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Friday — February 20, 2004


Food for Thought

Rice by another name

Express Staff Writer

Risotto, the simple Italian word that today graces menus from Siena to Seattle, is relatively easy to pronounce. Unfortunately, it is somewhat harder to understand, and for those who do know its nuances, it can still be a challenge to prepare.

However, when cooked properly, risotto easily rivals pastas and stews as the ultimate comfort food: rich, flavorful and easy to come home to.

Although the word risotto in its basic sense simply refers to an Italian rice dish, words of consequence are rarely translated so easily.

In its true sense, risotto bestows all the elements of what makes cooking and eating an experience, not just an exercise in nourishment. In thought, it oozes with history, culture and tradition. In preparation, it demands patience and time-tested techniques. At the table, it can take the senses to new heights.

Once unique to Italy, risotto requires the use of one of several varieties of Italian short-grain rice. The Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano rice varieties are considered the best, in part because they hold an ample proportion of amylopectin, a glutinous surface starch that dissolves in cooking to produce the desirable creamy texture found in true risotto.

Arborio rice, with its large, plump grains abundant with amylopectin, can produce the creamiest risotto, but must be cooked with care. Vialone Nano is a small, stubby grain that has a greater quantity of the harder, inner starch called amylose, making it ideal for those who prefer a more structured dish.

To coax that signature creaminess out of the rice, or riso, one must follow an established cooking method, or be prepared to see the rice lose its texture and become unattractively gummy.

Variations in risotto dishes are seemingly endless, but virtually all chefs preparing classic risotto follow the basics of a long-established technique. The basic method for preparing a classic Risotto Milanese, flavored with saffron, might vary only slightly from that for a Risotto Primavera colored with lightly cooked vegetables.

While the riso is always prepared in a very similar fashion, variations to the dish come from a set of additional ingredients that can change with a daily whim.

The foundation of the flavor base, called a soffrito, is generally some onion and garlic sautéed in butter or olive oil. What makes one dish different from another is dependent on what one adds to the soffrito, whether it be diced vegetables, cured meats or beans.

In the traditional cooking method, the unwashed rice is scalded in a heavy pot, over high heat with the soffrito, to add a coating of fat to the kernels. Then, hot liquid—usually a broth—is added slowly to the pot, ladle by ladle, as the chef stirs the rice mixture with a wooden spatula. As the liquid is absorbed, more of it is slowly and consistently stirred in, until some 20 to 25 minutes later the rice is tender but still slightly firm to the bite.

Many risotto recipes call for adding certain key ingredients—such as pre-cooked shellfish or vegetables—late in the cooking process.

A final step, called the mantecare, is not observed by all cooks, but is key to making a traditional Italian risotto. The step typically involves mixing a small amount of butter or cream and some grated Parmesan cheese into the rice mixture, enhancing both the flavor and the creamy consistency.

This unique risotto recipe deviates slightly from the traditional approach, but still mandates that the rice be cooked slowly and evenly. It is perfect for winter nights by the fire, but light enough to serve in spring or summer. I like to pair it with a bright, light-bodied red wine, such as a pinot noir from California's Carneros district or France's Burgundy region.


Risotto with leeks and prosciutto (serves 4)

5 leeks, green tips trimmed close to whites

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

6 oz. sliced prosciutto, cut into slivers

1 cup heavy cream

Optional: green peas or snow peas

1 ½ cups Arborio or Vialone Nano rice

1 medium yellow onion, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup white vermouth

7 cups chicken broth, heated

Parmesan cheese, grated

Split the leeks into two vertical sections, wash well, and slice into 1/4-inch pieces. Briefly sauté the leeks in the butter and olive oil. Add prosciutto and continue to sauté. Add cream, heat the mixture at a simmer for several minutes and set aside. (If using peas, add them to the mixture after the prosciutto.)

In a heavy flat-bottom pot, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium-high heat until soft. Add the unwashed rice and stir to coat the kernels with the residual oil (approximately 2-3 minutes). Meanwhile, bring the broth to a low boil in a separate saucepan. Reduce the heat and keep at a simmer.

With the pot over a medium-to-low flame, add the vermouth to rice mixture and stir slowly and evenly until the liquid is absorbed. Add a 1/2 cup of the broth until absorbed, and continue to add the broth in ½-cup increments as the liquid is absorbed at a low simmer. Do not let the bottom of the pot go dry, always keeping at least a small amount of liquid in the pot while stirring. After approximately 15 minutes, start to taste the rice. It is cooked when it is creamy but the kernels are al dente, slightly firm to the bite.

Immediately add the leek, prosciutto and cream mixture and stir evenly into the rice. Let stand for one minute, then serve immediately with grated Parmesan cheese on the side.

Gregory Foley is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express. He is a former restaurant sous-chef and a former France-based travel guide. His first novel, The Clarity of Light, will be released March 22.


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