Sunday, 21 June 2009

Risotto I: The Traditional Way

I make a lot of risotto. It's one of my top comfort foods. It's never a quick option (it takes around 30-45 minutes), but it's not too much hassle, and is so deliciously indulgent it has to be worth the wait.

A lot of people, it seems, think risotto is complicated or difficult. It really isn't. There's a lot of dogma attached to this family of dishes, but what follows is my own view.

Having made hundreds of risottos (I shy away from using the plural risotti - it just doesn't feel right), some from recipes, more often from what I had to hand, I can present a core formula, whose ingredients are essential. From there, you can create many variants by adding extras.

Core risotto
  • Risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli, vialone nano)
  • Stock (vegetable, chicken, beef, veal, fish or shellfish)
  • Olive oil (I use extra virgin for everything nowadays) and/or butter
  • Hard to semi-hard strong cheese (Parmesan, pecorino, or a vegetarian substitute, even Emmental, Gruyère, etc)
  • Wine or wine vinegar
  • Onion and/or garlic, finely chopped
  • Heat the oil and/or some of the butter in a non-stick pan (not a frying pan); add the onion/garlic. Fry until soft and golden.
  • Add the rice, fry for a minute or so.
  • Add the wine (enough to just cover the rice), or a dash of wine vinegar
  • Add enough stock to cover, if using vinegar, or wait until the wine has been absorbed.
  • Keep adding stock to cover the rice once the previous stock has been absorbed. Continue until the rice is tender but retains a little bite.
  • Add more oil/butter, and grated cheese, and stir through. Serve immediately.
  • Quantities are dependent on how much you want to make - it's down to how much rice you put in the pan. Just keep adding liquid until it's done - never let it dry out completely, or it will burn.
  • The type of rice you use matters - it has to be risotto rice, or at the very least a similar kind, such as paella rice. I even used sushi rice once, and it was partially successful (but went much softer than is really appropriate). The grains must to be short and fat, which produce a creamy liquid but retain a certain bite. I can't say I have noticed much difference between the different types of risotto rice - some people claim to, but it seems a minor concern.
  • My use of wine vinegar is unorthodox, but I don't usually have wine in, whereas I always have white or red wine vinegar in my cupboard. A dash adds a sharp complexity, similar to wine, but it is easy to overdo it - a dash is sufficient. If using wine, it's nice to serve the rest of the bottle with the risotto, so use something you'll like. White is more traditional, red works fine but produces a risotto with a strange, murky colour; rosé might be okay, but sweet wines are not suitable. Go for something not-too-assertive - you don't want to overpower the rest of the ingredients. Dry white vermouth is fine, and a light dry cider or sake might work.
  • Homemade stock produces a subtler result, and you may need extra salt. Stock cubes are fine for most situations. Homemade chicken stock tends to be glutinous, and the result is a smoother-textured risotto. In general, any stock will do.
  • Oil and butter are best. Oil for the initial frying (maybe a dab of butter), and butter at the end to stir through. This makes the texture smoother and richer. I often drizzle oil over at the end; remember, this is not health food. Flavoured oils can be nice at the end - truffle for complexity, chilli or garlic for zing, herbs for fragrance. Extra virgin is best, but for the initial frying, you could use a lower-grade oil.
  • Onion is pretty much essential. I find it adds a savoury complexity and a second texture that makes the dish. Garlic adds some flavour, but is nowhere near as important. You could use shallots, or even leek if pushed.
  • Finally, cheese. This adds yet more fat, but bumps up the umami, and saves the need for heavy seasoning. If I'm using stock cubes, and even sometimes unsalted homemade stock, I add no extra salt, as the cheese provides a salty-savouriness that suffices. It must be strong, hard, and not too fatty. Cheddar would separate and go greasy, without properly mixing through. Mascarpone or ricotta add a good mouthfeel, but are bland. Parmesan is easy, but other cheeses like a good aged Emmental or Gruyère work well, and if I have several cheeses in, I'll often use more than one kind.

So, that's the basic recipe. I almost always add more stuff, based primarily on what I have in the kitchen. Here are some guidelines:
  • Meat, fish, shellfish: I prefer prawns to chicken, and these two are better than most other meats. If using, add at the beginning, fry with the onion. Frozen seafood is fine - add it halfway through. A rack or fillet of lamb is nice served alongside a simple risotto.
  • Vegetables: a great risotto needs no meat at all. Try anything (except maybe aubergine), but don't use more than a couple of kinds, or the purity of flavour and texture will be lost. Add peppers, mushrooms and the like, chopped, at the beginning. Squashes and pumpkins, very finely chopped, along with broccoli and cauliflower, roughly chopped, go in with the stock so they are tender by the end. Fresh and frozen peas and beans can go in with the last of the stock, so they don't overcook. Dried mushrooms can be soaked in the stock to add complexity.
  • Saffron is traditional for risotto alla Milanese; soak some strands in the stock beforehand, and strain out before adding if you don't want them in the finished dish. No other spices are really appropriate, but you could experiment.
  • Fresh herbs are great - for most, finely chop and add right at the end when serving. Try tarragon, chives, parsley, basil, chervil, thyme, or combinations of these. Oregano might work, and rosemary, though this may be best added during cooking. Sage can be fried with the onion, or fried and added at the end, or both.
Essentially, risotto is about simplicity. It's rich, savoury, and balanced. Unlike many other rice dishes, such as paella and nasi goreng, less is more here. So long as the core elements are there, only a couple of extras need be added to produce a great result. I usually eat it unaccompanied, but it can serve as one part of a more complex meal. More than most dishes, risotto can be tweaked and varied endlessly. It's never going be to low-fat, and the basic ingredients are not the cheapest, but for satisfaction, comfort and taste, it's hard to beat.