Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
For Northern Italy, risotto is comfort food. It is usually a primo piatto, a first course served on its own before the main course. The rice is cooked in a combination of meat, fish or vegetable broth and wine to a silky, creamy consistency. Many of the simpler risottos contain just butter, wine and onion and it is one of the most common ways for Italians to enjoy rice. It is both easy and difficult at the same time to make a good risotto; the secret is that the rice should be constantly stirred with a wooden spoon and should not be allowed to completely dry-out while cooking.
There is a number of rice varieties used for a risotto, but the three most common are Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. All three are short grained white rice with lots of starch (the Arborio has a little less starch than the other two, so it stays firmer). In the US, Arborio and Carnaroli are easy to find – my local supermarket caries Arborio in 1 kilo boxes and I buy Carnaroli at a couple specialty retailers near me, or at a huge discount warehouse, also near me. Vialone Nano is much more difficult to obtain; thankfully a producer from the Veneto, the Melotti farm, near Verona, now imports Vialone Nano Veronese and has a Risotteria and retail shop on East 5th Street, in New York City.
The rice is first cooked briefly in a soffritto of onion, garlic and olive oil (or butter) to coat each grain in a film of fat until the rice colors slightly, called tostatura; dry white or dry red wine is added to deglaze the pan and has to be absorbed by the grains until the rice is almost dry. When the wine has been almost absorbed any additional ingredients are added (meat, seafood, vegetables, sausage etc.), the heat is raised to medium high and very hot beef, poultry, vegetable or fish/seafood stock is gradually added in small amounts while stirring constantly. For every cup of rice, 4 cups of stock are required. Stirring loosens the starch molecules from the exterior of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid. At that point it is taken off the heat for the mantecatura, i.e. diced cold butter is vigorously stirred in to make the texture creamier and smoother. Begin tasting the rice after about 12 minutes to gauge how ready it is. A risotto is served immediately while there is still a certain amount of liquid that has not been completely absorbed; the rice is supposed to remain al dente.
There are many regional variations of risotto.
Best known are:
Risotto alla Milanese. A specialty of Milan made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard instead of butter, and cheese; it is colored and flavored with saffron. It is usually served to accompany Ossobuco.
Risotto al Barolo. A specialty of Piedmont made with red wine; it usually includes sausage meat and Borlotti beans.
Risotto al Valpolicella. A specialty of the Veneto where red Valpolicella Classico is used half-and-half with the broth.
Risotto al nero di seppia. Another specialty of the Veneto, it is made with cuttlefish ink. The rice is cooked with the cuttlefish ink and white wine leaving the risotto black.
Risotto al funghi. Made with porcini mushrooms or other fungi.
Risi e Bisi. A spring Venetian dish served with a spoon, not a fork; it is very thick and tastes like a very loose risotto. It is made with fresh green peas using vegetable stock from young pea pods, flavored with pancetta.
In many upscale restaurants black summer truffles (scorzoni) are shaved over the risotto when it is served and, sometimes, when people wish to splurge white winter truffles are shaved over the risotto while the rice is still very warm.
The regional differences extend to whether Asiago, Romano or Parmigiano cheese should be served over a risotto, and whether cheese of any kind should be served over a fish or seafood risotto. Italian foodies I know have almost come to blows over the above questions, especially whether cheese should be served with the fish and fish-stock based dish.
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