Once considered a peasant dish, now haute cuisine, the risotto is not easy to make. If you get it right, it's worth it.
On a motoring trip through Italy, we stopped at an Autogrill, the sophisticated equivalent of a roadside dhaba, on a lay-by somewhere near Padua. Autogrills are ubiquitous and it took me a while to figure out that this is a brand, not a generic category. Anyhow, it was late at night, we'd been travelling — from India and then Milan — for hours, and we were hungry.
At a time like that, choosing from a menu and then waiting for the orders to come is unbearable, so we were grateful to find a huge buffet dinner laid out. You filled up your plate and had a cashier at the end of the counter tot up your bill. My daughter and I – eyes always bigger than our stomachs – helped ourselves to many things and finally ladled risotto on to our plates.
This was many years ago, and exposure to Italian food was limited to pizza and pasta. We'd heard of risotto, and were not very excited at the sound of it: mushy, creamy “Arborio” rice, cooked with olive oil and butter. For us pulao and biriyani eaters, made with Basmati rice, this concoction of “Arborio” would not normally have been attractive, but the description on the card alongside said “risotto fragole e parmigiano”, strawberry and Parmesan risotto, and that decided us. As it happened, the combination of buttery rice, flavoured and tinted with the sweetness of strawberries combined with the salt of sharp, dry cheese, was so good that we went back for seconds.
Risotto is popular and celebrated now throughout the world, but it originated in Italy in the rice growing North. Originally it was probably a peasant dish, but now it is considered sophisticated. But the basic rule still applies: the rice is cooked in liquid, usually meat or vegetable stock, along with other ingredients, whose flavour is absorbed by the rice grains. Like pulao and biriyani and the Spanish paella.
But the method is different, in that after sautéing the rice and onions in butter and sometimes a little olive oil; stock is added, a ladleful at a time. Each addition of stock is done after the previous ladleful has been absorbed by the grains, so cooking risotto requires constant involvement and attention from the cook. After the liquid, which may include wine, has all been added, and the rice cooked - but al dente, not mushy - a knob of butter is added, mantecato, along with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and the whole allowed to rest for about, and no longer than, a couple of minutes. Then the butter and cheese, which would have begun melting, are stirred in thoroughly, the dish garnished, and served and eaten immediately. No waiting and no reheating.
Other flavours and add-ons are optional, but what usually works is something that complements the rich, creamy consistency and adds a bite as a contrast. Restaurants like Diva serve risotto enriched with a buttery pumpkin purée in which bacon is first sautéed to give flavour to the pumpkin; both are puréed, and then crisp bacon bits added at the end to give texture. And then there are sweet risottos, with melon, and like the mixed sweet-salty fragole-Parmigiano we had outside Padua.
The rice for risotto must be medium to long grain and remain firm when boiled. The most commonly used variety in Italy is Oryza sativa japonica. The National Rice Institute monitors the cultivation and sale of rice in Italy, and each packet sold must be labelled with detailed information about the quality, purity and nutritional content. Some qualities of rice, like Oryza sativa indica, turn quickly to mush when boiled, and are not used for the slow-cooked risotto. Varieties that have big grains, low starch content and that take a very long time to cook, like Razza 77 and Ribe, are good for salads and baked dishes. Those with large but semi-soft grains and high starch content, like Carnaroli, Avalone and Arborio are ideal for risotto because they remain moist and juicy. And, now in India, Arborio rice is everywhere. So we decided to give it a stab.
Or rather, my husband, who often orders risotto when we're eating out, did. So the Arborio was bought, many cookbooks consulted, and the ingredients assembled. After much consultation with the published word he discovered what the basic concept was and then he improvised. So this is the thing: Arborio rice is not washed before cooking, because that effects some loss of starch (as a good Indian, he ignored the direction and washed it, but quickly, in a colander). Then some chopped onion is fried in a mixture of olive oil and butter, and the rice added and stirred around for a while.
After that comes the addition of stock, a ladleful at a time – about two or three times the volume of the rice. But here too, the Great New Chef, aproned and with a glass of red to hand - in the best tradition of gentleman cooks, but minus a toque - improvised. He added more: a total of about four times the volume of stock-to-rice. And he was right. The risotto was better than any other I've eaten, either here or in Italy, although I suspect that the success could be partly ascribed to the vast and unspecified amounts of butter added, way beyond what any recipe suggested.
Risotto ai Funghi e Pancetta
(Risotto with mushrooms and bacon)
8-9 cups chicken stock
8 rashers streaky bacon
1 cup butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
200g mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Method: Bring the chicken stock to a boil, reduce heat and allow stock to simmer. In another heavy-bottomed pan, fry bacon till it renders fat. Remove with slotted spoon, chop up and keep aside. To melted fat, add mushrooms. Sauté on high heat for a minute and take out of pan. Reserve. In the same pan, add half the butter and all the oil. When it is hot, add onions and sauté till soft but not brown.
Stir in rice for one or two minutes, until the grains glisten. Pour in 2 cups hot stock and boil until absorbed. Then add 2 cups more stock and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally. When this too is absorbed, repeat twice by adding 2 cups of stock each time. Cook until the stock is completely absorbed. By now the rice should be tender. If not, add remaining stock, a cup at a time, continuing to cook and stir until rice is soft. With a fork, taking care not to mash the rice, stir in cheese and remaining butter, bacon bits and mushrooms. Serve hot.