The Art of risotto
While the beloved Italian dish contains only five basic ingredients, the variations are endless. Read on for some culinary history, the low-down on rice and two delicious recipes
In Italy, risotto is a very personal thing. Each region has its own relationship with the short-grained rice, but it began in the south, when the Moors landed in Sicily in the 14th century, bringing vats of arborio with them. From here, it spread to Naples, on to Milan and upwards to the Po Valley in the far north, where it found perfect growing conditions: flat terrain, plenty of water and high humidity.
Folklore surrounds risotto’s inception, with the first dish believed to have emanated from Milan. In 1574, a craftsman perfecting an amber-coloured stained-glass window at the city’s Duomo cathedral decided that his daughter’s wedding feast should contain a colour that duly reflected the setting. Risotto Milanese (risotto flavoured and coloured with saffron) was born and the recipe transcribed.
While there are numerous types of risotto, all contain five base ingredients: rice, butter, onion, wine and stock. Onion is softened, before rice is added and each grain coated in a film of fat (a process called tostatura), followed by wine and gradual ladles of stock as the rice absorbs the water and releases its starchy payload. It’s then taken off the heat for mantecatura, where cold butter is added to further enrich it – and served as primi course or part of a main meal.
GO WITH THE GRAIN
There are four main types of risotto rice to play with. Experiment and find which works for you and the dish you’re cooking. All are readily available to buy here in the UK
Arborio The most widely available risotto rice, arborio is generally wider and longer than carnaroli or vialone nano. It is less starchy and takes longer to absorb the wine and stock.
Baldo A relatively new variety to come to market, baldo is comparable to arborio in its grain size and the starch it provides. It is the quickest cooking of the risotto rices and used in restaurants. Carnaroli Hailed as the king of rice, carnaroli is the risotto rice of choice in most regions of Italy, except the Veneto. It produces the creamiest risotto and is harder to overcook than arborio.
Vialone nano Used in the Veneto region, vialone nano can absorb twice its weight in liquid. With a starch content almost as high as the carnaroli varietal, it creates an extremely creamy risotto, though takes slightly longer to cook.
A classic mushroom risotto
SERVES 4 20g dried porcini mushrooms
750ml good-quality chicken or vegetable stock
2 shallots, finely chopped 300g risotto rice
125ml dry white wine
1tbsp extra virgin olive oil 250g wild or cultivated mushrooms such as pied bleu, hon-shimeji, chanterelles and oyster mushrooms (pleurottes)
1tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped, plus extra to serve 2tbsp Italian hard cheese, grated, plus extra to serve Soak the dried porcini in 250ml boiling water for half an hour then drain them, reserving the water. Squeeze them dry. Strain the mushroom water, leaving behind any sediment. Add the mushroom water to the chicken stock and bring the whole lot to a gentle simmer in a saucepan. Melt 2tbsp butter in a large deep frying pan or shallow saucepan and add the shallots. Cook for 1 minute. Add the risotto rice and soaked mushrooms and stir until the rice grains are coated in butter. Add the white wine, allowing the risotto to bubble until the wine is absorbed. Once the wine has almost gone, add stock a ladleful at a time to the risotto, stirring intermittently until each batch has been absorbed. Heat the olive oil and briefly sauté the fresh mushrooms so that they are cooked through but still hold their shape. Keep them warm while you finish the risotto. Once all the stock has been added, season well and add the parsley and the cheese. Stir briskly, remove from the heat, add 1tbsp butter and leave to stand covered for 3mins. Stir, garnish with parsley, sprinkle with cheese, and serve.
Arancini is arguably the dish most emblematic of Italian cuisine. Generally made from yesterday’s leftover risotto, it allows no waste and stretches the previous day’s ingredients into the next. It’s generally served on its own as a light lunch, but can easily be turned into a substantial supper with the addition of a salad and sharp vinaigrette dressing.
Start by rolling the risotto into golf ball-sized spheres by working them around in your hands. Once you have rolled the balls, preheat your deep-fat fryer (or pan of oil) to around 180C/350F. Cover the balls in flour, then dip them into the beaten egg and coat in the breadcrumbs. Do this with one hand, keeping the other clean for adjusting the fryer. Cook the arancini until golden (around 5 minutes). Drain and serve.