Handle With Care

Risotto, unlike other kinds of rice, needs lots of attention. But the taste is worth it.

Rice was originally brought to Italy by the Muslims who ruled medieval Sicily and Spain. They transported it in caravans from India and China and presented it to the isolated and meager European cuisines of the period. It apparently reached Italy’s Po Valley from Spain in the 14th century, and there it found ideal growing conditions ? flat terrain, an abundance of water and humidity. Now try and find a paella-loving Spaniard or a risotto-loving Italian ready to credit the Muslims for a dish that became a matter of national pride and a source of culinary culture.

Rice found its place as the main carbohydrate all over Mediterranean Europe. In northern Italy, species with short, plump and starch-filled grains developed. They were cooked into a kind of thick, sticky gruel with the addition of spices, vegetables or meat. Risotto became more sophisticated over the years, turning into an art when the cooking liquids were replaced by rich beef stocks and wine, and the level of preparation became al dente ‏(literally “to the tooth”‏), in which the center of every grain of rice remains somewhat hard and chewy, while the outside becomes soft and sticky, having absorbed the cooking liquids and covering the accompanying mushrooms or asparagus.

Anyone who has tasted real risotto made properly, without shortcuts, when even the wine has been heated before the rice is added, knows that this is food that is neither heavy nor light, neither sour nor salty, not too much and not too little. Risotto is precise. It’s one of those dishes that maintain an entire cuisine and an entire culture. A Milanese would rather sell his Vespa than give up a steaming plate of this traditional dish.

Risotto ? the basic recipe

Even plain white risotto, without additions and adornments, is a delicacy, although no one can resist tossing in an asparagus tip or a few mushrooms. In Israel there are three types of rice imported from Italy and suitable for risotto: Arborio ? common in Milan ? which is short, wide and rich in starch; Vialone Nano, which is shorter, comes from the Veneto region and is less like gruel; and the outstanding Carnaroli from the Piedmont region, which is rich in starch but retains its shape. Arborio is the most common, but the other two are also suitable. The rice should not be washed before preparing it, so the starch required to thicken it will not be lost.

The stock and the wine form the basis for the risotto’s flavor, so it’s important to make sure to use the best stock and excellent wine. Both should be heated before coming into contact with the rice. It will break and crumble if it comes into contact with cold liquid, and its texture will be ruined. Risotto is not the kind of rice you cover and then start washing the dishes until it’s ready. Risotto has to be caressed with a wooden spoon, watered when it’s thirsty and tasted all the time to make sure it hasn’t passed the al dente point. If you handle the risotto with devotion, it will reward you with love.

1 medium-sized onion
100 gm. butter
2 tbsp. ‏(30 ml.‏) olive oil
2 cups ‏(400 gm.‏) Arborio rice
3/4 cup ‏(180 ml.‏) dry white wine
1 liter chicken or beef stock
1 cup ‏(80 gm.‏) grated Parmesan cheese

Place three pots on the stove. In the first you will heat up the stock; in the second the wine; in the third – a heavy double boiler – melt two tablespoons of butter together with two tablespoons of olive oil. Chop the onion, steam until it becomes transparent, and add the rice. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until all the rice is hot and covered with the oil and butter mixture. Be careful not to burn or scorch the rice.

When the rice is very hot, add the heated wine and stir until it is completely absorbed in the rice. Now add two ladles of the hot stock and stir gently with a wooden spoon. When the stock is absorbed in the rice, add another two ladles of stock, stirring from time to time, and repeat the process until the grains of rice are al dente, somewhat hard inside, soft and sticky outside.

Turn off the heat, add the remaining cold butter and the Parmesan cheese and stir with gentle folding motions. Serve immediately as a bed for slices of osso buco in a rich stock or a well-seasoned vegetable ratatouille.

Risotto alla milanese - risotto with bone marrow and saffron

The version of risotto from Milan is world famous, and the one that gave risotto its special status in Italian cuisine. The story goes that in 1574, Valerius, a young artist in training, was given the job of installing the pieces of stained glass in the beautiful windows of the Duomo di Milano, the city’s breathtaking Gothic cathedral. Because he was inexperienced, the builders mocked him for adding saffron to the pigments in the glass to achieve the required color.

In his frustration, young Valerius sneaked into the palace kitchen and threw a substantial handful of the expensive spice directly into a large pot of rice that had been prepared for his master’s wedding. The embarrassing mishap turned out to be successful, becoming one of the symbols of Milanese cuisine, along with osso buco and chicken with Parmesan.

Use the ingredients in the above recipe. When frying the onions, add 200 grams of bone marrow, cleaned and thinly sliced, which emphasizes the flavors of the dish and enriches its texture. After adding the white wine, add a teaspoon of saffron dissolved in 50 milliliters of boiling water and continue as usual. The risotto will turn bright yellow and full of the bittersweet taste of the saffron.

Risotto con gli spinaci - risotto with spinach

A light, green version of traditional risotto. The spinach adds a pleasant crispness and a tart flavor to the thick rice. Particularly suitable with fish and seafood and a fruity white wine.

Using the basic recipe, add three sliced garlic cloves when frying the onion. Be careful not to scorch them, which will make them bitter. When you add the stock, add half a kilogram of well-rinsed spinach and mix. The spinach will produce a lot of liquid, so you will need less stock to complete the dish. Replace the butter and Parmesan with 60 milliliters of sweet cream and 4-5 tablespoons of Parmesan to achieve a thinner, airier texture.

Incidentally, the spinach can be replaced by any seasonal vegetable ? mangold (swiss chard), rocket, rashad or watercress with parsley, coriander and scallions ? for a fresh and flavorful risotto.

Risotto con il sugo - Roman risotto with meat and tomato sauce

Risotto is typical of northern Italy, but it was also important in Roman cuisine: This is where the famous tomato and meat ragout was added. The dish becomes even richer when you also add beaten eggs and Parmesan cheese at the end to thicken the texture. It’s not a side dish but an entire meal – the kind that is suitable for cold winter days, when tomato sauce, the “sugo” saved from the summer, is used.

In Rome, they make a traditional ragout that usually takes three to four hours to prepare, and includes roast meat cooked until it falls apart, with the addition of the tomato sauce, vegetables and many spices.

For a shorter preparation process, fry the onion in butter and olive oil until it browns and add about half a kilogram of ground meat composed of various beef parts.

Crumble the meat until its color changes to brown-gray and add a cup of white wine. Finely chop one carrot, a celery stalk and several garlic cloves, add to the mixture and mix well. Pour a liter of high-quality juice from crushed tomatoes ‏(preferably Italian‏), bay leaves, English pepper, some nutmeg, salt and pepper, and stir so that the meat will not stick to the bottom of the pot. When the mixture boils, turn down the heat, cover and cook for about an hour, until the vegetables soften and the sauce thickens. If it is too thick, add some hot beef stock.

To prepare the risotto, heat 3 cups ‏(700 milililters‏) of the sauce in a heavy pot. Add the rice and stir well until the sauce is absorbed in the grains and becomes thick. Make sure the rice doesn’t stick to the pot. Now add some of the hot stock, two ladles at a time ‏(about 500 mililiters‏) and continue stirring until you attain the desired texture and the rice is al dente.

Beat two eggs with a little salt. Remove the risotto from the heat and add the eggs while stirring vigorously, together with the Parmesan and butter. Serve immediately. If you like, garnish with some balls of mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. A glass of red Montepulciano wine makes for a perfect combination.