Rude Food: Do the real risotto

This piece is dedicated to different techniques for making risotto. If you have no interest in risotto then you may want to turn the page. On the other hand, I suggest that you pause a while.

brunch Updated: Jun 08, 2013 18:54 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
risotto,rice dish,techniques

This piece is dedicated to different techniques for making risotto. If you have no interest in risotto then you may want to turn the page. On the other hand, I suggest that you pause a while. Risotto is about the easiest dish in the world to cook and these days, you get all the ingredients you need at your local grocer. So, whether you want to come home to a nice warm risotto, or whether you want to make one to help you relax (which is why I cook risotto) or whether you want to turn out a dinner party dish that looks impressive but is actually very easy to make, there is always an argument for learning how to cook risotto.

An authentic risotto is a rice dish in which the rice takes on something approximating the texture of a firm khichdi without the assistance of cream or cheese. (Though you can add cheese to a finished risotto for flavour). The basic taste of a risotto comes from the rice and the stock it is cooked in, but you can add other ingredients from the simple (mushrooms, asparagus etc) to the grand (champagne, truffles etc) to the complex (boned quail, foie gras, braised snails, etc).

For years and years, I’ve never bothered too much with risotto recipes because the basic method is always the same. You sauté onions and perhaps some other ingredients (vegetables, chicken etc) in olive oil. Then you add risotto rice (two popular varieties are arborio and carnaroli)) and toast it till each grain is covered with the rich mixture of olive oil, onions etc (what they call the sofrito).

A Day In The Life Of A Purist: My guru on the subject of risotto has been Luciano Parolari, the former executive chef at the Villa d’Este, who is called the King of Risotto. He would fume about my little corruptions to the standard recipe

When the rice begins crackling and gives out a nutty smell, you add just enough white wine to cover the rice in the pan. Then, over medium heat, you begin stirring. When the wine is absorbed, you add boiling stock, one ladleful at a time, and stir till this too is absorbed. Eventually, a stage will come, (in around 20 minutes or less) when the rice will taste done. Now you stop adding the stock and proceed to what Italians call the mantecura, and add butter or cheese in the finishing. You let the risotto rest for a few minutes and then, it is ready to serve.

When I first started cooking risotto over a decade ago, I consulted many scholarly texts to understand the secret of the texture. I gathered that the consistency of a risotto came from the starch released by the rice grains. So, you could only use certain kinds of rice with a high starch content. You never ever washed the rice before cooking (lest you lost some of the starch) and you stirred because this had the effect of persuading the rice to give up its starch.

As time has gone on (and risotto remains about the only dish I know how to cook), I have made refinements to (or have corrupted) the basic recipe to suit my tastes. I rarely use cheese in the finishing but serve grated parmesan on the side, should anybody want it. I no longer cook every ingredient in the sofrito as I’m supposed to. I cook some things (say asparagus) separately and add them to the risotto near the end of the cooking process. I nearly always add garlic to the onions in the sofrito. Italians do not but – hey! – I am Indian. I keep refining the taste as the risotto is ready, adding ingredients that would have me thrown out of any Italian kitchen: a dash of Tabasco for depth, a little soya to boost the umami content of the fungi in a mushroom risotto; a dash of fresh herbs at the final stages. And so on.

And nearly every time I meet a great Italian chef, I pester him for risotto tips. Till now, my guru on the subject has been Luciano Parolari, the former executive chef at the Villa d’Este who is called the King of Risotto. Luciano who endorses the standard recipe, would fume about my little corruptions and does things that I, in turn, do not understand, like adding a dash of champagne to some risottos at the end: “to geev eet a leetle sparkle….”

But the last time I went to the Villa d’Este, Luciano had retired and his successor Michele Zambanini had thrown out the carnaroli rice that Luciano loved. He made his risottos with a new rice, acquerello, and bragged that risottos made with acquerello did not even need stirring.

Going against the grain: I keep refining the taste of the risotto by adding a dash of Tabasco and a little soya – ingredients that would have me thrown out of any Italian kitchen

Then, last month, I met Gabriele Ferron, Italy’s Ambassador of Rice. Ferron thought the traditional method was rubbish. First of all, he said, the whole idea of a sofrito is flawed. If you fry the onions and then add the rice, the onions will be burnt by the time the rice is ready. What you should do, he said, is to fry the sofrito ingredients (onion, mushrooms etc.) as normal. But then, you should remove them from the pan. The rice should be toasted on its own. The sofrito should actually be added (in its cooked form) only at the last stage.

Secondly, it is idiotic to add wine. The whole point of cooking a risotto is the temperature of the pan. How can you possibly add a glass of room temperature wine? Skip that stage and go directly to the boiling stock so that the contents of the pan do not cool.

Thirdly, you need to stir the risotto only at the end. That is the only time the starch is released. The notion of constant stirring is absurd. As for the mantecura, he was as unconventional. Add a little olive oil if you want. And sprinkle a little cheese if you like. But no butter and certainly no cream in a risotto, and here he paused to make a dramatic Italian gesture, “because WE ARE NOT FRENCH!” was now thoroughly confused. The only solution, I decided, was to try all three methods. That evening I went to my local market and bought the ingredients for a mushroom risotto: fresh shitake, a packet of carnaroli rice, chicken stock cubes, onions, garlic and some Ligurian olive oil. All of these are now easy to find in Indian metros.

I made a chicken stock using the cubes and kept it on the boil. Then I put two pans on the gas. I sautèd onions, garlic and sliced shitake in olive oil in both pans. Then, I added rice to one pan and toasted it. Next, I covered the rice with wine (Fratelli) and when that was absorbed, began adding the stock ladle by ladle. As you may have guessed, this was the traditional method and I kept stirring.

But in the second pan, I tried Ferron’s method: the moment the sofrito was ready, I removed it. In the now empty pan, I toasted the rice in more olive oil and then added the boiling stock, ladle by ladle. But I did not stir.

The first (traditional) risotto was ready before the second one so I let it rest. Then I checked the second, saw that it was nearly done, gave it a good stir and added the cooked onions, garlic and mushroom (the sofrito).

Finally I ate both. Ferron was right. There was no difference to the texture: both had the same consistency. But the risotto made his way had a nicer, golden colour from the stock and the onion and garlic flavours were more pronounced. The traditional risotto tasted okay but I began to find the slight sour taste imparted by the wine annoying. The next day I used exactly the same ingredients but substituted acquerello (not available at my local market) for carnaroli. Zambanini’s recipe required me to make the sofrito, keep it in the pan, toast the rice and finally add all of the stock at once. There was no need to stir. When that risotto was ready, I tried it. I don’t think it had the consistency of Ferron’s but it was easily the best tasting – though this could be because of the quality of the rice.

What does this teach us? Well, I’ll tell you what it taught me. First of all, even with a dish as traditional as risotto, the old ways are not always the best. The newer recipes can often be better.

And secondly, and more importantly: how much of my life have I wasted in the kitchen, endlessly stirring my risotto when there was no need to do so?
Not only are the new ways better, they are also less tiring.

Three Risotto Techniques

The Standard Method: You cook all the ingredients together. Then you add wine. Next, you add boiling stock ladle by ladle and stir vigorously till the risotto is cooked.
Ferron's Method: You fry the vegetables, meat, onions etc and then remove them from the pan. You toast the rice in a little olive oil. You never add wine. You add the stock ladle by ladle but you don’t need to stir till the very end. When the risotto is ready, you add the vegetables, meat, onions etc that you had fried earlier to the cooked risotto.
The Acquerello Method : You use acquerello rice and make the risotto in the normal way by first frying meat, vegetables etc. Then you toast the rice and add the wine. But after that, you add the stock all at once. There is no need to keep stirring.

From HT Brunch, June 9
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First Published: Jun 07, 2013 18:36 IST