BY GAIL BLAKELY
Risotto just seems like a perfect spring dish. Perhaps that’s because it goes so well with asparagus, fresh peas, even sugar snap peas. It’s not nearly as difficult to make as many people think. A few weeks ago John Carafoli, food stylist and cookbook author, showed us how to make the dish at Highfield Hall. He took us on a journey through Italy, and this classic from the Emilia Romagna region was a definite hit.
He suggests serving it as a dinner for two with a salad of spring greens, tossed with a simple oil and vinegar vinaigrette. I like to make it in my rice cooker, and grill a piece of fish or a few Italian sausages to go along with it. We now have so many good (actually very, very good) sausages available in our markets, made from chicken and turkey as well as pork, that they have become a dinner staple in my kitchen.
Cooking risotto involves a few distinct steps: cooking the onion and rice, adding the stock and other ingredients, and adding the butter and cheese to finish the dish (this is known as creaming). John used garlic and shallots instead of onion; I tend to use whatever I have on hand. Most importantly, because risotto is all about layering flavors, all the ingredients should be the best you can afford. That means: good butter, decent wine, real Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh, firm garlic, and homemade stock, if you have it.
The rice, of course, is crucial as well. Risotto needs an Italian medium-grain variety. These come under the name of Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano. Arborio is pretty common in our local supermarkets; the others are generally available at Italian markets and specialty food shops. What you want it is a rice that will “retain its shape and chewy kernel as it becomes almost suspended in creaminess,” says Ruth Reichl in “Gourmet Today.”
She goes on to explain that, in effect, the rice makes its own sauce. She quotes Harold McGee (from “On Food and Cooking”) as saying that “medium and short grain rices have a large amount of the starch molecules called amylopectins which give them their stickiness. Stirring the rice releases the amylopectins, thus thickening the cooking liquid.”
In “Gourmet Today,” Reichl includes a recipe for mushroom risotto that uses an rather untraditional ingredient: soy sauce. Just a small amount really intensifies the flavor of the mushrooms—the recipe calls for both dried and fresh. It is so good that all you need to serve as an accompaniment is a simple leafy green salad. Remember to set some aside for making mushroom risotto cakes to serve alongside roasted chicken: their many textures (creamy, meaty, crispy) are actually magical; I can’t decide which I like better, the original risotto or the one made with the leftovers!
Risotto in the rice cooker is as easy as it sounds: you sauté the aromatics with the rice in some butter, add the liquid, and finish cooking. It is suggested that while the rice is cooking, you open the top and stir the rice a few times, which is not called for when cooking plain rice. I think this gentle stirring reminds the rice that it is, in fact, special (it’s risotto, after all) and improves the texture of the finished dish.
At the end of the cycle, when you check the risotto, if it’s too thick, just add a little more liquid; if it’s too soupy, cook a little longer, checking after five-minute intervals. As John says, risotto waits for no one, but if you must, you can keep the risotto on Keep Warm in the rice cooker for up to an hour. Just stir in the butter and cheese right before serving.
One of my favorites to make in my rice cooker is Risi e Bisi, a popular Italian comfort food. It’s not technically a risotto because when it’s made on the stovetop, the broth is added all at once, not ladleful by ladleful as you do with a risotto. It’s simple and ever so delicious—whether it’s made with fresh or frozen peas. I think the addition of celery with the aromatics, and the heavy cream at the end, make it extra special.
Try any one of the following recipes and see what you think. I am including Reichl’s instructions for making risotto cakes, which is easily adapted to any of the following recipes.
John’s Risotto With Fresh Asparagus
3 cups homemade vegetable or chicken stock
1 large shallot, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
5 TBSP butter
2 TBSP olive oil
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 pound of asparagus, ends snipped off and broken into ½-inch pieces
½ cup fresh grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for the table
Heat the vegetable or chicken stock in a small saucepan, keeping it simmering on the back burner of the stove. In a large casserole or heavy sauté pan, melt three tablespoons butter with the oil over medium heat; add the shallot and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1 minute—do not let it burn; add the rice and stir until it is thoroughly coated. Continue stirring until the rice turns white and a little chalky, about 3 to 4 minutes; stir the risotto continuously to keep it from sticking. Continue this process with the simmering vegetable or chicken stock, 1 cup at a time—it is important to allow the stock to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. Add the asparagus and continue repeating the process until you have used all the stock and the rice is cooked al dente; the asparagus will cook in the time remaining (this should take about 25 to 35 minutes). Remove pan from heat and stir in remaining 2 tablespoons butter, the half-cup of cheese, and salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately in warm bowls with extra cheese. “Risotto waits for no one!” John cautions.
Risi E Bisi
(adapted from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann)
1 TBSP each: olive oil and butter
½ cup each: minced shallots or sweet onion, and celery
2 TBSP dry white wine
1 cup plus 2 TBSP medium-grain risotto rice
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 and ½ cups fresh or frozen peas
2 tsp butter
2 TBSP heavy cream
¼-cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
Set the rice cooker for the regular cycle; melt the butter in the olive oil in the rice cooker bowl. Add the shallots and celery and cook for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables are softened, but not browned; add the wine and cook 2 minutes more. Add the rice, and stir to coat the grains well with the mixture; cook, stirring, until the grains are transparent except for a white spot on each one, about 5 minutes more. Add the stock and the peas (if using fresh); set for regular cycle (20 minutes); when machine switches off, stir with a wooden spoon. The rice should be only a little bit liquid and the grains should be al dente; when ready to serve, add the frozen peas (if using) and stir just to combine. Add the butter and cover the pot; let stand for 2 to 3 minutes to heat the peas and melt the butter. Stir in the cream, cheese, and salt to taste and serve immediately.
(adapted from Gourmet Today)
1 oz dried porcini mushrooms
3-¾ cups hot water
5-¼ cups chicken stock
1 TBSP soy sauce
1 TBSP olive oil
6 TBSP butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
¾ lb cremini mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced
21⁄3 cups Carnaroli or Aborio rice
1⁄3 cup dry white wine
½ cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
Soak the porcini in one and a half cups hot water; when softened (about 20 minutes), lift the porcini out and squeeze any excess liquid back into the bowl. Rinse the porcini and chop coarsely; set aside. Pour the porcini soaking liquid through a fine-mesh sieve into a 3- to 4-quart-saucepan; add stock, soy sauce and remaining two and a half cups hot water to the pan and bring to a simmer.
Meanwhile, heat the oil with 1 TBSP butter in a 4- to 5-qt heavy pot over medium-high heat; add the onion and cook just until softened; then add the garlic and cremini mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have browned and any liquid has evaporated. Stir in the porcini and cook for a minute, stirring; then add the rice and cook, stirring, for another minute. Add the wine and cook, stirring, until absorbed, about 1 minute more. Add 1 cup of the simmering stock and cook, keeping the mixture at a strong simmer; stir frequently and continue adding hot stock, a cup at a time, letting each addition be absorbed before adding the next one (this should take between 18 and 20 minutes, and you should have about a cup of stock left over). Taste the rice—it should be tender and creamy-looking, but still al dente—and remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the cheese, and remaining butter; season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you are planning on making the risotto cakes, remove 3 cups of the risotto and set it aside; if desired, thin the risotto with a little more stock and stir in the parsley before serving, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano shavings.
Mushroom Risotto Cakes
(adapted from Gourmet Today)
3 cups mushroom risotto, chilled
1 cup AP flour
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups coarse fresh breadcrumbs
6 TBSP olive oil
Wet your hands and shape the chilled risotto into eight ¾-inch patties; put flour, eggs, and breadcrumbs into three separate shallow bowls. Coat one cake with flour, tapping off excess, then with the egg, letting the excess drip off, and then with the breadcrumbs. Repeat, transferring the cakes to a piece of wax or parchment paper; heat the oven to 350°F. Heat 3 TBSP oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat and add 4 of the cakes; cook, turning once, until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking pan and place in the oven; repeat with remaining 3 TBSP oil and the 4 remaining cakes; serve hot.