Patti Bess: Risotto is easier than you think
Finally, the summer has cooled and I look forward to fall. Our trees are dripping tears of gratitude that they received some moisture. Farmers Markets are bursting with fresh produce. It is my favorite time of the year to cook (and eat). I think I said that last month.
As the nights become chillier, I yearn for heartier comfort foods. And often what comes to mind is a good risotto. As reputations go, risotto is the Meryl Streep of the Italian kitchen or perhaps the Sophia Loren if you go back that far. Risotto is the star, primarily of northern Italian kitchens. It is at once seductive and comforting. It’s familiar yet often misunderstood. The truth is, few dishes are as easy and straight forward as making risotto.
Several years ago in a restaurant in Verona, Italy, I commented on how creamy the risotto was to the old Nona who served it. I asked if she had added cream as it was almost overly rich. She practically looked at me cross-eyed — another ignorant tourist comment. But there was cream in it. I have never seen a recipe with cream! And now that I look back, I think she took a short cut and was annoyed that I noticed.
The process is simple. The slow addition of hot liquid and regular stirring coax the starch from the rice to develop a luscious sauce that envelopes the grain and heightens the flavors of the vegetables. Barley, steel-cut oats, and quinoa also benefit from this method of cooking.
At its most basic, risotto relies on common kitchen staples — rice, butter or olive oil, broth. It can be dressed up or down to suit any occasion or taste. And it requires nothing more than a sturdy spoon and a heavy-bottomed pan. A wider sauté pan probably allows easier stirring than a saucepan. Other than patience, no special skills are necessary but perhaps a few basic guidelines. Almost anything can be added to it — mushrooms and marsala, grated zucchini, winter squash, colorful canned beans, shrimp, and of course, a little Parmesan. Add a salad and you have dinner.
You start by sautéing finely chopped onions either in olive oil or butter; then stir in the rice for a few minutes until it’s lightly toasted. White wine is a nice addition at this point. I tried red wine once, but the finished dish looked like it had soaked in dried blood. Tasted fine, but visually was unappealing to say the least. At this point you stir in warmed broth in small amounts. As the liquid evaporates or is absorbed into the rice more broth is added and the cook continues to stir. This is repeated over and over, until the grains swell and form a creamy union. The thin outer layers of starch quickly disintegrate which makes a well- blended risotto. Okay, it takes a little more time — maybe 25 minutes at worst. The good news is most recipes make enough for at least two to three meals.
Arborio rice from Italy is the best and is available in most grocery stores, but these days with so many shortages you may have to look around for it. I have gone to the natural food grocery and bought a medium or short grain rice to replace it which I had read about, but it didn’t cook up as nicely as I anticipated.
Alice Waters is the expert on risottos. I use her book “The Art of Simple Food” often. It has lots of information about the nuances of a good risotto. She recommends a light broth as your risotto will only be as good as your broth. That being said, no, I don’t always make my own. Great idea, but not always the time to do it. Broths in aseptic packages or other quality ones without additives will suffice.
Risotto Con Fagioli
Three tablespoons olive oil
One small onion, chopped
One small green pepper, chopped
Two to three cloves garlic, chopped
One and a half cups Arborio rice
One half teaspoon salt (more to taste)
One quarter cup white wine (not cooking wine)
Five and a half cups chicken or vegetable broth
One can Cannolini beans, drained (the fagioli)
Three plum tomatoes, chopped
One quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese
One quarter cup chopped fresh basil or one teaspoon dried
Three tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Fresh ground pepper
Bring broth to a boil and keep warm on a back burner.
Chop all onions and vegetables before beginning cooking.
Heat oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add onion and sauté for two minutes; then add the green pepper and garlic. Add the rice and continue stirring until each grain is coated with the oil, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and stir for a minute or two.
When wine is mostly absorbed, add a third of the broth to the rice, stirring over low heat until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid. Continue adding the broth mixture, small amounts at a time. Do not let the rice dry out. Stir frequently. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the broth at a gentle simmer. Stir in the beans, tomatoes, Parmesan, basil, and pepper the last few minutes of cooking. The whole cooking process should take about 20 to 30 minutes.
Cover and let stand for five minutes before serving. Stir in the chopped parsley to add a bit of color.
Patti Bess is a local freelance writer and the author of “Vegetarian Barbecue“
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