April 6, 2006


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Fear not the risotto
Italian rice provides a new texture and flavor in only 20 minutes
By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

Risotto can be fussy, intimidating and at times downright scary.

What makes this little rice kernel, which when cooked lovingly turns into a creamy morsel, strike fear in the home cook?

“To do risotto right, it is very difficult. It takes a lot of special care to get it right,” said Todd Drago, chef at Cotton in Manchester.

Drago said that people find risotto interesting, and order it because it is probably not something they would make at home.

“The thing with risotto is that it tastes so good when it is done right,” he said.

Risotto’s reputation for being difficult comes from cooks’ ignorance about how the rice works. Once burned by a poor plate of risotto, many never go back. Funny thing is that although risotto requires all your attention (it is not a dish you can multi-task with) it only takes 20 minutes. That is a small amount of time to get a main course on the table.

To make risotto, heat your broth on an adjacent burner. Hot broth is a key to success.

While the broth is heating up, start sautéing a bit of finely chopped onion and/or garlic in a little butter or olive oil. This is the base of the risotto, and the combination you choose here is entirely up to you.

When the onion is soft, not browned, add the rice. Stir for a few minutes until the rice is well coated with the oil or butter.

Now you’re ready to start adding liquid. Many recipes call for a glass of wine at this point. Not for the cook, but for the rice.

Wine or broth, again the choice is yours. The key to adding the broth is to add a little at a time. And to keep stirring while the rice absorbs it. Add enough broth to keep the rice covered. And keep stirring.

The risotto takes approximately 20 minutes. Near the end, add other ingredients, give it a stir and serve.

Mistakes people make include using cold broth, not gently stirring, leaving the risotto unsupervised, pouring all the broth into the pan (it is not a rice soup) and using too small a pan (give the risotto plenty of room to move around).

Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, said that once you cook risotto the right way, there will be no going back. You will get it and be one of the lucky few.

Serving risotto at home requires few ingredients. Arborio rice is readily available by the box at all supermarkets, and chicken broth is a pantry staple along with onion, garlic and cheese.

Risotto is like a sponge, absorbing the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. It is a great vehicle to show off a fine cheese, new spring vegetables or leftovers.

Cotton serves risotto made with barley and wild mushrooms.

At Piccola Italia in Manchester, risotto is used to soak up the earthy flavors of osso bucco. Piccola also serves a risotto with pears and gorgonzola.

“Risotto is the perfect Italian dish. But people are scared of the process, that is why they order it when they are out,” said Steve Desrocheres, chef at Piccola Italia. “It is not hard to make once you understand it.”

Risi bisi
Adapted from Molto Italiano by Mario Batali
This is a classic springtime risotto dish.
Serves four.

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
4 shallots finely chopped
2 ribs of celery finely chopped
2 ounces prosciutto, diced small
1½ cups Arborio rice
8 cups chicken stock, heated until hot
2 pounds fresh peas, shelled (equals 1½ cups)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and black pepper

Combine olive oil, shallots, celery and prosciutto in a 10- to 12-inch sauté pan. Cook until celery and shallots are soft, but not brown.

Add the rice and stir for 2 minutes, until it is almost opaque.

Add enough chicken stock to just cover the rice, turn the heat up to high and bring to a boil.

Cook, stirring, until the stock begins to be absorbed. Add another ladle full of stock to the pan.

As the chicken stock begins to dip below the level of the rice, add stock a ladle full at a time to keep the rice covered, stirring constantly.

After 15 minutes taste the rice; it should still be quite hard.

Add the peas and continue to cook for 4 more minutes, add a little more stock if necessary until the rice is tender and creamy, but still al dente.

The risotto should be moist, but not swimming.

]Remove from heat, add the butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano and stir vigorously for 25 seconds. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

Comments? Thoughts? Discuss this article and more at hippoflea.com  

Risotto on the menu
• Cotton (75 Arms St., 622-5488) Wild mushroom barley risotto ($14): risotto-style barley with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions, baby spinach, roasted sweet peppers and Pecorino cheese.
• Piccola Italia (815 Elm St., 606-5100) Risotto alla Pescatore ($18.95): shrimp, scallops, whole clams, mussels and sliced calamari in a scampi sauce. Risotto Piccola Italia ($16.95): fresh pears sautéed with Gorgonzola, Parmigiano and Romano cheeses. Risotto alla Boscaiola ($17.95): porcini, portabello, oyster and shiitake mushrooms sautéed with pancetta and white wine.

• Giorgio’s (707 Milford Road, 883-7333) Seafood risotto ($17.95) with shrimp, scallops, PEI mussels, clams and sweet Italian sausage.

• The French Bistro (15 Elm St., 249-9605) Risotto aux champignons ($8.50/$15.95) with white truffle oil.

• Villa Banca (194 Main St., 598-0500) Vegetable risotto ($13.95) tossed with Parmesan. 

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