When made properly Risotto, the world famous Italian classic rice preparation can be a real work of art. A freshly cooked plate of slightly al dente yet deliciously creamy rice flavoured with a savoury stock and finished with softly melting Parmesan cheese is a culinary delight. While many shrink back from cooking risotto at home because of its intimidating reputation, the truth is that risotto can be easily mastered by bearing a few tips in mind.
The first crucial pointer is that for a good risotto you must have everything ready before you step up to the stove. That includes the rice, the wine, your add-ins and the bowls to serve it in. Risotto waits for no one and is perfect the second it’s done.
Use only Italian short-grain rice varieties such as Aroborio or Carnaroli. Short-grain rice has high starch content and tends to absorb less liquid, resulting in a stickier, more compact risotto.
Cooking the rice in hot butter or cooking oil before adding liquid helps the rice absorb the liquids slowly without becoming soggy. This is called ‘toasting the rice’.
All the flavors that the cooking liquid starts out with become more concentrated and intense as it evaporates. Bearing that in mind be sure to use a vegetable or meat based stock (preferably home-made) or create a broth with stock cubes. It is important to add hot stock, not cold, to the rice during the cooking process. Adding cold broth to hot rice results in a hard, uncooked kernel in the centre of the grain.
Except for the onions or garlic, you should add already cooked vegetables into your risotto after the rice is finished cooking. This is especially important for tender greens like spinach, delicate herbs like chives, and veggies like asparagus.
Save ingredients like butter, mascarpone cheese or Parmesan for the end of the cooking process. Fat will break under heat and ruin the dish.
After a few attempts at cooking a basic risotto you will understand the dynamics of cooking this dish and can then begin to use it as a background for a multitude of interesting flavour combinations. Here we have listed some classic pairings and a few with an unusual twist that you can try out at home.
A common spin on risotto includes mushrooms. The earthy, swarmy taste of porcini, portobello or button mushrooms adds a complex depth of flavour that transforms a rice dish into an impressive, gourmet meal. To make this version of risotto, re-hydrate dried porcini mushrooms with wine or stock. Sauté garlic, onions and button mushrooms with fresh rosemary in melted butter and olive oil till they dry up and cook. Pour the rice and toast with the sautéed veggies. Add the soaked porcini and use the soaking liquid in place of the stock and continue to cook as usual. Once it’s ready, plate up and serve garnished with a generous topping of caramelized onions.
During the cold seasons try out a rich, satisfying spin on risotto using roasted pumpkin and sage. The mellow sweetness of the squash is set off against the intense pungency of a fresh herb like sage. Roast pumpkins and then whiz with some cream into a smooth sauce. Prepare the risotto base as usual but include fresh sage while cooking. Once ready, stir in the pumpkin sauce and heat till warmed. Serve immediately.
Play up the Italian background of the dish by using fresh seafood like mussels and shrimp with the clean, aniseedy flavour of fennel. Sauté garlic and fennel till aromatic. Add the rice and toast well. Deglaze with wine and cook in stock till the rice has turned creamy. Add shrimp and cook in the leftover liquid before stirring in the cooked mussels. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve hot for an elegant, classy dinner.