Risotto is the stuff of which myths are made. The way some people go on about it you would think this a very witches’ broth of complexity, involving left-hand stirring anticlockwise in a rare copper pan. Do not allow such nonsense to put you off. Any mystique can be cheerfully bundled to one side, for making a perfect risotto does not take special skill, simply an understanding of the processes involved and an equally clear understanding of what a risotto is not As there are several risotto recipes in this book, 1 thought it would be useful to give here a very detailed treatment of the procedures and ingredients involved.
There are a number of criteria that define a true risotto. Firstly, the rice must be an Italian Arborio or similar. The cooking process is fixed too. Butter is melted in a heavy pan, and chopped onion is gently fried in it until translucent The dry (unrinsed) rice is then sautéed over a low heat until it is shining and slightly translucent. As you do this you can hear the rice ‘clicking’ against the side of the dish. It is important not to use too high a heat because the butter must not burn. High heat can also make the rice go hard. Butter is invariably used and not olive oil, since the provenance of this dish is essentially Northern Italian, but olive oil is more appropriate for a fish or seafood risotto, a Southern influence.
Next simmering stock is added, a ladleful at a time, and stirred in until it is absorbed. You must stir constantly, being careful to work the wooden spoon against the outside bottom edge of the pan, or the rice will stick This is why a flat-bottomed, sloping-sided pan is better for the job than one with vertical sides, and a frying pan is unsuitable. It is important that the stock is kept close to the boil throughout or the cooking process will be interrupted. If using wine, then put it in before the stock Adding it towards the end of cooking would make the risotto taste disgusting. Cook over a medium heat Too high or too low a heat and the rice will mush.
Taste the rice after 15 minutes. It should be cooked al dente, i.e. just tender but still with a bit if bite - but not under-cooked. It may need as much as another 10 minutes of cooking. If you are using saffron threads, add these in the last few minutes of cooking. Do not add too many threads or you will end up with a beautifully golden risotto tasting of dry-cleaning fluid. If you run out of stock before the risotto is done, simply add some boiling water. The consistency is all-important: it should not be too soupy, but have a creamy, moist texture, with every grain separate yet all held together in a harmonious unity. Also remember that the rice continues to cook after it is taken off the heat.
At the end of cooking most risotti, more butter and some Parmesan cheese are usually stirred in. Taste for seasoning after adding the Parmesan and add salt and pepper as you see fit The saucepan is then covered and left to stand off the heat for 3 minutes. Give it a final stir and serve immediately in large warmed soup bowls.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.