Risotto has long been a favorite of mine. It’s something that can work as a wonderful primo piatto all year round; you can make it seasonal by adding a variety of ingredients.
Although I was raised in an Italian American household, we didn’t eat much risotto. I believe this is because when my grandparents immigrated to New York from Emilia Romagna, between 1915 and 1925, rice had not yet become a common ingredient throughout the peninsula of Italy. Over the years, though, Italians have come to love their sumptuous rice, and have developed a plethora of delicious ways to prepare and serve it - but the base of risotto is always made the same way.
Rice cultivation, while taking place all over Italy, is predominantly a product of Lombardia and Piemonte, where the flatlands of the Padano Plains lend themselves to the periodic flooding of fields necessary for the crops’ development. It’s believed to have first come to Italy around the time of the Renaissance from the near and far east, and was revered as a very expensive medicine.
Today, Italy is Europe’s number one rice producing country, with the favorite varieties being Carnaroli and Arborio. Of the two, Carnaroli is the preferred rice for risotto. Its higher starch content tends to make it creamer and it does not overcook as easily. In addition to these two, there are wonderful offshoots of natural brown Arborio, black risotto rice (called Riso Venere, or Venus Rice), red rice and all kinds of other wonderful specialty rice.
The thing about risotto that makes it different from all other rice dishes is its richness. It carries all the qualities of a good comfort food. It makes its own creaminess and delectability. There’s something decadent about risotto. It can be dressed in a number of ways, and there are the perennial arguments as to whether it needs to be constantly stirred or not. I am from the stirring camp, but I don’t overdo it. I casually keep an eye on it as I prepare the other dinner dishes, making sure it reaches that optimal point where creaminess and the perfect “al dente” bite cross.
In addition to the Carnaroli rice, I use Hokkaido pumpkin, which has the added benefit of having an edible skin.
Things you should do in advance:
Make a vegetable broth. Don’t insult your risotto by making fake broth with bullion cubes! Cut up a bunch of carrots, celery, onions and put them in a large stock pot, cover with water, bring it to a boil and let it simmer for 90 minutes with a closed lid. Drain out the vegetables and save the liquid. You’ll need around 2 quarts, or 2.5 liters but make at least double that and throw the extra in the freezer for the next risotto.
Roast your pumpkin. I use 2 small Hokkaido pumpkins for 4 servings of risotto. Cut into into chunks (removing the seeds), spread them on a baking pan, and sprinkle them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast them at 180C/350F for about 30-40 minutes until you can pierce them easily with a fork. Let them cool and then smash them with a fork and place the smashed pumpkin in a bowl. It shouldn’t be a puree, but rather smashed pumpkin!!
For four dinner servings:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice
2 roasted, smashed small pumpkins
about 2-2 1/2 quarts of home made vegetable broth
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 cup white wine
2 sprigs of rosemary, picked clean and chopped finely
2 good handfuls arugula (rucola/rocket)
Salt and pepper to taste
For non vegans: 5 tablespoons butter
1 cup grated Reggiano Parmigiano
In a large saucepan (I use a wok), heat up the olive oil over a medium heat and add the onion. Once the onion has become transparent, add the rice. Toss it with a wooden spoon. This toasting of the rice is critical as it brings the starch to just below the surface of the rice grains and makes it easier for the broth to penetrate.
Once the rice is toasted (you’ll notice it makes a slightly different, more bead-like sound - don’t let it burn!) add the white wine and stir. Let almost all of the wine boil off.
Add a ladle full of vegetable broth, stirring. Keep the heat medium. As the broth becomes absorbed, keep adding more, ladle by ladle. This process takes about 25 minutes and cannot be shortened. You have to allow the rice to absorb the broth slowly.
Occasionally bite into a piece of the rice. It needs to have a bit of resistance but it needs to also be creamy. You’ll start to see this happening after about 20 minutes. You can start to season your risotto now with salt and pepper. Do this gradually. Don’t overdo.
When the rice is “almost there”, add the pumpkin and rosemary, along with a ladle full of broth. Let the rice take on a bit of the color and then add, if you wish, the butter and cheese. Add another ladle of broth. By now, you should have reached the optimal consistency.
Keep a bit of broth to the side.
You should really serve risotto immediately. If you can’t and you need to reheat it a bit, use the broth you have set aside to feed it and soften it up.
I love serving risotto in deep, luscious serving bowls, never on a plate! Risotto is about comfort, and bowls are comforting.
Finish off your risotto with several leaves of rucola and a drizzle of olive oil.
As you can gather from this recipe, making risotto is about loving the ingredients and respecting them, coddling them along to make something rich and special. It’s time consuming and is meant to be so. This is only one of many ways to prepare risotto but the base is always the same. Good rice, good oil, good broth.