Friday 2 December 2016

Risotto: Creamy comfort

A speciality of northern Italy and a great dish for a cold night, risotto is easy to get the hang of, and exciting to experiment with. Brenda Costigan outlines some tasty options to try

Brenda Costigan

Published 14/03/2010 | 05:00

The food of Italy changes dramatically from the north to the south of the country, and the changes are directly related to the local produce that's available.

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Southern Italy has an abundance of olives and olive oil, tomatoes, fruits and mozarella, and pizza is the region's signature dish. In northern Italy, however, an area in which a rich and fertile valley surrounds the river Po, cattle abound, and so butter, cream and meats are the ingredients that crop up again and again. Likewise, the rice for risotto is grown in the moist fields of this area. Risotto is a great comfort food -- creamy rice, traditionally served with a big blob of butter melting through it.

It is most important to specifically use a risotto rice, which is a chalky rice, with grains shaped like little rugby balls. It contains a type of starch essential for the delicious creaminess of the classic risotto. Arborio is the most popular variety; carnaroli or vialone nano are other types. The serving of a perfect risotto can be compared to that of a souffle, in that when it is ready, it should be served. Otherwise it goes on cooking in its own heat, and it will absorb all the liquid and end up stiff, losing its delicious creaminess.

A basic risotto consists of a little finely chopped onion, which is gently fried in generous amounts of butter with a dash of olive oil. The rice is added and stirred through to absorb the flavour. Hot stock is added in two or more additions until the rice has absorbed enough and is tender, but still has a slight bite. Stock cubes or stock pots can be used, but a good home-made stock is ideal. If you roast a chicken, keep the juices from the roasting tin and add them to a chicken stock cube to give it a greater depth of flavour. Risotto lends itself to many wonderful variations. Having mastered the basic recipe, no doubt you will find yourself keen to add many different combinations, coming up with lots of them yourself.

BASIC RISOTTO

Instead of the method below, it is possible to cook a risotto in two stages, if you prefer. You can partly cook the risotto in advance, adding half the stock, which takes about 15 minutes. Then, cover the saucepan and take it off the heat. The rice will still be hard and fairly dry. Store the mixture in a cool place until required. About 10-15 minutes before serving, add the remaining hot stock in two or three lots and cook until the risotto is ready to serve. Serves 4-5.

You will need:

25-40g (1-1½ oz) butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

900ml (about 1½pt) chicken, vegetable or fish stock -- see note

275g (10oz) risotto rice, washed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Lump butter, to serve (optional)

Small splash cream, to serve (optional)

Generous scattering freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Note:

Adding white wine to the risotto gives it a special flavour, but it is optional. If you wish to use wine, add 25ml (4½fl oz) of white wine to the rice mixture before adding the stock and cook gently, stirring it through the rice. The alcohol will evaporate, creating a lovely aroma in the kitchen and a good flavour in the rice. You will need just 775ml (1pt 8fl oz) stock if you augment it with wine.

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the finely chopped onion and garlic. Cook them gently for three to five minutes until the onion is soft, and turns a very pale colour. Meanwhile, put the chicken, vegetable or fish stock, whichever you are using, in another saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer -- heating the stock will speed up the cooking time of the risotto. Add the washed risotto rice to the butter, onion and garlic mix and stir over the heat to coat the grains in the butter. Next, add a generous ladleful of the hot stock. Allow the stock to bubble gently in the rice mixture. It is best to stir almost constantly until most of the stock has been absorbed by the rice. Gradually add more hot stock until the rice has absorbed enough of it to become soft and creamy, yet retain a slight bite. Most of the stock should have been added at this stage -- it can take up to half an hour of stirring for the risotto to absorb the right amount of stock. Check the seasoning and add salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste.

Turn off the heat, add the lump of butter and the small splash of cream, if you're using them, and the freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and stir through. Serve immediately.

RISI E BISI

(Pictured)

Arabella Boxer, in her Mediterranean Cookbook, includes the classic risi e bisi recipe, a Venetian speciality that's made in early summer with young peas.

Proscuitto or pancetta are usually included in the ingredients. Proscuitto can be added at either of two points in the cooking process: it can be fried at the start with the onions, or it can be put in when most of the stock had been added. However, if you prefer to use the pancetta -- an Italian version of streaky rashers -- it must be fried with the onions at the start of the preparation. Serves 4-5.

You will need:

900ml-1L (1½-1¾ pt) chicken stock

40-50g (1½-2oz) butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

75g (3oz) pancetta or prosciutto, chopped (optional)

225g (8oz) fresh peas, shelled -- see note

275g (10oz) risotto rice, washed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g (1oz) freshly grated Parmesan

Note:

When peas are not in season, frozen garden peas can be used. Thaw and add them to the risotto when half the stock has been added.

Heat the chicken stock and keep it warm on a very low simmer.

In another saucepan, melt the butter with the olive oil and cook the chopped onion in it until the onion softens without changing colour. Add the chopped pancetta or the chopped prosciutto, if you're using either. Cook for two minutes until lightly golden, stirring once or twice, then add in the shelled peas. Cover the saucepan and leave it to cook gently for two minutes, then add in the washed risotto rice and cook for another two minutes.

Next, add some of the hot chicken stock. Stir the risotto over a moderate heat until all the stock is absorbed. Continue adding the stock to the rice, a ladleful at the time, stirring constantly until all the stock is absorbed. Season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper.

When most or all of the stock has been added, the rice should taste just cooked, with a hint of a bite remaining, to prevent it being mushy. The risotto should be deliciously moist, soft, creamy and loose. Liberally scatter the freshly grated Parmesan cheese on top. Serve immediately.

ASPARAGUS, MINT AND LEMON RISOTTO

With fresh, home-grown asparagus available in a couple of weeks, this risotto recipe is timely.

In this recipe, which is inspired by one of Jamie Oliver's, the fresh asparagus is chopped finely into tiny discs, but the delicate tips are kept whole. The chopped stems are cooked along with the rice, with the tender tips being added halfway through the cooking time.

For extra flavour, the very finely grated zest and the juice of one to two lemons are added to the risotto with lots of chopped fresh mint leaves. Serves 4-5.

You will need:

1-2 bunches asparagus

25-40g (1-1½ oz) butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, chopped

900ml (about 1½ pints) chicken, vegetable or fish stock

275g (10oz) risotto rice, washed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Finely grated zest and juice of a lemon

2-3 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped

25g (1oz) freshly grated Parmesan

Lump butter, to serve (optional)

Small splash cream, to serve (optional)

Generous scattering Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, to serve

If the asparagus stems are woody at their base, peel the thick skin off using a potato peeler. Then cut the stalks into tiny discs, but leave the nice tips whole, and put to one side. Melt the butter with the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sliced asparagus stalks, the finely chopped onion and the chopped garlic. Cook gently for three to five minutes until the onion is soft, and a very pale colour. Put the chicken, vegetable or fish stock, whichever you are using, into another saucepan and bring it to a gentle simmer. Add the washed risotto rice to the butter, onion and garlic mix and stir over the heat to coat the grains in the butter.

Next, add a generous ladleful of the hot stock. Turn the heat down so the stock bubbles gently. Stir almost constantly until most of the stock has been absorbed by the rice. Gradually add more hot stock. When half of the stock has been added, stir the asparagus tips into the risotto. When all the stock has been added and the rice is cooked until it's just tender and moist, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then add, to your own taste, as much of the finely grated lemon zest and lemon juice as you like, plus the chopped fresh mint leaves. Add the lump of butter and the small splash of cream, if you're using them, and stir through. Liberally scatter the freshly grated Parmesan over the top and serve immediately. L

Sunday Independent

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