What is risotto?
Risotto is a typical and unique Italian dish. A simple description might called it a braise but that would be to sell it short: a well prepared risotto might just be the most rich and flavourful dish you will ever eat.
Risotto is deeply ingrained in the culture of Italy, especially up north, where popular songs, films, poems and even an opera aria have been written about it.
The risotto must be flavourful, creamy and smooth, and the grains of rice firm and whole.
Risotto starts with the right rice. There are a number of varieties each with there own
individual properties but it needs to be one of the correct Italian varieties. The rice is
prepared in such a way so as to slowly release the starches to the cooking liquid giving the risotto a rich, creamy consistency and a uniform 'al dente' texture to the grains of rice.
Risotto is completely versatile and goes just as well flavoured with cuttlefish ink (Nero di Seppia) as it does simply with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano. Risotto alla Milanese [a personal favourite] is arguably the most famous of all Italian rice dishes. Flavoured with saffron it resembles Spanish paella, at least superficially, which makes sense as the Spanish ruled Milan for nearly two centuries. Although the Moors brought saffron to the northern Mediterranean it is not known which came first, saffron risotto or paella. In Piemonte it is not unusual to find risotto with truffles or made with red Barolo wine. In the Veneto and especially the city of Venice, seafood risotto is a mainstay; risotto with sauteed eels being a Christmas tradition. And in this post-modern word, there is sweet risotto - a sort of ironic rice pudding perhaps.
Whatever ingredients used, the cooking technique will blend and smooth out all of the flavors into one incredibly flavourful dish, and there is no limit to what can be made bar the imagination.
Risotto's medieval origins meant nothing went to waste. Boiled vegetables and meat produced a stock to which rice was added. The process of slowly adding the stock developed over time and the 'waste-not' gruel became the more refined dish that the world recognises as one of Italy's greatest culinary traditions.
Prepared in four stages
- Soffrito: Gently fry onions and other base vegetables such as celery and carrots in butter or oil
- Tostura: Add the rice to coat with the oil and toast the rice
- Braise the rice by adding a ladle of stock at a time until it absorbed
- Mantecatura: Add a knob of butter (and typically some grated Parmesan) and 'whipping' the risotto
The result should be firm, separated grains of rice incorporated in to a rich, creamy and smooth dish. Traditionally the risotto should flow like a wave 'all'onda' when plated, although the degree of liquidity is a matter of preference. Similarly, as with pasta, some prefer the rice not so 'al dente' in which case a little more liquid may be added and the risotto cooked a little longer, or also it may be left to stand before the final mantecatura.
From here the rest is up to the imagination: plain stock may be substituted for more exotic liquids, the rice deglazed with wine or any number of ingredients added during step three (usually towards the end).