Risotto at the Ready

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in: Cooking

Risottos entered my repertoire in a big way after a long-ago trip to Venice during Carnevale (Venetian Mardi Gras). I delighted in the masked and costumed crowds of people that I joined every time I boarded a vaporetto or walked along the bustling streets that cold, gray week in February. The crowds ambled slowly, but I walked fast, always headed for a restaurant, this one for risotto with radicchio, that one for seafood risotto, another for risotto with wild mushrooms. I was on a mission to eat as many different types of risotto as I could during my one-week stay.

A main dish made for dinner parties

Upon my return I made all of those risottos, and it soon became my most frequent impromptu dinner party fallback dish. On Italian menus, risottos accompany pastas and soups in the primi or first course section, but on my table they’re the main event. I try to have chicken stock in my freezer and my pantry well-stocked with starchy short-grain Italian rice, either arborio or Carnaroli. Then I can make risotto with whatever I find in my refrigerator or pantry, be it as simple as an onion, a couple of zucchini or a can of tuna, or as luxurious as a truffle. In the absence of chicken stock, I make a quick stock by simmering whatever I’m going to use in the risotto for a little while in salted water.

Risottos fall into my file of template recipes that I always make the same way. The vegetables or seafood that I stir into the risotto define the dish. They’re usually at least partly cooked and seasoned before I begin the rice, unless it’s a seafood risotto. I don’t hesitate to impulse buy at the farmers market because I can always use a given vegetable in a risotto. If fava beans and asparagus look wonderful, for example, I’ll buy a couple of pounds and know that if I don’t use them for anything else, that’s where they’ll end up. Even humble vegetables like carrots and leeks can become elegant in the form of a creamy risotto.

I usually avoid ordering risottos at restaurants (except in Venice). Chefs tend to be heavy-handed, stirring in lots of butter at the end of cooking, and they often overcook the rice, which will continue to absorb moisture after it’s pulled from the heat. It’s one of those dishes that cannot wait once it’s ready; every moment that a finished risotto sits adds a degree of stodginess.

The creaminess of a risotto doesn’t have to have anything to do with butter and cream. It’s the starch in the rice that gets released into the broth as you stir it during its slow simmer that makes the dish creamy. Adding lots of butter at the end to me is overkill. A last ladleful of well-seasoned stock and an ounce or two of freshly grated Parmesan are all you need to enrich a properly made risotto.

Basic Risotto

Serves 4

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or 1 tablespoon each
½ cup minced onion
Salt, generous pinch
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1½ cups arborio rice
2 quarts well-seasoned chicken or vegetable stock, as needed
½ cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
¼ to ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (1 to 2 ounces)
Put your stock or broth into a saucepan and bring it to a simmer over low heat, with a ladle nearby or in the pot. (Make sure your stock is well-seasoned.)

Directions

  1. Heat the olive oil or butter over medium heat in a wide, heavy saucepan or skillet. Add the onion and a generous pinch of salt, and cook gently until just tender, about 3 minutes. Do not brown.
  2. Add the rice and the garlic and stir until the grains separate and begin to crackle. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated and been absorbed by the rice. Begin adding the simmering stock, a couple of ladlefuls (about ½ cup) at a time. The stock should just cover the rice, and should be bubbling, not too slowly but not too quickly. Cook, stirring often, until it is just about absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of the stock and continue to cook in this fashion, adding more stock and stirring when the rice is almost dry. You do not have to stir constantly (as I was told to do when I started making risotto), but stir often to enable the rice to release its starch. When the rice is just tender all the way through but still chewy, in 20 to 25 minutes, it is done. Taste now and adjust seasoning.
  3. Add another ladleful or two of stock to the rice. Stir in the Parmesan and remove from the heat. The mixture should be creamy (add more stock if it isn’t). Serve right away in wide soup bowls or on plates, spreading the risotto in a thin layer rather than piling it into a mound.

Advance preparation: You can begin up to several hours before serving: Begin the recipe and cook halfway through Step 3, that is, for about 15 minutes. The rice should still be hard when you remove it from the heat, and there should not be any liquid in the pan. Spread it in an even layer in the pan and keep it away from the heat until you resume cooking. If the pan is not wide enough for you to spread the rice in a thin layer, transfer it to a sheet pan. About 15 minutes before serving, bring the remaining stock back to a simmer and reheat the rice. Resume cooking as instructed.

Risotto With Fresh Herbs

Use the template for Basic Risotto and include the garlic, adding one or two additional cloves if desired. Chop 1 to 2 cups fresh herbs (to taste), such as parsley, tarragon, chives. Finely chop 2 teaspoons lemon zest and squeeze the juice from 1/2 lemon. At the end of cooking, when you stir in your last addition of stock, stir in the herbs, lemon zest and lemon juice and proceed with the recipe.

Mushroom Risotto

Ingredients

1 ounce (about 1 heaped cup) dried mushrooms, preferably porcinis
1 quart chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce (optional)
Salt to taste
2 tablespoons butter or olive oil, or 1 tablespoon each
½ cup minced onion
1 pound fresh cultivated or wild mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and cut in thick slices
2 large garlic cloves, minced
½ to 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, or ¼ to ½ teaspoon dried thyme, to taste
1½ cups arborio rice
½ cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 to 2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (¼ to ½ cup)
Freshly ground pepper

Directions

  1. Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl or in a large Pyrex measuring cup and pour in 3 cups boiling-hot water. Let sit for 30 minutes. Line a strainer with cheesecloth or with a double thickness of paper towels, place it over a bowl and drain the mushrooms. Squeeze the mushrooms over the strainer to extract all the liquid, then rinse them in several changes of water to remove sand. Chop coarsely and set aside. Combine the mushroom soaking liquid with enough stock to make 7 cups. Add the soy sauce and salt to taste. Transfer to a saucepan and bring to a simmer.
  2. Heat one tablespoon of the oil or butter over medium heat in a large nonstick frying pan and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until the onion begins to soften, about 3 minutes, and add the dried and fresh mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until the mushrooms begin to release liquid. Add the garlic and thyme. Cook, stirring, until the mushroom liquid has just about evaporated, and add the remaining oil and the rice. Cook, stirring, until the grains of rice are separate and beginning to crackle. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated and been absorbed by the rice. Begin adding the simmering stock, a couple of ladlefuls (about ½ cup) at a time. The stock should just cover the rice, and should be bubbling, not too slowly but not too quickly. Cook, stirring often, until it is just about absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of the stock and continue to cook in this fashion, adding more stock and stirring when the rice is almost dry. You do not have to stir constantly, but stir often to enable the rice to release its starch. When the rice is just tender all the way through but still chewy, in 20 to 25 minutes, it is done. Taste now and adjust seasoning.
  3. Add another ladleful or two of stock to the rice. Stir in the parsley and Parmesan and remove from the heat. The mixture should be creamy (add more stock if it isn’t). Serve right away in wide soup bowls or on plates, spreading the risotto in a thin layer rather than piling it into a mound.

Zester Daily contributor Martha Rose Shulman is the award-winning author of more than 25 cookbooks. Her latest is “The Very Best of Recipes for Health,” published by Rodale.

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