Dear friends and food enthusiasts,
today we are going to talk about one of the most challenging Italian recipes you can try at home: the famous risotto.
Rice has a longstanding tradition in Italian cuisine, particularly in the Northern region. Known since ancient Roman times, it started to be extensively produced in the XV century. The first rice cultivations, named “risaie” were planted in 1468 in the land nearby the Po river in the Pianura Padana region, not too far from Milan. Thanks to the efforts of the noble Sforza family who dominated the surroundings of Milan in the XV and XVI centuries, the cultivations spread extensively, and rice became a staple on Italian dining tables.
The real major evolution of rice, however, occurred only in the last century. In particular, in 1937 the variety called “Valone Nano” was created in Vercelli (one of the most famous Italian cities for the production of rice) from the combination of two existing varieties. The “Arborio” variety was also discovered and used for several years, but it tends to get soft quickly and release a lot of starch during the cooking process: as such, it is more indicated for creamy risotto preparations or soups. From another combination, just a few years later in 1945, Italian agronomists created the “Carnaroli” rice: the king of rice.
Carnaroli is a must-have ingredient for a high quality Italian risotto. Being a long-grain rice, it has a cooking time between 16 and 18 minutes and it remains deliciously firm to the bite, thereby making it perfectly suited for the specific preparation of risotto. If the Carnaroli variety is not available at your local grocery store, use a top quality long-grain rice. Avoid basmati or jasmine varieties that are much more flavored and tender.
Now that you know a little more about Italian rice, let’s get down to the interesting part: how to cook a delicious risotto at home!
There are countless different recipes for risotto (most popular are with mushrooms, green peas, Milanese style, with Italian sausage, with spinach, seafood, etc.), but there is a common base that is shared by all preparations. For any risotto recipe you will need, apart from rice, white wine that is suitable for cooking (i.e. dry, not sweet), butter or extra-virgin olive oil, and high quality stock.
Stock is extremely important, because it is the main ingredient contributing flavor to the preparation. For example, for a good seafood risotto, prepare in advance abundant fish stock with the scraps of the fish you are going to use, plus some diced carrots, onions and celery. Let it simmer for at least 2 hours and reduce by 1/3.
It is of paramount importance not to add salt to the stock, but only to the risotto. Why? Because it would be difficult to use the right amount, due to the fact that the stock will reduce evaporating, thereby leaving your risotto too salty. Also, always simmer the stock in a separate saucepan and add it to the risotto gradually, sip by sip, until absorbed. A ladle is perfect for this.
The second secret I want to share with you is very simple but important: you have to stir the risotto continuously. It’s that simple. In order to let the rice release its starch, and thus become creamy and fluffy, you have to stir it all the time while it cooks over slow medium heat. The contact of rice with a wooden spoon is the magical touch for making a creamy risotto.
Next is the so-called “mantecatura”, refining the risotto with the last touch: remove the pot from the heat, add some butter and Parmesan cheese (or just some extra-virgin olive oil for seafood risotto) and stir for a couple of minutes. Let it rest for 1 minute more and then serve!
If at this time you are craving for some home made risotto, here are some of our best recipes that you can try (just click on the links):
- Risotto alla Milanese
- Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms and Saffron
- Risotto with Lime and Shrimp
- Risotto with Strawberries
Credit for this post goes to: my good friend Lorenzo Signorini