"Il riso nasce nell’acqua e muore nel vino - Rice is born of water, but should die in wine"
Old Italian Proverb
Risotto, like so many other Italian foods, has been around for century's, since around the 14th century to be exact when the Arab spice traders came to Sicily and bought with them rice. Italy itself has an ideal climate for rice production, Italy's Po valley being the region where most of the countries risotto rice is grown.
Many people think risotto is a difficult dish to cook, the only true difficulty in risotto is that, due to its simplicity, all the elements in its preparation must be the best, the rice must be the correct variety, a good stock must always be used, the soffritto, the importance of the mantecatura and the cooking process itself.
Risotto cannot be made with just any sort of rice, unlike traditional Indian rices a risotto rice must be able to absorb a good amount of liquid. In Italy there are three grades of risotto rice-
- semifino - the smallest grain
- superfino - the largest grain
within these three grades are the various types of risotto rice, some you will know well, some not so well.
Aborio: This is probably the worlds most popular variety and certainly the most readily available. It is a large grain rice, therefore, care must be taken when cooking it to ensure it is cooked through. A good risotto should be a little al dente but not under-cooked.
Baldo: This is a very fine grain rice, not that well known outside Italy.
Carnaroli: This starch-rich variety is one of the best for risotto's. Its high starch content means it keeps its shape through cooking and is less likely to turn mushy than other rice varieties.
Originario: Another lesser known variety outside Italy. Excellent for meat risotto's or those containing fish, mozzarella or milk. Particularly good for making Arancini.
Maratelli: Another lesser known variety, good for all risotto's.
Padano: Another lesser known variety, traditionally used for making soups but good for all risotto's.
Ribe: Better used for boiled rice dishes, but used for risotto in certain regions of Italy.
Roma: Large grained risotto rice, used in all traditional risotto's such as Risi e Bisi.
Vialone Nano: A traditional Italian variety but gaining recognition world wide. Its large rounded grains make it a wonderful rice for risotto's, especially good for making creamy, thick risotto's.
Vialone Nano Gigante: Larger grained variety of Vialone Nano.
When making risotto the stock is very important, a good quality stock will make it almost impossible to make a tasteless risotto. The stock should obviously be the same as the risotto contents, chicken stock for light meat risottos, beef or veal stock for heavy meat risotto's, fish stock for fish risotto's and so on. The best risotto stocks are home made, stocks can often be made from the discards of the base ingredients of the risotto, a good prawn stock can be made from the heads and shells of the prawns, a lobster stock from the shell and claws, a good vegetable stock from the tops and tails of prepped vegetables and even the shavings.
Making the Risotto
You need to make risotto a couple of times to get a feel for the process, but once you have made a couple you will be able to make any type of risotto you want.
First you need a large-thick based pan, this will help distribute the heat evenly and make it easier to stir.
The stock should ideally be in a pan on the hob on a rolling simmer ready to be added to the risotto.
The soffritto is the base of the risotto, usually fine diced carrot, celery and onion, but may sometimes contain garlic or be just a couple of these ingredients according to the risotto. A white risotto, like Risotto Bianco or Milk Risotto will only use onion and garlic as a soffritto as the carrot would add unwanted colour. The soffritto should be cooked till soft, but not coloured. Also the principle ingredient could be added here, depending on what risotto you are making.
Next is the tostatura, or toasting of the grains. Add the the rice and allow to just toast for a moment or two, then stir to become coated in the soffritto juices. Once the grains have toasted add the wine, if using, and let it completely evaporate before adding any stock.
Add your stock a ladle at a time, whilst stirring the stock should almost disappear before you add your next ladle. If the principal ingredient is something like prawns or squid you would add them half way through the rice being cooked so as not to over cook them.
When the rice is ready, it should be al dente soft but with a touch of resistance when eaten, you should removing the risotto from the heat and allowing it to just sit for a moment.
The last step is to place the risotto back over a low heat and add the mantecatura. The mantecatura is the beating in of either butter or cheese which helps give the risotto its consistency, this must be done quickly and thoroughly but without damaging the ingredients of the risotto.
The true beauty of risotto is once you understand its basic cooking principles you don't need a recipe, you can add anything you like. Risotto can be a very good way of using up leftovers, trimmings of meat or fish, left over vegetables, the list is endless.