October 3, 2009

On Risotto

I was in college the first time I attempted risotto.  My best friend and I followed a recipe for basic risotto, cooking arborio rice with chicken stock and other various ingredients.  An hour later, the rice was still firm, but we were too tired of standing over the stove stirring to really care anymore.  So we ate slightly crunchy risotto on the back porch on a warm summer evening in Arkansas.

I really learned to make risotto in Italy, with helpful tips from two Italian home cooks, including the mother of my favorite Venetian.   I know I wrote these things down as she was telling me, but I can’t seem to find them in the notebooks I kept while in Italy. 

Off the top of my head, some of the tips I learned (keep in mind that some have a Venetian slant):
- use one espresso-cupful of uncooked rice per person, plus one for the pan
- be sure to toast the rice before adding the liquid
- never use garlic in risotto
- white wine is usually used only in seafood (not vegetable) risottos
- cook the vegetables (or fruit or meat or seafood) with the rice before adding liquid, so that the rice absorbs as much of their flavor as possible

I  broke several of these rules is this last batch of risotto, but it still turned out well. 

So without further ado, another meal fresh from the pantry:
arborio rice (a pantry staple),
olive oil, shallots, garlic, white wine, chicken stock, parmesan, a bit of butter, ground nutmeg (all ingredients I had on hand),
sage (growing in our living room),
and a butternut squash from the farmer’s market.

The method is that used for basic risotto, with a couple of tips from Cook’s Illustrated (steeping the seeds/fibers in broth and removing half the squash while the rice cooks):

Sauté the peeled, diced, and deseeded butternut squash in oil, with salt and pepper:
IMG_7820 IMG_7821
Meanwhile, in a small saucepan bring to a boil 4 cups of chicken stock and the squash seeds and fibers.

Once the squash is tender and beginning to brown, remove the squash from the pan and set aside.  Strain the seeds and fibers from the stock.  Return stock to a bare simmer.

Heat additional oil or butter in the same pan.  Add 2-3 finely chopped shallots, 2 cloves minced garlic, and salt. Sauté  until shallots and garlic are translucent. 

Return half of squash to pan.  Add rice and toast, stirring constantly,  for 3-4 minutes, until rice becomes translucent around the edges and just begins to stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add about 1/2 cup dry white wine.   Stir.  Once the wine has cooked down, add about 1 cup of chicken stock (enough to almost cover the rice).  Stir constantly until stock as cooked down.  Then add another ladleful. 
Repeat this process until rice is al dente.  (About 20 minutes.) 
Rice will gradually release starches, creating a creamy texture.  (If you run out of chicken stock before the rice is cooked, you can heat additional chicken stock or water and use in the same manner to finish cooking the rice.)
Once rice has reached the desired texture, return remaining squash to pan, remove from heat, and add about 1 tablespoon butter, grated parmesan, finely chopped sage and a pinch of nutmeg (or to taste). 
Stir to combine and serve on a plate or a wide, shallow bowl topped with more parmesan and sage, if desired.
Risotto has the most flavor when eaten slightly warmer than room temperature.  For this reason, many Italians flatten it out on a plate so that it will cool faster.

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