Risotto is one of my favourite dishes. I love eating it and I love cooking it; both comforting and life-affirming experiences. Risotto used to be one of those dishes you only saw in fairly posh Italian restaurants, but it is increasingly worming its way into the general consciousness. More and more European restaurants are serving it, and more and more people are gathering the confidence to cook it at home.
Nigella Lawson once said in one of her shows that people equate the difficulty of a dish with how much time it takes to cook and she questioned that view. I am with her. Risotto may take a bit of time (all told just under 1 hour), but nothing I will describe here is complicated. Anyone with basic cooking experience (frying a sausage, boiling an egg) can manage this. I'd rather cook risotto than a souffle any day of the week!
Risotto is fantastic because it has a welcoming creamy texture which beckons you in. Before you know it, you are assailed by its warm fuzziness. It is a comfort food which crosses all boundaries of age, nation and background. It is also tremendously versatile, and can be made with meat, veg, fish, seafood etc. If you are really interested in getting to cook these amazingly rewarding dishes, I would recommend Valentina Harris' excellent book 'Risotto! Risotto! 85 Recipes and All the Know-how You Need to Make Italy's Famous Rice Dish', published by Cassell in 1998. It has many classic recipes but also includes some curveballs; strawberry risotto and a risotto made with a WHOLE bottle of Barolo wine!
My recipe below is for 2 people. If doubling, matters are fairly easy; just double. However, I have found a very useful rule of thumb is to allow 65g risotto rice per person for a good size main course and 75g for greedy people.
My risottos are a synthesis of a number of recipes, techniques and mixes of ingredients. I do what I feel is right for the occasion. Once you get started, you will too!
Please don't panic that my recipe uses alcohol. It is perfectly suitable for children and other vulnerable people. I do not use the booze for its alcohol content, rather than its ability to impart flavour to the rice and its knack of starting to get the rice to ooze out its precious starch. Once the liquid disappears, which you will find is my method in the recipe below, all the alcohol will be burnt off. No risk of inebriation.
I have but one plea: please ensure you use risotto rice and no other. You can use Arborio, Baldo, Carnarole, Padano, Roma, or Vialone Nano, depending on what you can find and your budget. For this recipe I used Arborio. When I visited Venice I bought some Vialone Nano as it is the local variety for that area. It yielded extremely delicious results. It is available at Carluccio's for £5.95 per kilo.
You cannot use any other rice and get the same results. Basmati, patna and Thai fragrant rice are long grained rices and will not absorb the liquid stock as well. They will also fail to give you the sticky, oozy texture you need for risotto. Paella rice is short grained like risotto rice, but is not as starchy, which will mean again, you will not get the right texture. If you buy high quality risotto rice it may seem expensive (I pay £3.45 for 1kg in my local Italian deli), but having said that, I get 13 portions (6-7) meals out of that box of risotto. This ends up being pretty good value, given you can pay £12 for risotto in a restaurant!
Half a roasted butternut squash
1½ French/ordinary shallots, finely diced (5-7mm) (if you can't find shallots, use a small, mild white onion)
1½ sticks celery, fibres removed if tough, finely diced (5-7mm)
2-3 cloves garlic (depending on your taste) very finely diced (1-2mm) or crushed
1 wine glass vermouth (125ml) (Dry Martini/Noilly Prat) – very preferable as it gives better results for this dish, but if you don't have any then use dry white wine
150g Arborio risotto rice
750ml vegetable or chicken stock (roughly – don't worry if you don't use it all)
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1tbsp + 1tbsp unsalted butter
2 bay leaves
4-5tbsp finely grated parmesan cheese
Sea salt – if you are using homemade stock. Leave out if using stock cubes.
Freshly ground black pepper
Veggy topping: 14 sage leaves
Meat-eaters topping 100g (or thereabouts) finely sliced Italian Pancetta (NOT cubetti)
- Start by making the topping. If you are making the Veggy topping, use all the olive oil to fry the sage leaves until they change colour to a deep oily green and start to go crispy.
- If a meat-eater then dry fry the pancetta in a non-stick pan.
- You will know it is done when it goes brown and crispy but is not burnt.
- When the toppings are done remove them and place on a plate covered in kitchen roll to absorb the excess fat/oil.
- If you are making the Veggy topping, save the oil for making the dish with the sage-y flavoured olive oil.
- Heat the oil and 1tbsp butter in a pan (large enough to make the finished dish).
- Add the shallots and celery. Fry gently for 5 mins. Add the garlic. Fry for another 5 mins – do not allow to brown.
- Whilst the shallots are frying, put the stock and bay leaves in a pan on the heat and cover. This should be lightly steaming before it is ready to add to the risotto.
- Add in the rice. Keep stirring and cook for about 1 min to coat the rice in the fat and toast it through.
- Now add the Vermouth.
Increase the heat. Stir frequently until all the alcohol has disappeared. I would say this takes 2-3 mins.
- You are now ready to start adding the stock. You should lower the heat to a medium heat at this point. This is the main process of making a risotto. Take the lid off the stock pan. Add the first ladle of stock. You will now be 25 mins (or thereabouts) from the rice being cooked and 30 mins from serving up. Set a kitchen timer to 25 mins from this point).
- Stir the risotto several times until the stock is completely absorbed. Be careful, once the liquid is gone, the rice will be liable to catch and burn on the bottom.
- Reduce to a low heat. Add stock, ladle by ladle, stirring as constantly as possible (to release the starch from the rice) as you go.
- Once you have 10 mins to go on your timer, add the butternut squash (unless you have taken it straight out of the fridge in which case use 12 mins as the time indicator on your timer).
- You may still need to add in stock, depending on the absorbtion power of your rice or the power of your hob. Try the rice from time to time to see how soft it has got. It should not taste grainy.
- As it gets to a soft cookedness, stop adding stock. Allow all the remaining liquid to cook off. You do not want any soupy stock at the bottom. You want an oozy, semi liquidy almost sludgy texture (sounds unappetizing, but believe me, this is right).
- Now turn the heat off. Take pan onto another surface. Add 2nd tbsp of butter and 3tbsp of the parmesan. Stir thoroughly into the risotto until mixed. Put lid on pan and allow to rest for 4 mins.
Now dish up into bowls. Top with the rest of the parmesan and then the topping of your choice.
- Serve and enjoy!
PS: A word about the need for stirring of a risotto. Some people will have you believe that you don't have to keep stirring and that you can leave the risotto cooking and it will come out fine as long as the bottom doesn't catch. NOT TRUE! The stirring is what helps the rice release some of its starches into the pan to give you the gloopy, soupy texture that risotto is all about. Not stirring frequently will simply mean a less tasty and satisfying result. So, it will take time and effort. But as I said in my very first post; put some music on and you'll find the time passes in a most enjoyable way. I find the stirring like a form of meditation, I feel very rested and even 'Zen'. The investment of your time will never pay off so well, I promise!