There are few dishes as comforting or delicious as risotto, a rice dish cooked in hot flavourful liquid until it reaches a rich creamy consistency. It’s simple to prepare but like so much great Italian cooking is deeply tied to the quality of its ingredients.
Risotto has four main parts: soffritto (flavour base), brodo (broth), riso (rice) and the condimenti (garnish).
The soffritto is the starting point for building flavour. It is a fine dice (brunoise) of flavouring vegetables that usually includes onions and garlic and can contain carrot, celery or fennel. The soffritto is sautéed in fat to begin softening and to release the flavours it will impart.
The brodo or broth provides the backbone of flavour. It can be made in a variety of forms from an umami rich mushroom broth, a fresh and vibrant vegetable stock, deep long simmering meat broths of beef or chicken and fish or shellfish broth. It is the hot broth that coaxes the starch from the rice grains and melds with it to form the creamy base that characterizes a great finished risotto. The broth or stock is usually prepared with the condimenti or garnish in mind – a risotto with a garnish of scallops and shrimp is best made with a shellfish broth.
The most vital ingredient is the riso or rice. Risotto is made with a special varietal native to the Po Valley in Northern Italy. This rice is a round, medium or short grain that is high in starch. The most common and widely available is Arborio rice but great Italian cooks prefer Carnaroli or Vialone Nano for their higher starch content that makes them ideal for absorbing lots of flavour. The rice is also graded by size with the most prized and largest grain being the superfino.
Finally, the condimenti is the substance of the risotto and its forms are infinite, limited only by the imagination of the cook. Risotto’s can be made with squid ink, zucchini blossoms, salt cod, duck, beets, or chicken among myriad other flavours.
In Italy, risotto is often served as a primi or appetizer course. Occasionally it is served as a garnish for a meat entree as for Osso Buco with its traditional garnish of risotto Milanese; rice infused with a golden glow from the addition of saffron. In North America risotto is often served as an entree.
Once the basic proportions and technique are mastered any good cook with access to great ingredients can prepare a unique risotto without a recipe.
- 5 cups good quality homemade chicken broth
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 1 clove garlic finely chopped, 1/4 cup finely chopped celery, 1/4 cup finely chopped carrot, 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1-1/2 cups carnaroli rice (or Arborio)
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 3 tablespoon unsalted butter chilled and cut into small cubes
- 1/2 to 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan reggiano cheese
- Salt and pepper
- In a medium saucepan bring the chicken broth to a simmer.
- In a medium heavy bottomed saucepan melt the olive oil and butter over medium to medium-high heat. When hot, add the soffritto and sauté until soft but not brown.
- Add the rice to the pan to heat through and to coat with the fat and the soffritto flavours.
- Add the white wine and stir until it is completely absorbed by the rice; that will happen very quickly.
- Reduce the heat and add the hot stock several ladles at a time to the rice, stirring regularly to prevent the rice from sticking. Adjust the heat so that the rice maintains a consistent gentle simmer throughout cooking. Continue to add the broth in increments and stir through until it almost completely absorbed. As the rice grain swells with liquid the rate of broth absorption will slow and the starch will begin to form a creamy base.
- The finished rice will have a slight firmness or al dente texture. Vigorously beat in the cold unsalted butter and cheese and season to taste. Risotto should have a very creamy, slightly loose texture. When put on a plate and shaken slightly it will spread. It should not be pasty or stodgy. Adjust the finished rice with broth accordingly.
The cooking time from start to finish generally takes 20 to 30 minutes.
Risotto can overcook and will not wait to be served. Assemble all to the table while it is being finished.
This risotto is versatile in terms of condimenti and can be garnished with roast chicken, small cubes of zucchini and ripe tomato sautéed and garnished with fresh pesto.
Risotto can also be poured and pressed into a buttered dish, chilled until set, cut into pieces and pan fried or grilled for a variation.