Food for Thought
Rice by another name
By GREGORY FOLEY
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
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
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
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
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
5 leeks, green tips trimmed close
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 oz. sliced prosciutto, cut into
1 cup heavy cream
Optional: green peas or snow peas
1 ½ cups Arborio or Vialone Nano
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
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.