Over time risotto has developed somewhat of a mystique, surrounded by “truisms” and “hype” relating to how to cook it; one must do this and never do that to be “true” risotto. Seems it isn’t just Americans who are confounded, as we heard such contradictory rules from our Italian encounters, too. So we have decided to extrapolate the techniques that work for many recipes and adapt for ingredients that are in season and available any time of the year. To that end let’s start by describing the characteristics that define what we are looking for in a well-made risotto. Note: we consider “risotto” a method, not just a recipe; it can be applied to other grains like barley and cracked wheat, but for today our focus is risotto made with rice.
“Risotto is creamy, smooth and rich even without the addition of butter or cheese; the grain texture is still “to the tooth” firm; it is thick enough for the spoon to stand up alone when finished; and the flavors of the individual ingredients are clearly discernible and fresh.”
The main components then for a risotto are (1) the rice (grain), (2) the sofrito, the Italian word for aromatics, always onions and, perhaps, garlic, and typically, the addition of wine, and (3) the stock; and, lastly, often but not required, (4) fatty, creamy additions like cheese, butter or olive oil, and cream.
(1) The rice itself must be short grain to achieve the creaminess without adding cream or cheese, accomplished by continuous or frequent stirring with a wooden or silicon spoon helping the rice to give up its starch resulting in creamy texture. Only short grain rice is said to have this quality, and many of us believe the best varietals come from Italy, right from the Vercelli region of Piedmont, where we visited a rice farm on our tour. There are a few different short grain rice varietals and the most well-known and easiest to find in the states is Arborio.
(2) The second prominent ingredient in risotto is the stock or liquid. We consider the stock carefully since it plays such an important role in the flavor outcome. It can easily overpower the rice and the rest of the ingredients if it is too strong, and likewise, it may get lost if not flavorful enough. Our guiding rule to choose homemade versus store purchased stock rests on how prominent the stock is in a dish. When the stock will dominant, we typically choose to make our own; or when the quantity of stock is small, we may choose a quality low sodium store bought stock.
Chicken stock is often the first choice for risotto; with our own vegetable stock a frequent second. In Italy, we saw vegetable stock, flavored with cured meat as an economical option. Seafood or fish stock is appropriate for a seafood risotto and we always prefer homemade there, too. Whether or not we roast the bones and meat for a stock or just simmer without roasting is another consideration. Roasted stocks produce a very much more pronounced flavors in the finish product, and may mask the more delicate flavors in the risotto. For example, when making a traditional Milanese saffron risotto, where a small amount of saffron is added to the stock, a roasted stock would be too strong, so we would opt for the lighter homemade unroasted version or to water down the roasted stock when making this dish from Milan.
(3) The sofrito or the flavorful aromatic ingredients seem to always including onion; other aromatics such as garlic, sausage, and tomato are added in this step. In addition, the rice goes the pot here, followed by wine or other acidic liquid. If the ingredients in a sofrito cover the bottom of the pot before the rice is added, they can be removed while the rice is being warmed for about 3-7 minutes depending on amount.
When using watery vegetables ingredients such as cabbage, squash and pumpkin, they would typically not be part of the sofrito, but rather cooked separately and held to the side and then added to the pot when the rice is about half done, so as not to absorb too much stock or add too much of their own liquid watering down the stock.
We saw an exception that was almost bazaar to us at the rice farm where we watched the local risotto cook (hired by the farm just for our visit) make a large batch of risotto, called Panissa, in a caldron over portable stove on the outdoor patio. The stock itself was a mixture of cabbage, beans, carrots and more onion. Then solid parts of this stock were also added to the rice with each new addition.
So here are the A, B, C steps for making risotto; it is going to take about 25-30 minutes to make and your attention will be required for the duration. Having everything ready is a requisite for success.
Today’s recipe, PANISSA RISOTTO, is a cured sausage risotto from Vercelli (Piedmont) area in Italy where most of the rice for Europe is grown. This recipe is made with a cabbage-bean cooked stock and is shared here with our best “reenactment” of the dish, as we didn’t received a written copy of the recipe from the farm.