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.


  1. Great tutorial, Shandra (well, I think--I haven't tried it yet : ) I've always wanted to try making risotto but have heard that it isn't easy to get it just right. I like the quote about the risotto feeling your stress and absorbing it; I used to feel that way about pie crusts and yeast breads! I look forward to the recipes. BTW, I made your stuffing and the tuscan beans and ribollita. Both were delicious! I've been meaning to post the results but I just haven't had time.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment Melissa. I look forward to you testing the Risotto recipes to see if they are workable. You are such a fabulous cook you can take any recipe and probably make it better!