Italian Easy: Risotto with Spring Peas, Ham, and Fontina
Risotto is an Italian specialty more common in northern Italy, where it is so popular it is often preferred over pasta. It has a reputation of being somewhat fussy to prepare, but in reality this dish is economical, extremely versatile, and takes less than thirty minutes to complete from start to finish.
A true Italian risotto should be creamy, yet not runny, cooked to a consistency Italians call all'onda, which translates as "with waves". Although the cooking time may vary with the rice used or the temperature it is cooked over, risotto is done when each individual grain remains slightly firm to the bite. The number of recipes for risotto are endless and there are many variations on cooking technique, yet most stick true to the classic Italian method—the method I prefer. Once you are comfortable with this technique, you can experiment with any number of possible flavorings. You could eat a different risotto dish every day of the year and not run out of options.
Almost every risotto begins with sautéing some chopped onion or other aromatic in butter, or a mixture of butter and oil, which lays the flavor base on which the rest of the recipe is built. Once the onion is tender, the rice is added and stirred until well-coated and slightly toasted with the oil. Sometimes a splash of wine is used, and once that has been absorbed, small amounts of hot broth are then added. During this period of adding liquid to the rice, it gets stirred constantly and cooked gently over a low boil. The gradual addition of the hot liquid is the key to getting the rice to release its starch, creating the optimal creaminess expected with a good risotto. The final flavoring ingredients are added in the last few minutes of the cooking process, and once it has completed cooking, the risotto is removed from the heat. A little butter, and sometimes grated parmesan, are then added to enrich the rice and help to make it even creamier.
The two primary ingredients needed for risotto are rice and broth. You should use an Italian variety of short grain rice, such as Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Carnaroli. Arborio can now be found in most American grocery stores and Italian specialty stores. Homemade broth is the preferred choice, but if time or circumstances make this impossible, chose a good quality, low sodium broth (that way you can adjust the salt level to your own taste).
Chicken, vegetable, fish and meat broths are all used depending on the other ingredients chosen for the dish. The flavoring ingredients can include almost anything, including seasonal vegetables, seafood, meat, and every combination in between.
There are other methods of preparation, including ones that are completed in the oven, or ones that require barely any stirring at all (like this one from The Food Lab), but this is the traditional method for making Italian risotto, and the one I prefer.
In spring, I'm always inspired by the vibrant, fresh ingredients available. I love to celebrate the season by preparing creamy risotto dishes showcasing such spring vegetables as asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, and sweet spring peas. (I won't eat peas at any other time of the year, but cannot get enough sweet, baby peas in the spring.) I found the first spring peas of the season at my local outdoor market recently and created this risotto dish specifically for them.
Planning this risotto dish, I decided to include spring peas, ham, and fontina cheese, all ingredients I know work well together. I added a little finely chopped basil and lemon zest to enhance and brighten the favors, and the dish turned out exactly as planned. You can serve this risotto as a first course for six, or as a main course for four.
Basic Risotto Tips:
Here are some basic tips for making traditional Italian risotto.
- Never wash the rice. The starch is essential to keeping the rice creamy.
- The best pan to use when making risotto is a high-sided, heavy bottomed one of at least 10 inches in diameter.
- Use only hot broth when cooking your risotto. Adding cool broth will prolong the cooking time.
- Prepare all the ingredients in advance, and place in easy reach in the order they will be used. You cannot stop stirring to chop ingredients as they are needed.
- To determine when you should add more liquid, lightly draw your wooden spoon across the bottom of your pot. You should be able to create an open space as you draw your spoon across.
- Add your liquid in 1/3 cup intervals, only adding more once it has been completely absorbed.
- Near the end of the cooking time, taste the rice frequently, as the cooking time can vary a few minutes each time you cook it.
- If you have run out of hot broth and your risotto seems to require a little more cooking time, add a little hot water instead.
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About the Author: Deborah Mele is the owner of Italian Food Forever, an Italian recipe blog, as well as Recipe Rebuild, a healthy recipe blog she shares with her daughter Christy, an RD. Deborah lives 6 months a year in Umbria, Italy where she oversees her guest house Il Casale di Mele.