Risotto: comfort food of a high order

September 19, 2012 

Risotto is a classic Italian method of cooking rice that is under-used in this country. Although It is relatively simple to prepare, it requires a constant eye.

Risotto is made with a short-grain rice that is high in starch and has the ability to absorb a large amount of broth. When cooked it releases its starch and so is sticker than long-grain rice. The Italians have a few varieties of rice they use to make risotto including Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma and Vialone Nano, but Arborio is the most common variety found in the United States.

Arborio rice was originally grown around the town of Arborio, in the Po Valley, which runs from the western Alps to the Adriatic Sea not far from Milano. Today it is also cultivated in California and Texas.

One pound of Arborio rice can absorb about six cups of liquid. The Italians have three designations for grading rice -- superfino, semifino and fino -- based on the shape and size of the rice, not quality.

"The Silver Spoon," Italy's best-selling cookbook for more than 50 years, lists almost 30 recipes for risotto including, asparagus, caviar, eggplant, seafood, apple, blueberry and strawberry. Although the recipes vary, the actual process is always the same: toast the uncooked rice in a small amount of oil, then add hot stock a ladle full at a time, constantly stirring until done. There is no walking away from this recipe, but the results are worth the effort.

Risotto can be prepared plain and served as a side or mixed with a large variety of other ingredients to become the main course. The recipes presented here are standards, but feel free to experiment and come up with your own version. Consider ham, a seafood mix, corn, a mix of cheeses, squash, zucchini, spinach or other garden veg

etables.

The Italians like their risotto just like their pasta -- al dente (meaning "to the tooth" or offering a little resistance). Do not overcook risotto, let it be pleasantly firm.

SHRIMP RISOTTO

1 cup Arborio rice

1 chopped onion

1 cup dry white wine

1 pound shrimp

1-2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

5 cups water

Butter as needed

Peel the shrimp and simmer the shells in 1 cup of water until reduced by half, strain and reserve the liquid. Sauté the onion in a little butter until translucent, then add the rice and toast for 3-4 minutes. Add the white wine and stir until absorbed. Add the shrimp stock to 5 cups of water, bring to a slow simmer and hold on the stove. Add 2 ladles of stock to the rice, stir constantly until the liquid is almost all gone then add another ladle of stock. Continue until the rice is creamy and smooth. This should take about 20 minutes.

The amount of stock required to insure the risotto is creamy and done varies, so you may have to add water to the shrimp stock.

Season the shrimp with black pepper, toss in a little olive oil and sauté quickly in a hot sauté pan with butter, about 1 minute on a side. When the rice is done add the shrimp, 2 tablespoons butter and the chopped cilantro, mix well.

Serve with a good Sauvignon Blanc.

Milanese means in the style of Milan, a city in northern Italy. Risotto is most often served as a primo or first course but if it is paired with ossobuco (ossobuco alla Milanese, braised veal shanks) then it becomes a main course. This is a hardy meal suited for a cold winter's night or a festive occasion.

MILANESE RISOTTO AND LEEK

1 cup Arborio rice

5 cups chicken stock

1 cup white wine

1 pinch saffron (optional, but very good)

2-3 leeks

1/3 pound diced bacon (optional)

2-3 toes garlic

Parmigiano Reggiano

Olive oil

Butter

Heat the stock and saffron in a sauce pan to a simmer. Slice the roots and tough green part of the leek and discard, and then chop the leek roughly. Wash thoroughly and drain. Sauté the bacon with a little olive oil until crispy, add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more. Add the leek and sauté until tender, 3-4 minutes at the most. Add the rice and stir until well coated and starting to toast. Add the wine and simmer until it has been absorbed by the rice. Now begin adding the hot stock, a ladle at a time, stirring until almost completely absorbed before adding more. Do not try to rush the process; it will take about 20 minutes. When done add 2-3 tablespoons of butter and as much Parmigiano Reggiano as you like; stir and serve warm.

Garnish with basil leaves if you like and serve with a good Pinot Grigio.

This is another hearty recipe, but the key is to find really good Italian sausage. Check local butcher shops and find one that makes its own. A good locally made sausage is almost always better than one made by a national company.

RISOTTO AND SAUSAGE

1 cup risotto

5 cups chicken stock (homemade is always best)

1 cup red wine (good enough to drink)

1 large locally made Italian sausage

2 tablespoons butter

1 chopped onion

2-3 toes chopped garlic

Parmigiano Reggiano

Bring the stock to a slow simmer. Add the butter to a sauté pan, add the onion and sauté 3-4 minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes, crumble the sausage into the pan and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the rice, stir to coat well and sauté until starting to toast. Add the wine and cook until evaporated and then start ladling the stock into the pan, one ladle at a time, stirring until absorbed before adding the next.

When done add the cheese and stir well.

Serve with Chianti Classico.

Julian Glenn Brunt, who has been a Mississippi Gulf Coast resident for more than 20 years, has a deep and abiding interest in art, culture and the culinary heritage of the South. His column runs weekly in Taste.

You can contact him at living@sunherald.com.

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