MAKING A GOOD RISOTTO is rather like riding a bicycle: It takes a little bit of practice to begin with, and
a certain amount of concentration thereafter. Risotti are also very sensitive to timing, and this is why what
is served in a restaurant (no matter how good it is) will rarely display that rich texture and just-right
doneness that a good home-made risotto will.
When buying rice to make a risotto, choose either round or semi-round rice; the best rice for making risotti is Arborio. Long grained rice such as Patna won't do, because the grains will stay separate. Nor should you use minute rice -- it won't absorb the condiments, and again the grains will remain separate.
Almost all risotti are made following the same basic procedure, with minor variations: Begin by mincing a small volume of onion and whatever other herbs the recipe calls for. Sauté the mixture in abundant olive oil, then stir in the rice and sauté it too for a few minutes, stirring vigorously to keep it from sticking. When the rice turns translucent stir in a ladle of simmering broth; stir in the next before all the liquid is absorbed, because if the grains get too dry they will flake. Continue cooking, stirring and adding broth as the rice absorbs it, until the rice barely reaches the al dente stage (if you want your risotto firm, time your additions of broth so that the rice will finish absorbing the broth when it reaches this stage; if you want it softer, time the additions so there will still be some liquid left).
At this point stir in a tablespoon of butter and the grated cheese (if the recipe calls for it), cover the risotto, and turn off the flame. Let it sit, covered, for two to three minutes, and serve.
If you want a richer risotto, stir in a scant quarter cup of heavy cream in addition to the butter. Risotto that has had cream stirred into it is called mantecato, and is remarkably smooth.
To close, two recipes from a compilation of first course dishes my husband and I are working on.
Risotto agli asparagi
(Risotto with Asparagus)
This is especially good in June, when asparagus is at its freshest.
1 pound asparagus
1/2 a small onion, finely sliced
1 1/2 cups rice
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, or: 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil + 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated Parmigiano
The water the asparagus was cooked in, topped off with enough broth or watery bullion to make 1 quart, simmering
Salt and white pepper
Clean and boil the asparagus for a few minutes, or until a fork easily penetrates the tip of a spear. Use tongs to remove the asparagus from the water. Trim the tips from the stalks and set them aside. Cut the remaining green part of the stalks into one-inch lengths and set them aside too. Return the white ends of the stocks to the pot, along with the broth or bullion.
Sauté the onion in half the butter or the oil, and when it's translucent, stir in the rice. Once the grains have turned translucent, add the one-inch lengths of green asparagus stem to the rice, and begin stirring in the liquid, a ladle full at a time. Should a white stem find its way into the pot, remove it. Continue adding liquid, and when the rice is almost done, stir in half the reserved tips. Check seasoning and continue cooking the rice till it's al dente. Turn off the heat and stir in the remaining butter and half the grated cheese. Let the risotto stand covered for two minutes, then transfer it to a serving dish and garnish it with the remaining tips. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese over it and serve.
Serves four to six.
Risotto coi gamberetti
(Risotto with Small Shrimp)
My husband and I once had a terrible argument while we were making this. Neither of us remember what it was about, but we both remember the risotto.
3/4 pound fresh or frozen shrimp
1 1/2 cups rice
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
2 leaves of laurel
1 rib of celery
1 garlic clove
1 vegetable boullion cube
1 quart water
1/2 cup dry white wine, or a sprinkling of vodka
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/2 cup boiled peas (optional)
Set the water to boil with the celery, garlic, laurel, and a pinch of salt. Meanwhile, wash the shrimp well in cold running water. Add the shrimp to the stock and bring to a boil; let cook for two minutes (if you have to use canned shrimp, add just their liquid to the broth).
Strain out the shrimp, reserving the liquid. As soon as the shrimp have cooled, peel them and return the shells to the pot. Let them boil for about fifteen minutes, then strain the broth and return it to the fire, adding the vegetable boullion.
Sauté the onion in half the butter. As soon as the onion's a golden translucent color, add the rice and sauté it for a few minutes while stirring briskly. Add the wine and continue stirring until it evaporates, then begin adding the hot broth, a ladle at a time. Continue adding broth till the rice is half cooked, then stir in the shrimp and finish cooking it, adding broth as necessary, and stirring carefully not to break the shrimp. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente. Check seasoning, cover the risotto for two minutes, and serve.
Note: If you want a richer risotto, stir in a half a cup of cream just before you let it sit. Or, if peas are in season and you like them, boil a half cup separately, and stir them in just before the risotto's done.
Serves four to six.