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Risotto: A versatile Italian dish

A lemon risotto made with chicken broth is

A lemon risotto made with chicken broth is garnished with pesto and pine nuts in food writer Peter Gianotti's house. (Oct. 5, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Rebecca Cooney

In the wise, bittersweet 1996 film, "Big Night," a customer is served a seafood risotto. She pokes at the rice, asking whether that's what she ordered. She wants spaghetti with it.

Risotto has become more popular since the 1950s, when the movie takes place. But it also has kept some of its mystery: a dish as misunderstood as it is uncomplicated.

Diners on Long Island will find the creamy rice dish as an appetizer, listed with pastas or offered on the side. And, at home, it's not hard to make, either. Traditionalists patiently and attentively stir the pot; speedsters can use a microwave oven. Either way, the result can be very satisfying, especially as the evenings grow cooler.

And you can create a risotto with whatever ingredient you choose, from mushrooms to seafood, or keep it white with Parmesan cheese.

 

The main ingredient

The estimates for the varieties of rice in the world range from about 40,000 to many times that. What works for a paella, a biryani or for sushi isn't the ideal rice for risotto. The best risotti are made with one of three kinds of starchy rice that grows in northern Italy.

Arborio, named for the Piedmontese town in the Po Valley, is the most widely available of the three. Arborio is nearly oval-shaped, milled less than long-grain, and has a firm center that contributes to an al dente quality. It can absorb a lot of liquid and not turn mushy, producing a very creamy risotto. California grows a domestic Arborio.

Carnaroli, a bit more elongated and pearlier than Arborio and vialone nano, grows in the region between Milan and Turin. A carnaroli risotto generally keeps its shape better and is fluffier and less sticky than Arborio. It typically costs more but is very popular in Italy.

Vialone nano, the rice of Venice, approaches roundness and usually absorbs more liquid than carnaroli. Nano means dwarf or miniature. It's also whiter. And vialone nano cooks a little faster than either Arborio or carnaroli.


The technique

Risotto doesn't take long to make. But it requires some patience. You'll be stirring constantly. Not intermittently. Constantly. If you stop before it's done, you're cooked.

The goal in a basic risotto is to ensure that all the cooking liquid is taken in by the rice and that the flavors harmonize.

The essential risotto is a white one. You begin by sauteing a chopped onion or several chopped shallots in butter and oil until it turns light but before it browns. Next, the rice goes in. You'll saute the onion and the rice for a minute or two so that all the grains of rice are coated.

After that, you slowly start adding chicken or vegetable stock or broth that you've been simmering, one-half cup at a time. When the first half-cup has been absorbed, you do the same with the second. Be sure to stir the bottom and the sides of the pot or pan you're using; you don't want any rice sticking to it.

When the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente, you can add any other ingredients. Some lemon zest, or, if you're feeling expansive, saffron, enrich it. So will a teaspoon of unsalted butter. Add salt and freshly ground pepper, if you want. And if you can splurge on anything, buy genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Add a snowfall of it, freshly grated. It makes a big difference.


TIPS FOR A GOOD RISOTTO

1. Use the right rice: Arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano.

2. Have extra heated stock or broth ready to adjust texture.

3. Stir constantly until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Figure 15 to 30 minutes.

4. Taste as you go, checking seasoning.

5. Serve immediately.


RECIPES

Basic risotto

*Adapted from Lidia Bastianich's "Lidia's Italian Table" (Morrow, 1998)

3 tablespoons extra-virginolive oil

1 cup minced onions

2 tablespoons minced shallots

2 1/2 cups Arborio or carnaroli rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

6 1/2 cups hot chicken stock or canned, low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon salt, or as needed

2 teaspoons unsalted butter, cut into bits

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

Lemon zest (optional)

1. In a heavy, wide 3- to 4-quart casserole or pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Add onions and shallots together and saute until golden, stirring often, about 8 minutes.

3. Add the rice and stir to coat with oil. Toast the rice until edges become translucent, 1 to 2 minutes.

4. Pour in the white wine and stir well until evaporated.

5. Add 1/2 cup of the hot stock and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring constantly, until all the stock has been absorbed.

6. Continue to add hot stock in small batches, just enough to moisten rice completely, and cook until each successive batch is absorbed.

7. Stir constantly and adjust the level of the heat so the rice is simmering very gently, until the rice is creamy but al dente. This will take 16 to 20 minutes from the time the wine was added.

8. Remove the casserole from the heat and beat in the butter until completely melted. Then do the same with the cheese. Stir in a bit of lemon zest, if you like. Adjust for seasoning with salt and, if necessary, pepper.

9. Serve immediately, ladled into warm, shallow bowls. Top each with additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to taste. Makes 6 servings.


Asparagus & scampi risotto

Adapted from Tessa Kiros' "Venezia: Food & Dreams" 2009 Andrews McMeel

12 to 16 scampi (red-claw, langoustines or large shrimp)

1 large carrot

1/2 onion

1 bay leaf

A few peppercorns

13 ounces (about 19) asparagus spears

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 onion, finely chopped

1 cup Arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

1 tablespoon Cognac

1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons grated Parmesan

1. To make the brodo (broth), peel and clean the scampi, and cut each in half down to the middle. Rinse the heads and shells, and put them in a pot with 6 cups of water, the carrot, onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and some salt. Bring to boil, then simmer for 30 minutes. Strain, and keep the broth hot.

2. Discard the woody ends from the asparagus and cut off the tips. Put the tips aside and chop the stems. Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan and saute the onion until well softened. Add the chopped asparagus and saute briefly.

3. Add the rice, turning it through so it is well coated with oil. Add the white wine and let it bubble up until much of it has evaporated. Add 2 cups of broth, stir well, and simmer 10 to 15 minutes, or until almost of it has been absorbed. Add another 2 cups of broth, stir, and cook 5 to 10 minutes longer. (Add another 1/2 cup of broth if you want a creamier risotto.)

4. When the risotto is almost ready, heat the remaining oil in a small skillet, add the scampi and asparagus tips, and cook over high heat for 2 minutes, turning the scampi over when they have a pale golden crust underneath. Add the Cognac, stand back and ignite the skillet. Add a little salt and toss it all together, then take off the heat.

5. Stir the butter and Parmesan into the risotto, then tip the scampi and asparagus tips into the risotto. Add salt if needed, quickly toss it all through and serve immediately with ground black pepper. Makes 4 servings.


Basic Microwave Risotto

Risotto requires plenty of stirring. But, if you're not a purist and would like to rest your wrist, too, there's another way. In her cookbook "Microwave Gourmet," Barbara Kafka offers this method.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup minced yellow onion (about 1/4 pound)

1 cup Arborio rice

3 cups chicken stock or broth

2 teaspoons kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1. Microwave butter and oil uncovered in a 10-inch quiche or deep pie dish, or an 11-by-81/2-by-2-inch dish at 100 percent for 2 minutes. Add onions and stir to coat. Cook uncovered at 100 percent for 4 minutes. Add rice and stir to coat. Cook, uncovered, 4 more minutes. (For small oven, cook onions for 7minutes; add rice and cook 7 minutes longer.)

2. Stir in broth. Microwave, uncovered, at 100 percent for 9 minutes. Stir well and cook 9 minutes longer. (For small oven, cook 12 minutes, stir, then cook 12 minutes longer.)

3. Remove risotto from microwave. Let stand, uncovered, for 5 minutes to let the rice absorb remaining liquid, stirring several times. Stir in salt, pepper and Parmesan cheese, if desired.

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