DEMYSTIFYING RISOTTO (written for the Gazette in October 2012)

Nov 20th, 2012

We just returned from our culinary immersion Italy tours, one leg in the Southern Campania, specifically in Sorrento, region, and one in the Northern Piedmont region where we tasted that frequent alternative to pasta—risotto. Early October was still very warm by our standards in both regions, but still clearly fall in Italy, like here, so seems the flavors of risotto we saw there are very suited to the fall flavors of our own area; pumpkin, squash, and kales and cabbages. Yes, cabbage in risotto was one of our favorites, but before we share that recipe, we want to describe how we like to make all risotto.

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.

  1. A.     In a wide heavy bottomed pan, sauté the onion and other sofrito ingredients until they are translucent. Add rice and continue to stir while rice begins to polish and a few become slightly translucent about 4-6 minutes. Add the wine or acid liquid, while stirring until it is evaporated dry. Usually the wine is a white, but red wine is used when the dish includes tomato and a meat. Also tomato juice or other acid fruit juice may be used.

  2. B.     It is time to move on from this wine step when all of it is absorbed and evaporated, at which point you start adding the hot stock a little at a time. Note: the stock needs to be hot in order to properly release the starch from the rice. Add stock, one half cup at a time, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or silicon spatula, as a metal implement may break the rice kernels; as we perpetuate one of those risotto truisms.

    If adding a cooked vegetable, such as previously cooked pumpkin or squash, add it about 12 minutes or half way into the addition of the stock. Be sure it is hot when adding it. At this point continue to add stock until the rice is very creamy and almost fully cooked, but still al dente or firm to the tooth when tasted.

    You will want start to tasting for doneness about 20 minutes into the process. When the risotto is creamy and your spatula/spoon stands straight up by itself; the grain is “to the tooth,” or, still slightly firm in the center of the kernel, you are ready to adjust seasoning and/or add any finishing ingredients, step C; or, if not adding more ingredients, cover 2-3 minutes before serving.

  3. C.     The finish is known to increase the rice’s own creaminess as well as richness and flavor.  Cream, butter, and cheese are common ingredients used in this Italian called, “mantecatura,” step. Here are some popular combinations.
  • ·   Most common is to add grated Parmesan cheese or other hard cheese to plain risotto or even meaty wild mushroom flavored risottos;
  • ·   For seafood risottos, the fat of choice is rarely (Italians would say, never) hard cheese, and often no cheese, but some soft cheeses such as triple cream, soft mascarpone we think totally tasty for seafood risotto.
  • ·   A gorgonzola cheese is popular in risotto simply prepared with roasted walnuts, as gorgonzola wants to be the star in whatever it is in. It is also a prominent ingredient in the Piedmont region of Italy.

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.

  1. Ingredients for the sofrito:
    3 Tablespoons lard or EVOO
    1 onion, rough chopped
    4 ounces dry cured Italian salami, skin removed and broken up or whirled in food processor
    2 1 /2 cup Arborio rice
    4 ounces red wine
    2 ounces tomato sauce, strained
    6 cups, approximately, cooked stock (see recipe)
    Method: As described above, create the flavorful sofrito, cook the rice, add and evaporate the wine and tomato, then add the stock, stirring after each addition.
  2.  Ingredients for the stock: (have this ready before making the risotto, of course)
    1 gallon cold water
    1 large yellow onion, minced
    1 head green cabbage, rough chopped
    4 carrots, peeled, left whole so they can be removed
    3 cups cooked pinto beans; if canned, drained and rinsed well
    2 teaspoons sea salt
    1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    Method: Combine all stock ingredients in a large pot and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender, about 30-45 minutes. Vegetables and beans should be tender; remove carrots before adding stock to risotto along with vegetables and beans. (no carrots are in the served portion of the recipe; they are there for stock flavor)
  3. Ingredients for the Mantecatura, or finishing step:
    2 ounces unsalted butter
    1-2 cups freshly grated dry aged Grana Pandano cheese, if you can get it; or Parmigiano Reggiano, is a good second or first choice
    sea salt and freshly ground black pepper only if needed for taste
    Method: Remove risotto from the heat; add butter and cheese and fold into the rice. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve immediately.