Saturday, January 23, 2010

Basic Risotto - and variations

Mushroom and lobster risotto; not a great photo, but delicious.
If you think Italian food is all about pasta and tomato sauce, maybe it’s time for a change. How about some rice?

I’m talking, of course, about risotto, that creamy rice dish that seems so mysterious and complicated. You may have sampled it as an appetizer at a fancy Italian restaurant or seen Gordon Ramsey yelling about it on Hell’s Kitchen, but have you ever thought about making it at home?

At its essence, risotto is a simple dish. Few ingredients. Simple techniques. But like that little black dress, it can be accessorized to make it as fancy as you want it to be. It can be a first course, a side dish, or a meal.

The first thing you need for risotto is the right rice. You can bring out all the techniques in the world, but without a short-grained starch-releasing rice, you’ll never get the creaminess that makes risotto what it is.

The next thing you need is patience. Risotto takes time. It can’t be rushed. And if you go the traditional route, it also requires some attention. This isn’t a dish you can easily turn your back on, but it’s not terribly taxing and it doesn’t require fancy equipment. A sturdy pot and a wooden spoon are just fine.

You can find cookware made specifically for risotto, but that isn’t necessary. A cast iron Dutch oven is perfect, but any heavy-bottomed pan will do.

Basic Risotto
Adapted from Lidia’s Family Table by Lidia Bastianich

5-7 cups water or broth
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt, divided
2 cups short-grained Italian rice
1 cup white wine
2 tablespoons butter (or additional olive oil)
1/2 to 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Pour the water or broth into a medium-sized saucepan and bring it almost to a boil.

Cover the pot and lower the heat to keep it warm. You’ll be adding this to the rice throughout the cooking process, and it needs to stay hot.

Put the oil, onions, and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt into a large, heavy bottomed pan over medium heat. Cook the onions slowly, stirring often, until they are soft and golden, but not browned. Ladle about 1/2 cup of the hot liquid from the saucepan onto the onions, stir, and let them cook until all the liquid has evaporated.

Add the rice to the onions and cook, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Add the wine to the rice and cook, stirring constantly, until the wine has evaporated.

Ladle in about 2 cups of the hot liquid, just enough to barely cover the rice. Stir it in, then add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt and stir well. Lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

Stir the mixture frequently, and then constantly as the liquid disappears and the mixture thickens. You don’t want the starch emerging from the rice to brown or burn on the bottom of the pan.

When the liquid has all been absorbed, add another cup of the hot liquid. Cook again, stirring as before, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep adding liquid and stirring until you’ve used up at least 5 cups of the liquid.

At this point, you can taste the risotto and see if the rice is cooked to your liking. Add more liquid and continue cooking and stirring to reach the consistency that you prefer.

When the rice is done, turn off the heat and add the butter or additional olive oil, black pepper to taste, and the cheese, to taste. Serve immediately.

Most risotto recipes are more complicated, and include vegetables, meats, sauces, seafood or spices. But you don’t need to follow a recipe once you’ve mastered the basic technique.

If you have a leftover pasta sauce, Bastianich recommends adding 1-2 cups of that sauce to a full recipe of risotto, right after the first addition of hot liquid has been absorbed.

Leftover cooked vegetables, fast-cooking veggies like frozen peas, and cooked meats can be added near the end of cooking. Or cook mushrooms, shallots, or other aromatic vegetables along with the onions.