Risotto Nero

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The black risotto of Venice achieves its dark presentation from cuttlefish and their ink a most effective natural dye. Be warned: it works equally well on clothes, tablecloths and teeth. This was the ultimate designer dish of the Eighties and is good enough to serve into the next century. If any of your guests find blackened teeth distressing reassure them that this is a form of radical Venetian chic For my more detailed treatment of cooking risotto,.

Your fishmonger may be able to get cuttlefish for you, which should be small, weighing no more than 55-85g / 2-3oz each. Large ones are impossibly tough. If your fishmonger can get them, tell him to clean them for you and to reserve the ink sacs. If he says he does not know how, fire him or set about the task yourself, but remember that it is important that the ink sacs are undamaged. Do smell the cuttlefish for freshness before buying.

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Ingredients

  • 4 small cuttlefish (which will make about 450g/1 lb cleaned flesh)
  • 1 glass (150ml/¼pt) of dry Vermouth
  • 2.25 litres/1 qt mussels
  • 1 small onion
  • ½ bottle (375ml/13fl oz) of dry white wine
  • 3tbsp olive oil
  • 350g/12oz Arborio rice (the correct Venetian rice is Camaroli so if you can find it, use it)
  • flat leaf parsley, to garnish
  • fine strips of lemon zest to garnish (optional)
  • salt and pepper

Utensils

  • large bowl
  • small bowl
  • small sharp scissors
  • large saucepan (big enough to take the mussels in a single layer) with a tight-fitting lid
  • colander
  • medium saucepan
  • large heavy-sided pan with sloping sides where they meet the bottom (oval Le Creuset-style casserole dish is perfect)
  • wooden spoon
  • ladle (holding about 150-175ml/ 5-6fl oz)
  • frying pan
  • spatula

Method

Mise en Place

If your fishmonger has not done it for you, first prepare the cuttlefish: lay each down with the cuttle side uppermost (you can locate this easily because it is the only firm part of the body sac). Slit the thin membrane covering it and pull it gently out from the head end. This will open the body, exposing the innards and the head, which should be pointing away from you. Hold the base of the body and grasp the head from the tentacle end and pull this gently upwards towards you and away from the body. It is vital to take care at this point, or you risk bursting the ink sac • Put the body sac into cold water and then lay the head, tentacles and innards with the head away from you on your work surface. The ink sac is a small grey elongated pear-shaped pouch about 2cm/¾in long. Gently lift it up and detach it using small sharp scissors, making sure you cut the attached tube rather than cutting into the body of the sac. Put the ink sac to one side in a separate bowl • Cut the tentacles off at their base just above the head (the beak-like mouth will indicate where you should cut). Add the tentacles to the bowl of body sacs in water and discard the offensive-looking innards. Repeat the dismembering process with the other cuttlefish • Rinse the body sacs and tentacles in running water, massaging with your fingers to remove some of the tough outer membrane • Cut each ring of tentacles into 2 or 3 clumps. Slice the body sacs into 2.5cm/1in squares and score these with a small sharp knife on both sides in a neat cross-hatch, taking care not to cut all the way through • Squeeze the ink from the sacs on to the plate, rather like squeezing plastic ketchup sachets. Add a little water to thin, and then pour into the glass of vermouth. Wrap the container in film and refrigerate.

Scrub the mussels thoroughly and discard any which are open and do not close when tapped • Finely chop the onion.

Cooking

Put the mussels into a pan large enough to hold them in a single layer and which has a tight-fitting lid. Pour the white wine over, cover and cook over a high heat, shaking. Within 2 minutes, they will have opened. Strain through a colander into another pan. Discard those few mussels which stubbornly refuse to open, cover the open mussels in the colander with a damp cloth and reserve.

Put the mussel liquor into another saucepan with the ink and vermouth mixture, together with just enough cold water to make about 1 litre/1 ¾pt of stock. Bring to the boil. Whisking thoroughly to begin with, bubble for 25 minutes by which time you will have a strong black stock. Season carefully and keep over a heat so that it is simmering gently just below the boil. Be very careful not to spill any of this on anything that matters.

Put the olive oil in the risotto pan and sauté the chopped onion until translucent Add the unrinsed rice and stir to coat until it is uniformly shining.

Keeping the pan over a high enough heat to have the contents just below the boil all the time, add the stock in ladlefuls and stir it in until it is all absorbed. Continue in this way the rice is just cooked al dente.

At this point stir in the mussels and season. Put on the lid and hold off the heat for 3 minutes. Do not put any Parmesan cheese in this dish.

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan over a high heat, sauté the cuttlefish very briskly and briefly in 1 tablespoon of olive oil. They should just take some colour and curl up and this will take no more than 2 minutes (any more and you will have pieces of Wellington boot). Stir into the risotto.

Serving

Serve on warmed white plates. Scatter chopped flat leaf parsley over and - if you like the idea - thin strips of lemon zest.

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