Where would I be if it weren’t for Elizabeth David? She nurtured and coddled my love of great food from beyond the grave and across time. She figuratively led me by the hand as I tried so many strange and glorious new things, like pork braised in milk, ragu alla bolognese and risotto – a dish which, up until the point I read ED’s seminal work Italian Food, I had disregarded as a dodgy monstrosity favoured by students and other food-as-sustenance types. Real risotto, as described by ED and executed with such passion in Northern Italy, is one of life’s great pleasures and one of the world’s greatest dishes. It is a dish best avoided in restaurants, where corners are almost always cut, yet it is so easy to make at home. At its heart a perfect risotto is but the sum total of first class ingredients and just a little patience. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Risotto is not Italian. It is overwhelmingly and quite importantly Northern Italian. This might sound pedantic, but the regional cuisines of Italy are extremely varied. This division is most starkly apparent between Northern and Southern Italy, regions separated not just by distance but by climate and prosperity too. The South is, and always had been, the peninsula’s poorer cousin; rainfall is low and the soils thin and flinty. Traditionally the people of the South (Napoli and beyond) eat frugally but very well, with spicy tomato-based dishes, dry pasta and seafood dominating. Dairy and meat are luxury items and have tended to be bit players. By contrast, the North (North of Toscana) is where the money resides. Rome might be where Berlusconi and his audacious corruption factory churn out ever-new forms of beaurocracy, but Milano in the north controls the purse strings. It is a city of banks, big business and spectacular wealth. The surrounding countryside is lush and productive, given over mostly to corn (for polenta), pasture for dairy and rice. Lots and lots of very good rice. The long-standing wealth of the region, coupled with a harsh climate of cloying summers and freezing winters, has informed every aspect of the local cuisines. Think rich, creamy food made with love, skill and plenty of cash.
In this regard Risotto is the archetypical northern dish and is consumed with greedy reverence in Milano, Verona, Venezia and their hinterlands all year around. However, to my taste, it is most welcome as a warming winter dish.
Translating literally as ‘small rice,’ risotto sits somewhere between being a savoury rice porridge and a rather dry rice soup. It should be too wet to form a mound, yet too dry to drink.
Risotto can contain any combination of meat, seafood, vegetables and herbs but is almost always built upon the same essential coterie of core ingredients – starchy short-grained rice, good-quality stock, wine, butter and parmesan or grana padano cheese.
When risotto first took the world by storm about a decade back (despite having existed for centuries in Northern Italy), Arborio was widely pushed as the essential rice to use. It is possible that this was a cunning underhand tactic cooked up by the Italian rice lobby to shift large volumes of what is locally seen as something of an inferior grain. Arborio can certainly make a very decent risotto due to its high starch content, but is rarely the rice of choice for most Italian chefs. The best rices for this purpose – accordingly to fiercely parochial risotto aficionados – are Carnaroli and Vialone Nano. These are indeed very fine cultivars and yield the most silken, creamy starch when given the risotto treatment but, as someone who has experimented rather a lot in this field, I do not consider them essential. They are the Lamborghini of the rice world and this status is amply reflected in price. Fine as a special treat or to knock the smalls off your par amour, but hardly the stuff of a hastily assembled mid winter repast. For most occasions, Arborio is just fine. In fact, -and I’m risking the seething ire of many here – it is possible to make a very passable risotto with basmati rice. Yes it is.
To me the definitive rendering of the dish is the classic Risotto alla Milanese, sometimes described a saffron risotto. To the casual observer this can seem a relatively plain affair, consisting only of a softly sautéed soffritto, butter, rice (obviously), white wine, beef stock, parmesan and saffron. This dish is in fact, anything but plain. Having a plateful of ‘alla Milanese and a bottle of viscously buttery chardonnay all to myself is my personal idea of culinary bliss. Dining doesn’t get much better. The traditional partner to risotto alla Milanese is ossobuco – a wonderful dish of fall-apart tender stewed veal shin, in a winey, tomatoey ragu. The parson’s nose, if you will, of a good ossobuco is the little font of marrow nestled in the centre of each bone. This unctuous, silken, beefy nectar is up there with foie gras (my not-so-secret shame), white truffles and sweetbreads on my list of most beloveds and is the ultimate in luxury stirred into the risotto.
In Venice, where seafood reigns supreme, the startling risotto al nero di sepia is a local classic. Made with the ink and slivers of flesh from either squid or cuttlefish, this impenetrably black dish presents an alarming sight at the table. However, far from being a bells and whistles novelty act, nero di sepia has a gorgeous, iodine complexity that is sure to please any seafood devotee. It tastes and smells of the open sea. Squid ink is available from good delicatessens – but use sparingly, its stains surfaces, flesh and fabric like… well, ink.
There are myriad risotto recipes to be found in books and online, including a good many here at Foodlovers. Personally I rarely stray from my beloved alla Milanese, asparagus risotto in spring and on occasion al nero di sepia. They just make me happy.
So I’ll leave you now with a little risotto wisdom, acquired over the years by way of many mistakes, and finally a recipe (if you can even call it that) for Arancini – risotto balls.
- Use a heavy-bottomed pot. Cheap pots lead to sticking and burning
- Keep the heat low. Risotto likes nothing better than burning.
- Use the best rice you can afford.
- Use real butter. Never margarine.
- Cook the onions long and slow. The taste of undercooked onion can ruin a risotto.
- Use real stock. No stock cubes. Ever.
- Stir, stir and stir again. If you want a creamy risotto, you have keep the rice dancing.
- Make less than you think you need. Risotto is very filling and doesn’t reheat well.
- Like pasta, risotto should be served al dente. It’s a stodgy ordeal when overcooked.
- Risotto should be wet – almost soupy – not piled high like a pilaf.
- After adding the cheese and butter allow the risotto to rest for 5 minutes. The magic happens here.
- Once plated, dress with a generous sprinkle of dry white wine. Trust me, it’s good.
Arancini – Risotto balls
In the unlikely event that you have leftover risotto the best way to deal with it is in the form of arancini (meaning little oranges). Reheated as-is, risotto is never much fun.
To make arancini, mix an egg into completely cold risotto. Use wet hands to form into balls (about the size of a ping-pong ball) and roll in bread crumbs. A little morsel of mozzarella, provolone or Taleggio pushed into the centre is good too.
Deep fry the balls at 170C for about 5-7 minutes. Serve immediately with drinks.