From all the risotti that I’ve made, tasted, analysed, talked about – at homes and restaurants – in Italy, Greece and elsewhere – by Italians, or non-Italians, fans and chefs, I bring you a summary of its ingredients and the basic idiot-proof recipe guaranteed to succeed. Once you understand the way that the dish synthesises and “fuses “together, it becomes easier to achieve the magical creamy risotto which flows in waves – all’onda, in other words, as was discussed in Part One.
1. The special rice.
In the best restaurants in Italy, risottos are made using Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice preferably, or as an alternative, Arborio or Baldo rice. The pearly white short-grain Vialone Nano rice is the second oldest variety in Italy. The first is the Balilla variety.
90% of it is grown around Verona, where the eponymous Vialone Nano Veronese variety has been awarded the IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or Protected Geographical Indication. Due to its high absorbency properties (the round grains absorb double their weight in liquid) it makes the creamiest risottos. Cooking time is just 15 minutes approx.
The chefs of Veneto, however, favour the Carnaroli, slightly longer-grain than the Vialone Nano. Due to its higher content of (water-soluble) amylase (starch), it keeps its shape better during cooking and is considered to be the king of Italian rice.
It is produced around Novara (West Lombardia) and Vercelli, in the Piemonte region, where the classic local risotto is called panissa (panissa vercellese) and is made with beans, Barbera wine, lard and salami.
The Arborio took its name from the eponymous village and is the best-known risotto rice outside Italy. It tends to be nearer the size of the Vialone Nano (short-grained) even though comparison tests show that it is slow to reach a creamy texture when cooked. The Baldo is a variety which makes an interesting risotto and belongs to the semifino category.
The categorisation of rice in Italy, the biggest rice producer in Europe, is based on the shaping of the grains ie. The size (length, width) and the shape; but not at all on the quality. So there is the Comune, which is small, the Semifino, the Fino and the Superfino, which includes the Carnaroli as well as the Vialone. On the Greek market, there are the three best-known types of Italian rice at least . If you want to try a Greek product – the nearest to an Italian risotto rice is the medium-grain, Lais rice from Agrino.
2. The essential 3 steps.
Every risotto recipe involves:
a. Brodo: Stock, wine or other liquid ingredient according to the recipe, is the the medium in which the rice cooks. It can be any kind of stock – beef, chicken, vegetable or fish, but obviously the quality of the risotto depends on the quality of the stock.
b. Condimenti: Meat, vegetables, seafood, cheese or any other ingredient gives a risotto its particular character. The condimenti are added – always according to the recipe –either at the beginning, middle or even end of the cooking time.
c. Soffrito: This is usually the combination of butter, oil and finely-chopped onions which are sautéed for a few minutes at the beginning. The soffrito changes according to the recipe. It can be made of all butter, or only oil. The onion can be completely absent or have its flavour boosted by the addition of other ingredients such as carrots, celery, garlic etc.
Once you become familiar with the basic risotto technique, you will realise that it’s not rocket science or quantum physics after all. What is sure, is that your personal culinary instinct – let’s call it your 7th sense – is a great guide. It’s also sure that after a little practice you’ll get to the stage that you can judge the quantity of liquid and whether you need to add some or reduce it. In the same way you will be able to tell if it needs a touch more butter, parmesan or cream – so giving it that magic touch which makes all the difference.
3.The Basic Recipe
Most risottos are based on this easy recipe. It makes a simple, delicious risotto – a reward for your first attempt! Keep to the rules or steps that I have mentioned. In any case, they come in handy if you get involved in a gourmet discussion about different cheeses or varieties of pears etc. and want to add your tuppence-worth!
Ingredients divided into steps (for 4 people,as a starter)
5 ½ teacups beef stock (or vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
5 teacups stock and ½ teacup dry white wine
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp oil
1/3 teacup finely-chopped onion
1 ½ teacups Carnaroli or Vialone or Arborio or Lais
1/3 teacup grated parmesan
• Brodo: Pour the stock into a small saucepan and keep hot, but not boiling, on a steady heat.
• Soffrito: Heat the butter with the oil in a pan on a medium heat setting. Add the onion and sauté for 1-2 minutes until it softens but before it browns.
• Riso: Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon for 1 minute until all the grains are coated with the soffrito butter-oil mixture. ( If using wine, pour it in now and stir until fully absorbed.) Begin adding the hot stock, ½ a teacup at a time, stirring constantly.
The heat should be medium to low, depending on your cooker, and should be steady for the whole cooking duration. Wait until the stock you add is almost completely absorbed before adding the next. Continue until finished, apart from the last ½ teacup, which is put aside. Stir well to avoid the rice sticking.
Note: The whole secret to making a risotto, is in this part. The liquid is added little by little and is absorbed by the rice. The rice must never be swimming in liquid….don’t leave it to drown! You mustn’t stop stirring for these 15-18 minutes.
• Condimenti: After about 18 minutes ( or 15 if using Vialone Nano), while the rice has softened but is still firm, pour in the remaining stock which was set aside. Remove from the heat immediately, add the condimenti – butter and parmesan – and stir quickly so that it is incorporated into the rice. Serve immediately.
Now you know everything you need to get into risotto-making, surely and safely! That’s not to say that there aren’t any more secrets and tips, which I will write more about very soon. If you follow the instructions I’ve given you so far, however, and don’t deviate with innovations ( rinsing the rice, cooking the rice for 25 minutes, for example) you can be sure of a successful result. You will never get bored with the recipes, trust me. Good luck!