Milanese Risotto

Risotto alia Milanese

This is one of those incredibly controversial recipes. I know that if any of my gourmet Italian relatives read this, there will be much discussion!! So let me prepare myself for the verbal onslaught by saying that many Milanese families use wine, either red or white, adding it after the rice has been toasted. If you do this you must wait until the wine has been completely absorbed before continuing the cooking. Many people maintain that for the risotto to be really Milanese, it has to be cooked with the juices of a veal roast - a joint of veal cooked with butter, sage and rosemary. Some people cover the finished risotto with a few spoonfuls of these roasting juices. When a Milanese risotto is cooked like this, it is dark amber in colour. The original recipe also calls for Lodigiano cheese and beef bone marrow, both of which I have omitted in my recipe. All those considerations apart, let me tell you my favourite story about the origins of this delicious dish.

Several centuries ago, the master stained-glass window painter of Milan was busy colouring one of the windows of the cathedral. His apprentice had the job of mixing the yellow colour and painting the folds of the dress of a saint. So engrossed did he become in his job that his master nicknamed him Zafferano (saffron), for this was the spice used to obtain the rich golden colour they needed. ‘Ah, you,’ the master would laugh, ‘you’re so keen on using saffron, you will end up putting it in your risotto!’

A couple of months later, the daughter of the boss was married and Zafferano was duly invited to the banquet. Suddenly, in the middle of the festivities, the guests were surprised to hear a loud fanfare, which was immediately followed by the entry of four small page boys - each one carrying a big tureen, covered with a lid. When the children were standing in the centre of the banqueting hall and had the undivided attention of all the wedding guests, they raised the lids on their tureens to reveal golden yellow saffron-scented risotto. It was Zafferano’s wedding gift to the bride and groom - he had finally put saffron in his risotto, just as his master had predicted!

Conceived, as it was, for a very special occasion, the original dish was extremely rich. It was also representative of a type of cooking which uses butter and grated cheese in generous amounts. I’ve adapted it slightly, cutting down on the animal fats. The colour of the dish is not really relevant - all that matters is that you should be able to taste the saffron.

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Ingredients

  • 2 generous pinches saffron threads or ½ teaspoon powdered saffron
  • pints (1.6 litres) hot chicken or beef broth or stock
  • 1 small onion, peeled and chopped as finely as possible
  • 3 oz (75 g) unsalted butter
  • 14 oz (400 g) risotto rice
  • 2–4 oz (50–100 g) Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese, grated

Method

Put the saffron threads (if using) into a teacup and cover with about 3 or 4 tablespoons of boiling hot broth or stock. Leave to infuse until required.

In a pan fry the onion in half the butter until soft but not coloured. Add the rice and raise the heat to toast it lightly all over - it should look shiny and translucent. Lower the heat.

Begin to add the broth or stock, 1 ladleful at a time. Stir each ladleful into the rice and wait for it to become completely absorbed by the rice before you add the next one. Continue in this way until the rice is cooked but still firm to the bite - this will take about 20 minutes from the moment you add the first ladleful of broth or stock.

Don’t worry if the rice sticks to the bottom as you stir and add liquid: all the experts agree it should have the unmistakable flavour of de tacaa gio (stuck to the bottom)! Keep tasting the rice as you reach the point where you think it is ready. When it is at the right texture, remove it from the heat.

Strain the saffron threads and pour the liquid into the rice mixture, or add the saffron powder. Stir very thoroughly. Add the remaining butter and the grated cheese. Stir again and cover with a lid. Rest for about 3–5 minutes off the heat, then arrange on a platter and serve at once.

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