What’s Cooking: Risotto

Sometimes food experimenting just creeps up on you. Last night was one of those strange nights when I think I’m way to lazy to cook and then end up happily slaving away in the kitchen for an hour. I don’t really know what possessed me to make a notoriously finicky dish at 8:30pm, but I found myself chopping onions and sautéing rice for my favorite Italian rice dish: risotto.

How it got there

Silk Routes

Most people think of Asia when they think of rice. It’s not an incorrect assumption: scientists do believe that rice originated in Asia and Asians do produce and consume the majority of rice. But Asia is just a single chapter in rice’s story. Along with spices, silk, and porcelain (and many other goods), rice was traded between Asia and the West. The introduction of rice into Europe could have taken different routes:

  1. from Persia to Egypt between the fourth and the first centuries B.C., facilitated by the conquests of Alexander the Great, as his empire united India, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean.
  2. from Greece or Egypt to Spain and Sicily in the eighth century A.D., in connection with the Islamic Moors‘ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).
  3. from Persia to Spain in the eighth century and later to Italy between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries as the result of growing trade networks between Europe and Asia.

However it got there, rice became an important crop in northern Italy’s Po Valley. So important, in fact, that Italy is Europe’s leading rice producer. Rice thrives so well in the Po Valley that first courses of risotto are more common than pasta and are a great way to serve whatever is in season.

Rice is rice, right?

There are hundreds of rice varieties, each with a slightly different purpose. Oryza sativa var. indica (long-grain rices) contain less amylopectin, a water soluble component of starch, making them less sticky than Oryza sativa var. japonica (short-grain rices), which are high in amylopectin. Short-grain rices have less amylose, a component of starch which is non-soluble in water. This all really just means that long-grain rices absorb less water, retaining much of their form and texture, while short-grain rices fluff up and get sticky- the starch that they release forms a creamy coating that lumps the rice together. Long-grain rices are usually boiled or steamed.

Arborio Rice

Italian rices are of the short-grained varieties. The preferred varieties in Italy, especially for risotto, are described as superfino or “the king of rices”. These include Carnaroli and Vialone Nano,  considered to be the best (and most expensive) varieties, and Arborio, the most accessible and most commonly found outside Italy.

Down to the Risotto

Risotto is tricky to perfect. So much of getting it right depends on timing and really understanding how the rice cooks. This makes it somewhat intimidating for new cooks but once it’s in your repertoire, it’s a fantastic way to enjoy cleaning out the fridge- you can add almost anything to a risotto and come out with a spectacular dish.

Risotto Mantecato

For this experiment, I choose to make a very basic Risotto Mantecato (risotto with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano). This preparation will feed 2-3.

  • In a stock pot, bring 3 cups of stock (vegetable or chicken) to a gentle boil
  • In another pot, warm ½ cup of white wine
  • In a large saucepan, gently sauté 1 finely chopped small-medium onion and one crushed garlic clove in 3 tablespoons of good quality olive oil for about 5 minutes
  • Stir in about a cup of superfino rice (I used Arborio) and cook until almost all of the oil is absorbed
  • Add the heated white wine* and cook until almost all of the wine is absorbed
  • Add a quarter of the boiling stock to the rice and simmer, stirring very frequently until almost all of the stock is absorb
  • Stir in the remaining stock gradually, a cup at a time, allowing stock to be absorbed almost completely each time (This should take about 15-18 minutes)
  • When the rice is rich and creamy but still al dente, remove it from the heat and mix in a few tablespoons of cold butter (to taste) and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (to taste)
  • Serve immediately, as the rice will continue to cook in it’s own heat and will become dry

This risotto turned out pretty good. I didn’t have fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano so I resorted to (gasp) the kind in the plastic shaker. I could tell a difference but not enough for it to make the risotto unenjoyable. I can’t wait to make it again, next time with some fresh seafood!

*Cold wine or stock will shock the rice and it won’t cook properly

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