A Stirring Dish: The Pleasures of Risotto Amply Reward the Labor It Requires


AT THE END OF last summer I was a guest at a New England beach house along with a young woman from Turin named Carla, an enthusiastic cook. After cooking several meals together we decided to treat our hosts to a risotto at gamberi, risotto with shrimp. Carla had brought with her a pound of Arborio rice, the short-grain rice ideally suited to risotto; it is grown in the valley of the Po River in northern Italy, and people there are as devoted to risotto as they are to pasta. Our hosts had been recounting to friends how surprisingly harmonious their two cooks were in deciding what to do with the ingredients available at local farm stands. The risotto would be our triumphal parting gesture.

The rule for making risotto, a dish of such savor and rich, chewy texture that it makes fluffy rice seem insipid, is constant stirring. Arborio rice is heated briefly with a soffritto, or base, of onion and often other aromatic vegetables in butter and oil, and hot broth is added no faster than the rice can absorb it. The whole process takes at least eighteen minutes of close attention and results in an intensely flavored dish that more than compensates for the labor.

Carla and I were in perfect accord on how to make a broth, sautéing onions, celery, carrots, and parsley slowly in olive oil until the onions became translucent, adding fish heads, bones, shrimp shells, and water to cover, simmering for twenty minutes, and straining it. The vegetables were chopped for the soffritto when I prepared for a quick shower. While dressing I plotted my next moves: measuring out the hot broth and adding it slowly to the rice, stirring constantly. When I returned to the kitchen, Carla said merrily, “I put up the rice.” I opened the pot to find that she had poured all the broth into the rice and set it to boil. So much for a perfect risotto— or any kind of decent risotto. Deciding not to reveal my keen disappointment, I said simply, “It’s ruined,” slammed the lid on the pot, and stalked upstairs.

“Shall we all discuss this?” our hosts asked when I returned. “No,” I said. “She’s the Italian, so we’ll just see how her risotto tastes.” Carla said, “I make risotto too often to bother with all that stirring. It comes out the same in the end.” I laughed in disbelief. The risotto, of course, was very good. The four teenagers at dinner fought the adults for thirds.

I thought that I had been shown a technique that had eluded generations of exacting and shortsighted Italians, and I embarked on rice-and-risotto researches. I’m sorry to report that boiling Arborio rice as you would other rices, perfectly respectable though the result, does not produce the deep flavor that regular stirring does. But I did discover a number of tricks for making a perfect risotto, and came away more convinced than ever that Arborio rice is grand and irreplaceable, and that even with the stirring, risotto can be as versatile and almost as fast a main course as pasta.

ARBORIO RICE IS more like the kind of rice eaten in Japan than the longgrain rice that is almost universal in the United States. It belongs to the Japonica family of shortand medium-grain rice, whereas American long-grain rice, familiar under the brand names Uncle Ben’s and Carolina, among others, belongs to the Indica family. (Voguish members of the Indica family include cousins of Basmati rice, an aromatic long-grain rice popular in India. The varieties grown here have trade names like Texmati and Della Gourmet, and often their flavor is nutty and more distinct than that of typical American long-grain varieties.) Japonica rices are higher than Indica rices in amylopectin, a starch more readily released than amylose, the other principal starch in rice. Grains of Indica rice, high in amylose, stay dry and distinct when cooked. Long-grain rices are ideal for pilaf, which is rice cooked, covered, in broth that is added all at once. If you try to make risotto with long-grain rice, you will get pilaf, even if you keep stirring and add the broth only as it is absorbed. The dish will have none of the glorious properties of risotto, although it can certainly taste good.

The starch that Arborio releases binds the broth the rice is cooked in, in effect making its own sauce. Arborio rice also absorbs more of the broth, which means that it is more flavorful than long-grain rice—Arborio expands with cooking to more than four times its size, long-grain rice to three times its size. And because it is fatter than long-grain rice, it can be cooked al dente, with most of the grain soft and the innermost part slightly chewy but not hard.

Arborio rice is fairly easy to come by, in shops that specialize in Italian food, gourmet shops, and the food sections of department stores. (Or you can order it from the New York City shop Dean & DeLuca at 1-800-221-7714 or 212-4311691, or from Select Origins, in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., at 1-800-822-2092 or 516-288-1381.) Packages are often labeled Superfino in big letters. “Superfino” denotes size and is the largest of four grades of rice sold in Italy, all of which are shortor medium-grain Japonica rices. The smaller grades, comune and semifino, are nearly always too soft when cooked for risotto. The third, fino, is less well adapted to risotto than superfino, the grade of Arborio and also Carnaroli. Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, a rice of the semifino grade {nano means dwarf), both have great snob appeal among northern Italian risotto makers. Venetians consider Vialone Nano the true risotto rice, and a Milanese buongustaio will be downcast at the sight of a non-Carnaroli risotto. Carnaroli is especially hard to find, and expensive. I have found it and paid for it, and it makes a delicate risotto that holds together just right; Vialone Nano does too, and its smaller size makes an appealingly dense risotto. I am perfectly content, though, with Arborio.

JUST ABOUT ANYTHING can go into a risotto. It is an easier solution to leftovers than pasta is, in that you don’t have to worry about turning them into a sauce: the broth and the starch from the rice will welcome chopped anything. It is more time-consuming than pasta, in that while it cooks, your hands aren’t always free to prepare what you’ll put into the risotto next, so it’s best to have the meat or fish or vegetables cooked and chopped before you start. But risotto can be interrupted, and experienced risotto makers have no trouble cooking something else while making sure that the rice doesn’t stick.

The broth is often the principal flavoring, and homemade is best. Italians find straight chicken broth too pronounced for risotto, and use a broth made of a combination of veal, beef, and chicken bones. They also use bouillon cubes a lot, being less sensitized to salt than Americans have become. (An alarming number of Italian cookbooks, even those that claim to be strictly traditional, use bouillon cubes as a standard ingredient.) If you don’t have homemade broth, you can use a combination of chicken and beef bouillon cubes, in a dilution that suits your taste for salt. Canned broth is often even saltier than cubes dissolved in the amount of water the package calls for; I use one part canned broth to three parts water. You can use other liquids in place of broth. For example, dried mushrooms, such as porcini (cepes) and morels, make an excellent risotto—a third of a cup, soaked for twenty minutes in warm water to cover, will be ample for one and a half cups of uncooked rice—and you can use the soaking liquid, strained through a paper towel, for broth. Or if you parboil broccoli or asparagus or leeks or even kohlrabi, save some of the water you boil the vegetables in and concentrate it by boiling it down to the amount you need. Sometimes the first liquid added is a half cup or so of dry white wine. Whatever broth you use will be further boiled down in the risotto, so you should like the flavor of it at the outset, because it will get stronger. Italian broth is much lighter than a consommé or even a flavorful stock. The liquid should be simmering before you start the risotto.

The proportion of broth to rice given in many books is two to one. I prefer the proportion given in Risotto: The Classic Rice Dish of Northern Italy, a book by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman that will be published in November. Their standard recipe calls for five and a half cups of broth to one and a half cups of rice, or a bit more than three to one. The bit more is part of a trick, which I’ll come to soon, that alone is worth the price of the book (the recipes are quite appealing too). A quarter cup to a third of a cup of raw rice will be enough to serve one as a first course, and a half cup will serve one as a main course, so their standard recipe serves from three to six. For three quarters of a cup of rice they call for three cups of broth; for two cups of rice, seven cups; for three cups of rice, ten and a half cups.

THE SOFFRITTO OF a risotto nearly always includes onion. You can add parsley or carrots or celery or all three, depending on how strongly you want to flavor the rice; if you want to taste something distinctly, you should wait to add it until halfway through the cooking, so that it does not overcook. Butter alone is used in northern Italy, and oil in Tuscany. Butter is best if a good deal of cheese is to be added; oil is better for fish. A combination can be considered all-purpose. For one and a half cups of rice, start with three tablespoons of fat and a third of a cup of minced onion. Use a wide pan, to facilitate even evaporation. Enameled cast-iron pans and pans with copper or aluminum bases sandwiched in stainless steel are ideal.

Sauté the onion in the hot butter or oil for a minute or so, until it turns translucent, and if you are including other vegetables, sauté them with the onion for five more minutes. Add the rice (unwashed, to retain the starch) and sauté another minute. The fat should cover each grain, and the rice will turn from an opaque white to a translucent gold. At this point you can put in a portion of the other ingredients you have chosen—for example, artichokes or mushrooms, which will soften and almost melt into the rice. Add a half cup of hot broth and set a timer for eighteen minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. When the spoon leaves a clean trail in the rice with no liquid seeping in to cover it, add another half cup of broth. Continue adding liquid, which should be kept at a low simmer, in halfcup increments as needed. The simmer of the risotto should be fairly high, with bubbles appearing in several places on the surface but not covering it. If it is too slow, you won’t get enough liquid in and the rice will be too crunchy; if too fast, the risotto will stick to the bottom of the pan. Don’t worry about how many minutes elapse between additions or how much of the broth remains to be used. The pan and the flame will determine the rate, and you’ll find that at the end you’ve added just about the amount of broth called for. (If you run short near the end, pur some water on to boil and add it from the kettle.)

After eight or ten minutes you should add ingredients that will benefit from being simmered hard for ten or fifteen minutes: vegetables that you haven’t parboiled, soaked and sliced dried mushrooms. Leftover meat, or fish, or pre-cooked vegetables whose texture you want to preserve, such as tiny peas, should be added near the end. Barrett and Wasserman hold fast to the eighteen-minute rule, but it takes Arborio rice longer—twenty to twenty-five minutes—to reach the point at which it’s pleasantly firm but not hard and raw tasting. Start sampling after eighteen minutes. The rice is done when the very center turns from hard to pliable and the grain tastes fully cooked but is still resilient. A cook I know says that she has eliminated all worry about just how long a risotto should take by calling a certain friend when she begins adding broth: the conversation always takes exactly the right time. (The cook prefers to keep her friend’s phone number to herself, however.)

Just before you serve rhe risotto, you can add the usual enrichment of a tablespoon of butter or more oil and a quarter cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese if it suits the risotto. The conventional wisdom is, roughly, yes for most vegetables and no for fish, but most chefs add a sprinkling of Parmesan to fish and seafood risottos on the sly—“like a benediction,” in the words of Franco Colombani, a longtime restaurateur and godfather to many Italian cooks. Heated plates will help keep the risotto from becoming too solid and sticky. The trick I like so much solves this problem: just before serving add between a quarter and a half cup more broth, so that the risotto will stay creamy. Tradition says that all the liquid should be absorbed when the risotto is served, but the extra liquid won’t make the risotto soupy and will give the rice, which is still hot, something to absorb as it cools. (Italians call this looser consistency all’onda, or “wavy,” and Venetians prefer it.) Colombani says that after all the last-minute additions are made, the risotto must sit for exactly two minutes before going to table, so that all the flavors blend and deepen. But then you must serve and eat it immediately. Risotto cannot be reheated without becoming disappointingly soft.

For specific ingredients and appealing recipes, consult Barrett and Wasserman’s Risotto, which also gives ideas for leftover risotto. Marcella’s Italian Kitchen, by Marcella Hazan. has the best risotto chapter of any of her books. The recipes for risotto with fennel; with savoy cabbage, Parmesan, and pancetta (unsmoked bacon); and with fresh tomato and basil are especially appealing.

Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet, which is so authoritative and original that it will give owners of microwave ovens new self-esteem, provides directions for risotto that needs to be stirred only once. It is quite good and certainly easier, though not to my mind as richly flavored as what comes from the slow evaporation of broth and cooking liquids. (Kafka’s techniques for fish, however, are wholly persuasive and have prompted me to buy a microwave oven. I will discuss them in another article.)

I’ve tried the easy ways out. But I still like having control over a bubbling pan of risotto, deciding how fast to add the broth, when to add the featured ingredients, and just when the rice is cooked. I plan to Ire at the stove at the end of this summer when Carla puts up the rice.