On a snowy winter day, with a blizzard brewing outside and idle hands inside, my thoughts drifted to dinner. What can I make that is all at once comforting, belly-warming, delicious and timely? Risotto, that's what, as white as the snow piling up on the windowsill, to chase away the chills and offer respite from that cruel, unrelenting world outside the door.
Risotto is really quite easy to make if you have the right ingredients on hand and only a minimal measure of gumption. My inspiration was the snowstorm. All that whiteness flying around made me think of the glistening grains of Arborio rice, sizzling in olive oil It also made me think of my Milanese friend Silvana, who so passionately showed me her tips for authentic white risotto a few years back.
There was a speech delivered that day. Proper Milanese risotto, she sternly lectured, is not flavored and colored by saffron, but pure white, like snow. "Any real Milanese cook will always serve their osso buco with white risotto, not yellow," she snorted, gesticulating with her hands dramatically, as if she wanted to take a swipe at anyone approaching with a pinch of saffron. I took her point, nodding seriously, and offered no arguments.
Now, I'm not entirely sure of the accuracy of her statement, which flew in the face of everything I'd previously known about this iconic dish, but I wasn't going to mess with her at that point.
Making Chicken Stock
For my snow day risotto, I wanted some basic chicken stock. You can actually make darn good risotto with plain and always-available water. Chicken stock gilds the lily, and who doesn't want a gilded lily in pursuit of comfort food.
I checked the freezer and pulled out the wings, neck, back, and feet I had clipped from my last roasted bird before it went in the oven. Into a pot they went with the basics: carrot, onion, celery, bay leaf, black peppercorns, parsley, a bit of thyme. No browning of the chicken or veggies this time, and none of the usual tomato bits I sometimes like to add to my stock. Two hours, and about four inches of snow later, I had aromatic and flavorful, but pale, chicken stock ready for my risotto.
The other ingredients required are Arborio rice, of course, olive oil, onion, a bit of white wine, butter, and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese. I've got this pale theme down pat.
Here are some pointers to keep in mind when making your risotto.
- First, dice the onions about the same size as the grains of rice, which will allow them to distribute their flavor evenly and melt into the finished risotto.
- Never, ever, rinse the rice, which would wash away the starch that is essential to the dish.
- Make sure you toast the grains of rice properly, a step known as tostatura in Italian. Use just enough olive oil to coat the rice completely, and keep it moving; the point is not to brown them, but to break down the outer coating of the rice to allow the starch to slowly release as you cook it in the liquid. Listen for the crackling, popping sound as you toast the rice; that is when you will know that step is complete.
- Just a bit of wine or vermouth is added after the rice is toasted and before the hot liquid goes in. I happen to think this addition is crucial to the finished flavor and texture, so try not to skip that ingredient if you can. The alcohol cooks off, but the wine flavors the risotto delicately, and the acid also helps to ease out the starch.
- Your liquid—stock, water or a combination—should be hot, hot, hot, either just off the boil, or at a low simmer. Adding lukewarm liquid to the pan brings the cooking process to a pointless, dead halt. Remember, the secret to creamy risotto is measured, steady cooking.
- When you add the liquid, add it in larger amounts at the beginning—one and a half or two generous ladles at first, and then smaller amounts as the cooking progresses, and try to keep the rate of evaporation into the rice steady. This will ensure you don't add all the liquid before the rice is actually cooked.
- Finally, remember that perfect risotto is a fleeting thing; make it, have warm bowls ready for serving, and enjoy it moments out of the pan. Use any leftovers to make crispy risotto cakes. It turns quite gloppy when cold and simply does not reheat.
The recipe below is for four servings; this recipe can easily be doubled or tripled as necessary; you'll add more stock each time, and amount of cooking time in between each addition will be longer. You can interrupt the pure snowy whiteness of the finished risotto with finely chopped parsley, if desired.
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 cup diced onions
- 2 pinches kosher salt
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 1/2 cup white wine or dry vermouth
- 4 cups basic, not browned, chicken stock, hot
- 2 tablespoons butter, cut in 3 or 4 pieces
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Place the olive oil in a heavy, deep sauté or saucepan, and stir in the onions to coat them. Place over medium heat and season with the salt.
Sauté the onions for a minute or so, stirring constantly, until they have wilted and are beginning to turn translucent around the edges. Increase the heat and add the rice all at once, stirring it well with the onions to coat the grains with the olive oil.
Keep stirring the rice over medium-high heat, moving it around the pan, for about 2 minutes. The rice should be toasted, but not browned.
Add the wine to the pan, stirring until the wine has completely evaporated.
Ladle in about 1 cup of the hot stock, stirring it into the rice. Lower the heat to medium and cook, stirring, until the liquid has almost completely absorbed. Add more stock, about a half a cup at a time, cooking and stirring the rice constantly as it cooks and develops a creamy texture.
When about 3 cups of stock have been added and absorbed, taste the risotto and see if it is done. It should be tender and creamy on the outside, but al dente at the core. Add the last of the stock if needed, and season with more salt to taste.
When the risotto is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and immediately stir in the butter a piece at a time, followed by the cheese and freshly ground pepper. Serve immediately in warmed bowls, passing more cheese.