonara comes from Rome and doesn't usually include cream. The American version's I've seen is nothing like Roman Carbonara as it is mostly cream so you might as call it pasta with cream sauce rather than Carbonara.

This is not an easy dish to make even though it only has 4 ingredients in the sauce. If you aren't careful you will wind up with scrambled eggs and bacon in pasta which is so far from what this dish can be it makes me cry to think about it. If done right it has a silky creamy texture without the heaviness of cream.

The best thing about Carbonara is that my boys love it and I can get protein in the pasta dish if I'm not making a secondo (meat course). I love the smiles on their faces when I say I'm making La Carbonara!

Here is the recipe. Let me know if you achieve the creamy texture or scrambled eggs. I have a weakness for leeks so sometimes I substitute them for the red onion but try the traditional way first.

140 grams Pancetta chopped (bacon in the States)
Half a red onion minced
4 to 5 eggs (actually 1 egg per person and if over 5 people increase other ingredients
parmesan cheese (as you like but I put about 1/2 cup grated)
500 grams of spaghetti
pasta water

Put the water on the boil for the pasta (make sure you salt the water) Saute' the pancetta and onion in olive oil until it starts to brown a bit. Add a little pasta water as needed if it starts to stick to pan.

Break the eggs in a bowl and beat. Add the parmesan and then when you cook the spaghetti a 1/4 to a 1/2 cup of the pasta water. Don't salt the eggs at this point as it will cause them to "cook" too fast. If you want to you can add a little cream to this but the authentic way is just with eggs.

Cook the spaghetti al dente. Take it off the heat when it is still a little firm drain it then put it back into the pot. Immediately put a little olive oil on the pasta, add the cooked pancetta and onion, give it a stir and then add the eggs all at once. If you add the eggs before everything else they will scramble. Add more pasta water if needed.

Stir the spaghetti to incorporate everything and then put it back on very low heat and keep stirring until it reaches the right consistency. Should be a smooth slightly runny sauce but not too runny. The slight heat will firm it up to just the right consistency as you stir. DON't cook too much! Add salt and pepper and more parmesan on top and chopped fresh parsley if you want!