February 22, 2018
Risotto isn’t really a recipe. It’s a technique.
Yes, there are a few quintessentially classic risotti for which precise instructions are needed (like Risotto alla Milanese) but, in general, you can adapt the technique to use an array of vegetables and other ingredients.
Risotto with Asparagus is a good example of a risotto where the vegetables are pre-cooked and added near the end. The same can be done with both peas and mushrooms, for example.
Risotto with Butternut Squash is an example of a risotto where the vegetables are added at the beginning and complete their cooking as the rice cooks. Though you wouldn’t think it would work, Risotto with Zucchini works the same way, as long as the zucchini are cut into thick slices.
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In a traditional Italian meal, risotto, pasta, and soup are all considered the same course: the first course (Il Primo Piatto). The first course follows the antipasto (which means, literally, before the pasta). Il Primo Piatto is followed by the second course (Il Secondo Piatto), consisting of fish, meat, or poultry and accompanied by several side dishes (contorni). The first and second courses have almost equal weight in an Italian meal; very different from an American meal.
While restaurants often par-cook a risotto so that it can be quickly finished for service, I find that cooking a risotto at home is best done “in the moment.” That means I only make risotto for a small group when everyone can hang out in the kitchen during the 45 minutes, or so, that it takes to cook. That pretty much consumes the cocktail hour. Because of this, for me, risotto is a dish for family or very close friends.
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Risotto isn’t something I grew up eating. It is traditionally a Northern Italian dish. I also don’t remember Auntie Helen, who was from Rome, making risotto either.
As with much of Northern Italian cooking, my first introduction was through Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook. Beyond that, my Italian repertoire grew based on trips to Italy, cooking with Italian friends, and ultimately, marrying into my husband’s very Northern Italian family.
Risotto with butternut squash is a wonderful dish for late fall and winter.
If you have a favorite family recipe and a bit of a story to tell, please email me at email@example.com and we can discuss including it in the blog. I am expanding the scope of my blog to include traditional recipes from around the country and around the world. If you haven’t seen Bertha’s Flan or Melinda’s Drunken Prunes, take a look. They will give you an idea of what I’m looking for.
It is important to use what the Italians would call “riso per risotto” (rice for risotto). The rice used for risotto is short-grained. It can absorb a lot of liquid, turning creamy in the process while still maintaining the ideal “al dente,” (toothy) quality at the very core. The most commonly available types of rice for risotto are Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. Far and away, Arborio is the most common.
Since creaminess is the goal, rice used for risotto shouldn’t be washed. The little extra starch on the grains will improve the texture.
A well-made risotto gets almost all of its creamy texture from the cooking method, not from the addition of butter, cheese, or cream. To be sure, a bit of butter and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese are almost always added at the end but this should be for flavor, not to compensate for poor technique.
My most common quibble with risotto made in the United States is that it is overly rich with butter and cheese and (heaven forbid) sometimes cream.
To coax creaminess out of the rice, broth is added in small amounts and completely cooked off before the next bit is added. In general, the amount of broth I add each time is no more than 1/3 the quantity of rice I start with. For example, if I’m using one cup of rice, I add no more than 1/3 cup of broth each time liquid is needed. The rice should be stirred frequently, but not constantly.