Party Favors: Tony’s treatise on risotto

Tony writes: Sometimes the Cook Angel questions come in passing: a frantic phone call from a neighbor, a quick text from a friend, an obscenity hurled out a car window on the Lynnway. I take what I can get. So, when, in the span of a week, 3 different people ask me about making risotto for company, I know it’s time to open up the cupboard and break the silence surrounding Italian rice. To start with, there really is nothing to be scared of here, folks. Yes, there is stirring involved, but not much more than that. The thing with risotto is it is different than most rice and in a bunch of ways. So, to summarize: Different? Yes. Difficult? No! Here’s a quick guide to these differences as well as some general preparation tips:

Liquid to rice: The standard rice to liquid ratio (we’re talking everything from Carolina long-grain to Thai jasmine) is approximately 2 to 1. This gets thrown out the window for risotto, though, for which it’s more like 4 to 1. And with risotto, the liquid must be added in stages as opposed to all at once. This gradual approach (about 3/4 cup warm broth at a time) allows the grains to gently absorb the liquid, which, in turn, helps them release their starches, which, in turn, helps the rice get that creamy texture you’re looking for.

Rice varieties: There are 3 major types of Italian rice for risotto: Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano. You’ve probably heard of Arborio (it was the first of the 3 to be extensively imported into the US), but of this group, it’s my least favorite. It’s a texture thing – it doesn’t hold its toothiness well. Carnaroli is my favorite. It’s pricier than the others but has long grains with an excellent texture. Vialone nano is small and rounded and well suited to the soupy seafood risottos common to the Veneto (the northeastern region around Venice).

Make-ahead for company? I’ll admit that there is one scary thing about risotto: it’s  traditional Italian fare and Italian cooks don’t take kindly to shortcuts or unnecessary improvisations and I’m scared bleepless of Italian cooks (a year in an Italian kitchen will do that to you). So my stance is that making risotto ahead of time (halfway through so the final cook time is quick) falls under the unnecessary improvisation/shortcut categories. Most restaurants do make risotto ahead – if not, it would take 25 minutes for it to get to your table after you order, too long for most diners. But if you’re making risotto at home for company, I say you’re better off making it start to finish once your guests arrive. It’s easier to control the progression of the rice as it drifts towards the desired toothy texture. If you are hell-bent on partially cooking risotto ahead of time, then aim to cook it for about 10 minutes with half of the liquid and then make sure to cool it quickly, spreading it in a thin even layer on a greased baking sheet. When you go to re-heat it, do so by gently stirring with a ladle-ful of hot chicken broth over medium heat, before continuing on the process of adding more broth one ladle-ful at a time. This whole make-ahead approach works just fine, but I say avoid it: if you are making risotto for company, you’re going to want it to be just right and it’s a lot more stressful trying to execute the partially cooked method than simply making the risotto start to finish. Open up a bottle of wine and have one of your more energetic guests assume the stirring role. Guests don’t mind being put to work provided there’s booze involved.

Highlights of the basic method: I like to start a risotto by sauteing some sort of finely diced aromatics (onion, carrot, celery, or garlic) with plenty of olive oil and/or butter until soft and tender, about 5 minutes. Work in a heavy-based saucepan- the heaviness is important to avoid the rice from sticking or scorching. Meanwhile, heat up some chicken broth in another saucepan over medium heat (for 4 people, shoot for 6 cups chicken broth and 1 1/1 cups rice). Add the rice and cook, stirring, for a minute or two so it gets coated with the fat (the oil or butter). Add a splash of wine and cook, stirring, until it’s almost completely cooked off. Then, start adding the broth one large ladle at a time (about 3/4 cup). The trick at this point is not only to stir regularly, but also to adjust the heat on your stovetop so that the risotto gently bubbles along, not too hot, not too slow; somewhere between medium and medium low on my range. Once the rice is tender but still a little toothy (keep tasting, you’ll know it when you get there) – about 20 minutes later – stir in a good handful of grated Parmigiano (about 3/4 cup) and a couple pats of butter. The cheese will add depth of flavor while the butter offers an essential sheen and richness to the dish. At this point, you can also stir in any vegetables (asparagus, peas, tomato) or additional flavorings. Then to the table, a mangiare!

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