Two risotto memories invariably come to me when I take out a bag of arborio rice. The first is of a fellow Irish tourist in a hotel dining room on the last night of a package holiday in Sicily, a middle-aged well-off sort, travelled and fond of his food: ‘... and what’s more, the risotto was terrible, for God’s sake, it was wet as soup’. Maybe the risotto was poor, but the waiter’s eyes argued back that signor didn’t know what he was talking about, and I remember wishing I had eaten the risotto so I would know both sides of the misunderstanding. The other is a book I seem to have mislaid, by Burton Anderson, about the author’s visits to food artisans in Italy. He talked first to rice growers who spoke of good and bad vintage paddy fields, years and the merits and limitations of the many different risotto rices, not to mention the thousands of different varieties worldwide (most of which they, naturally, dismiss as not worth the trouble). Then he spoke to some of the best people cooking these rices in Italy. It’s a mindboggling chapter that could easily make you give up altogether until you had your own paddy held, but somehow I came out of it with a strong sense of how I liked and wanted to cook risotto - a bit like your man there, but that other fellow has a point too. They didn’t agree on much but you could tell they all made great risotto!
By the way, in passing it was pointed out by the rice growers that because of the amount of chemicals used in the production of rice it is not a good idea to eat wholegrain rice unless it is certified organic. The husk diligently holds almost all the residual poisons. This, I’m sure you know, is also true of potatoes and root vegetables - don’t eat the skin unless the label says organic.
One of the major arguing points about risotto concerns whether the rice should be cooked at a lively ping! ping! ping! rate with constant stirring or a slow plop plop plop with occasional gentle stirring. I tend to work somewhere in between, but closer to the lively end of the scale, but I know that the really critical things tend to be ones like whether you allow the rice to stick to the pan or stop simmering altogether. The most important thing, as in most cooking, is to have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve, then concentrate on getting there, and not end up somewhere else with a dish you don’t like. And remember that nothing is written in stone, and that risotto is no more than an evolved way of cooking rice which probably did start out as soup.
Essentially, it has three stages: the initial toasting of the grains to seal in the starch and control its release; the braising with stock and wine; and at the end the addition of cheese, butter, olive oil, vegetables, herbs or whatever you fancy. It isn’t really much harder than boiling potatoes, a small bit of care is all that’s needed, but turn your back for too long and it’s all gone horribly wrong. A lot is made of the importance of stock to a risotto, usually by cooks who’ve never had one without the overbearing taste of boiled dead animals. I hate it when rice tastes of boiled chicken or fish or even meat bones. Why should it? Especially if the main ingredient of the risotto is something so vivid and full of sunshine as peas, asparagus or mangetout. Some cooks, especially in restaurants, seem to become addicted to the flavour of chicken stock from their training and can’t bring themselves to send food to the table without it. So often what a chef considers a subtle background flavour comes across to a clean palate as a bowl of rice, or soup, doing dead chicken impersonations. For some risotto I simply use a good vegetable stock cube with, perhaps, the cooking water of any pre-cooked vegetables being added, reduced a little if necessary. An exception is risotto with mushrooms which really does need a mushroom stock, and then the soaking water of a few dried mushrooms is fine.
One thing I wouldn’t argue about with classic risotto recipes is the amount of cheese, butter and seasoning added at the end of the cooking, except that I tend to replace half the butter with olive oil. Not for any deluded notions about fats, but because Bridget has converted me to how well they work together in some circumstances. Fats in collusion. Strange notion. But, again, it’s up to you how much butter, oil or cheese you add.
The first risotto recipe is as simple as risotto gets. After that you can make any risotto you like.
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