Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Risotto. So shoot me.

As I was saying about authenticity, it’s all very well, but it’s no reason in itself not to do things differently.  Risotto is a case in point.  The way I do a risotto, the way, I would venture, that most British people will do a risotto, would make a purist throw up their hands in horror (or some other wildly exaggerated gesture, you know, what with being Italian and all…).  And I’m okay with that, because, not only do I happen to think that my risotto is perfectly good regardless of what anyone else thinks, but because the way I, we, generally eat a risotto is different too. 

In traditional Italian cuisine a meal is made up of many courses, and even within a single course, the component parts will tend to be served separately, so that the main meat course is likely to consist of, say, a breaded chicken escalope on a plate on its own, followed by a plate of veg, whereas of course in Britain we pile everything on the same plate, and – even in a foodie household like this one - there is seldom more than one course to a regular weekday dinner.  So whereas a traditional risotto, for a traditional Italian meal, will be but a single component in a greater whole, in Britain – or at least in my house – the chances are that bowl of risotto is the whole.  It is, basically, dinner in it’s own right, probably just with a bowl of salad on the side.  So it makes sense that a traditional ‘pure’ Italian risotto is a simple, plain dish, an elegantly minimalist concoction of rice cooked in stock, with just one or two added ingredients to raise it above the level of a side dish – parmesan usually, maybe with asparagus, or porcini, or saffron.  Always ‘or’, not ‘and’ for the true purist.  While a ‘British’ risotto will appear to that same horrified purist to contain half the contents of the fridge.  They’ll think it looks like a dog’s dinner, but it’s not.  It’s just dinner.

That said, before you go chucking half the contents of the fridge into your risotto pan, you need to know how to make a good risotto in the first place.  And if you want it to be ‘pure’ and ‘traditional’, then just don’t chuck anything else in there…

This is how I do a basic risotto (to serve 4):

320g risotto rice (arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano, which is entirely a matter of personal taste)
olive oil
1 glass white wine 
6 shallots (or 1 onion – or a mix of onion and celery, see below) finely chopped

2 large cloves of garlic, finely sliced
Leaves stripped from several sprigs of thyme
4 rashers smoked streaky bacon or pancetta (or approx 60g diced pancetta)*
salt & pepper*
1 litre good flavoursome stock - chicken stock would be standard, but obviously not if your cooking for vegetarians - most importantly, it must be hot 
1 big handful of freshly chopped flat leaf parsley

* the bacon is optional – obviously if you’re cooking for vegetarians leave it out, or for some seafood recipes, but smoky bacon  goes really well with squid, octopus etc if you’re using that (or you could even use finely diced chorizo, but use less as it is more strongly flavoured).  If you do use it, bear in mind you probably won’t need to add any extra salt.

butternut squash soffritto with celery
Saute the bacon in a casserole dish or heavy bottomed saucepan, then add some olive oil and throw in the shallots (or onion, celery etc), garlic and thyme, and cook till soft and translucent.  This is your soffritto, remember?  Add more oil if it’s all been absorbed - you need to be able to see it bubbling a little.  Give a good grind of black pepper at this point.

Turn the heat down a little and add the rice.  Cook gently for a minute or two, stirring it until the rice has absorbed all the oil and any juices, then pour in the wine.  Adjust the heat so it’s just gently simmering, give it a good stir and let it cook until all the wine has been absorbed, then start adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, allowing each ladleful to be absorbed before adding the next.  Keep stirring regularly but you don’t need to stand over it all the time. 

After about 35 - 40 minutes you should have used up about 2/3-3/4 of the stock, and the rice should be just about cooked, depending on your preference for how much bite there is left in it (personally I like the grains to remain distinct and reasonably al dente, some prefer a gloopier, rice pudding type consistency – there is no right or wrong).  Taste test it and give it more or less time and stock according to your preference.  When you think it is done, add another splash of wine and one last ladleful of stock, and stir thoroughly until the stock and wine are just absorbed, this should give you a smooth, moist, creamy texture, regardless of how al dente or otherwise you like your rice.  Check the seasoning, adding salt or pepper to taste, throw in the parsley and stir it through, then your risotto is ready to serve.

coming together
Traditionally, and if you’re not cooking for someone with dairy allergies, you’d use butter or butter and oil instead of just olive oil, and add an extra knob of butter and a good handful of freshly grated parmesan right at the end, along with the extra splash of wine and last ladle of stock

That’s a basic risotto, and you do it just like that (with or without the bacon) regardless of what you want to add to it, and you can add pretty much whatever you want.  The point in the cooking at which you add whatever it is that you want, would depend on what it was and how long it would need to cook.

For example:
Butternut squash risotto:
Ingredients exactly as above, using half an onion and a couple of sticks of celery for the soffritto (the flavour of celery goes well with the sweetness of the squash), plus a butternut squash, obviously, a few sage leaves and a handful of chesnut mushrooms.

Peel the squash and cut it in half lengthways, then across just above the seed cavities.  Scoop out the seed cavities and cut the scooped out ends of the squash into wedges about a centimetre and a half across at the thick end.  While preparing your risotto you want to roast these in the oven with some sage, a couple of whole cloves of garlic and a sprinkling of fennel or cumin seeds (at about 180 for about 30 minutes).  Cut the solid ends of the squash into small dice, of about half a centimetre.  Depending on the size and proportions of your squash, you may well not need all the solid ends of it to be diced small – you basically need a similar volume, or maybe half as much again as you have of shallots (or onion).  If, as you probably will, you have excess squash, cut the remainder into big chunks and roast it with the wedges from the hollow ends of squash.

The technique for cooking the risotto is also exactly the same as above, except I’d add some chopped sage leaves as well as or instead of the thyme, and throw in the diced squash between the shallots and the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, then adding the mushrooms (thickly sliced, or diced, depending on how big the whole mushroom is) just before the rice goes in.  Everything else is the same, until you add the roasted wedges of squash on top of the finished risotto in the bowl.

Whatever you put in your risotto the secrets to it are always the same:
The quality of the stock you use.
Be generous with the olive oil (and/or butter) – if in doubt, add a little more.
Keep your risotto thirsty – add the stock a little at a time and make sure it’s absorbed before adding more.
Keep stirring – regularly, not constantly.  It doesn’t matter if you get a little bit of rice stuck to the pan, in fact I think a bit of golden brown on the bottom of the pan is good for the flavour – particularly if you use the stock and a your wooden spoon to redissolve it when you add each ladleful.

And that last point, about a bit of golden brown burn on the bottom of the pan, is a perfect illustration of my broader point about ‘authenticity’.  After all, to a risotto purist, the rice burning to the bottom of the pan is the greatest disaster to befall mankind since Noah’s flood, whereas, just across the Western Mediterranean, the crispy golden crust on the base is the very essence of a traditional and authentic paella.  But, and here I risk getting myself shot in parts of Italy or Spain, a risotto and a paella are essentially the same thing.  It’s rice cooked in stock with extra stuff thrown in.  And exactly what gets thrown in, or quite precisely how you choose to cook it, doesn’t change the essential nature of what it is.  So if you want to keep stirring your paella to avoid the build up of a crust, or get lazy with your risotto and end up with a few crunchy golden grains of rice, then that’s okay.  You’re not wrong any more than a traditional purist, be they Valenciano or Milanese, are right.  It’s all a matter of personal taste.


  1. That 320g of rice equals two cups, by the way. For those who do cups. It saves me having to drag a chair into the kitchen to get the kitchen scales down from the shelf, anyway.

  2. As a wheat-intolerant, I usually have to eat my own bodyweight in risotto when I visit Italy. It may be pure and authentic to make a mushroom risotto that has nothing but rice and slivers of grey mushroom in it, but I don't care. It is deadly dull. I wish the 'more than one ingredient' style would catch on over there.
    Having said that, I did have a Risotto all' Amarone, twice, in Verona, and it is supreme comfort food:
    Half stock, half wine (near enough) and not much else. I'll make an exception in this case.

  3. When you say cups, H, is that as in the US standard measurement or as in a regular English tea (or coffee) mug? Whichever, it does work as in a regular English tea mug, filled to just about where you'd fill it with tea...

  4. And Amarone risotto? Really? That's some fancy risotto at thirty quid a bottle... (or £3711 here, although I think that's for a case... http://www.frw.co.uk/searchWines.aspx?keywords=Amarone+della+Valpolicella+Monte+di+Lodoletta+1994+Dal+Forno&sid=4&rss=1&FRS=gps)

    I have to try that anyway - even if not with the Monte di Lodoletta...

  5. I have a set of measuring cups, which I bought in the UK. I assumed these would be UK measuring cup standard - but no.
    The standards are, apparently:
    UK cup = 285 ml
    USA cup = 236.59 ml
    from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooking_weights_and_measures#Metric_measures

    My 1-cup measure holds about 220ml, I've just discovered, so is a bit short even of the USA standard. Maybe it's Chinese standard? :-S

    I make all my bread using this erratic measure - seems to work all right, though.

  6. Blimey, with the Monte de Lodoletta, that would be PRICEY comfort food! But apparently you can use Valpolicella 'or any other robust red' in place of the Amarone. Phew.