risotto

No Need to Fear Arborio

risotto

As a lover of food I have never bought into the fear of carbs. In fact, I have operated my own “no carb left behind’ program for years much to the amazement of my friends who long for the days when ‘carb’ wasn’t a four letter word. Nice to see that saner minds are prevailing and carbs in the form of bread and grains are making it back into the zeitgeist and on to the table.

Rice in particular has always fascinated me. The sheer variety of it alone is enough to keep me in the kitchen experimenting. I have a favorite rice cookbook aptly named Seductions of Rice by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duquid. I defy anyone to be able to resist that. The recipes in it span the globe and could keep even the most worldly and dedicated rice aficionado on her toes year round.

I love that rice can stand in for any course, adapting effortlessly to sweet and savory roles. Just last night we treated ourselves to a tomato and lentil soup filled with chickpeas and wild rice, drizzled with lemon, olive oil and chopped parsley. A side of basmati rice cooked with chicken stock instead of water to accompany our house grilled salmon is the perfect side and I always keep a container of precooked short grain brown rice in the refrigerator that we substitute for hot cereal – heating it up with equal parts of milk and throwing handfuls of blueberries, chopped almonds and a dash of maple syrup.

I seek out paella, especially delicate seafood versions, studded with tiny clams and miniature squids but at the end of the day my heart belongs to risotto and no quinoa or barley substitute will do.

Risotto is a dish that many cooks fear and no wonder with recipes that warn the cook “now is the critical moment. You must stand over your risotto and stir ceaselessly from now on.” Allow me to debunk this myth and demystify the entire process. You don’t need to be there every second and risotto is one of the easiest dishes you can make, all you need to do is remember two things: after you have sautéed your shallots throw in a bit more oil and then the rice.

Here’s where you do need to stir, keep it toasting until the rice has browned slightly and is fragrant. Doing this ensures that the rice can absorb more stock. You need to do the same trick with paella and it’s critical, so make sure that you never skip this step. Heat your stock, never add cold stock to risotto and pour it in about a 1/2 cup at a time and stir a few times, give the rice time to absorb it before you add more. After that all you need to do is remember not to turn the heat up too high and you’ll be fine. Once all of the stock has been added you’ll have created a work of art, remember to taste as you get towards the end of the stock to see if the rice has cooked through.

Your recipe will have a recommended amount of stock to use but rice, the weather and time of year all seem to play into how a risotto cooks – you may need a little more you may need a little less. Just taste and see when it’s perfect for you. When the rice is almost cooked throw in any additional ingredients – this time of year we’ve been using blanched asparagus, fresh spring peas and baby shrimp. Add a handful of grated Parmesan and top with fresh basil, and serve with an icy rosé.

Save the rice pudding for another day, as much as I love my rice I try to keep it to one course a meal – a flourless chocolate cake will help assuage and residual carb guilt you may be feeling. Salud!

Recipe:

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, chopped and blanched (you can also add fresh peas, mushrooms or whatever new veggies you have on hand)
5 cups (about) chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cups Arborio* rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender. Add rice and stir 1-2 minutes.

Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often, about 2 minutes.

Add 1/2 cup broth; simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.

Continue to cook, adding more broth by 1/2 cupful and allowing liquid to be absorbed before adding more, stirring often.

Add asparagus and continue cooking until rice is just tender and mixture is creamy, adding broth as needed and stirring, about 10 minutes longer. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmesan and cream. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer risotto to bowl. Garnish with rosemary sprigs or basil, if desired. Serve, passing remaining Parmesan separately.

*Alternative rice possibilities.

Arborio (are-BORE-ee-oh) – is a pearly, round medium grain rice that is readily available in the United States. Its outer coating contains the highest starch level of any Italian variety, which ensures creamy texture in risottos.

Carnaroli (car-noh-ROE-lee) – often referred to as the caviar of rice. It is the variety most preferred by chefs. It is known for superior flavor and distinctive creaminess, but its window for achieving perfect doneness is smaller than with the other varieties.

Vialone Nano (vee-ah-LOW-nah-no) – This rice is grown in the Veneto region of Italy and is required to be produced without chemical treatments of any kind. It is small (nano means “dwarf”), fine, and pearly. This variety is less sticky and less forgiving than other varieties.

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