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.