Summer has finally arrived in the Rose City, and the stands at Portland Farmer’s Market are overflowing with the season’s bounty. With all of the fantastic, seasonal ingredients to base a meal upon, it’s as good a time as any to start our exploration of another of the great Italian starches: risotto.
Risotto is pretty simple in both theory and practice, and yet a lot of cooks—including many professionals—totally screw it up. From what I’ve observed, it’s usually for anywhere from one to all three of the following reasons:
1) They try to rush the process, cranking the heat too high or overstirring. Risotto requires moderate heat and plenty of patience.
2) They depend upon recipes to tell them exact quantities or cooking times, but every risotto is different, each with its own personality. Risottos need to be coddled and caressed, loved and understood, and gently coaxed along toward perfection.
3) They try to make fancy risottos with wild combinations of ingredients without fully understanding the process. More complex risottos require finely honed risotto-whispering skills to get right.
Fortunately, these are all issues that are easy to correct. To do so, we will give this finicky beast the attention it demands and learn the soft art of risotto-whispering, which will free us from a dependence upon recipes and enable us to execute perfectly every time on this sneaky-tough dish.
We start this exploration with perhaps the simplest risotto dish, a classic white risotto—risotto bianco—with a simple ingredient list that will allow us to focus on the process. Flavored with only a humble onion and a generous sprinkle of cheese, it’s certainly not as sexy as richer more decadent risottos, but on a hot summer night the simplicity and the lightness is a feature, not a bug. Even if you’re already making killer risottos, this is a fantastic trick for your bag since it’s quick, easy, and budget-friendly, with each dinner-sized serving clocking in at well-under $2.00 using top-quality ingredients.
Oh, and do make sure you’re using excellent ingredients. With only cheese and onion as your flavoring, there’s nothing to hide behind; the finished dish will be as good or as bad as those components. For the cheese, I used a beautiful sharp Pecorino that I scored at Di Bruno Brothers at the Italian Market on a recent trek to Philadelphia. Parmigiano-Reggiano is the classic choice, but other cheeses fit the bill as well so long as they’re sharp and robust, as this Pecorino is.
For the onion, of course a trip to your local farmer’s market usually yields the best results. I found these beautiful, sweet Walla Walla onions at the Portland Farmer’s Market in perfect summer season.
So, to formalize everything we’ll need into an ingredient list:
- Arborio rice (or another good rice for risotto)
- Dry white wine
- A pot of simmering water
- A really nice onion
- Parmigiano or something similarly stinky
- Olive oil
- Salt & pepper
Oh, you were expecting quantities? That would be antithetical to the art of risotto-whispering, since precise measuring will only get you “in the ballpark” with risottos. Instead, there are a few general rules to keep in mind. The first is the old Italian grandma way of portioning the rice: Use a nice, generous fistful of dry rice per serving. If you must measure, this translates to about 50 grams or 1/4 cup, but you’d be surprised how accurate fistfuls can be. In terms of liquid, risotto is pretty thirsty, requiring anywhere from three to five parts liquid for each part rice. Since we don’t add any “wet” ingredients to this risotto as we sometimes might, it tends to be near the upper end of that range. So about 200 grams of rice and a liter of water is what you’ll need to feed four if a false sense of precision is your jam.
But seriously…get over your preoccupation with quantity and realize that with risotto, it’s all about process. So let’s get to it.
1) This whole deal is going to take an hour or so, so let’s get settled in. Pop the cork out of a nice bottle of dry white wine (Pinot Grigio is great here) and pour yourself a glass. Swirl it for a while and sniff, but don’t drink right away; that’ll help you get into the right mindset. And you definitely need some music. Turn on something mellow but with real rhythm. I’ve been really digging The War on Drugs for this situation lately, but if you want to kick it old school, Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra are both about perfect. Relax and talk to your arborio for a few minutes before you jump right in, so you get to know each other.
2) Dice the onion rather finely, place it in a big sauté pan with a generous drizzle of olive oil, and set it over medium-low heat. As the pan and its contents start to heat up the onion will begin to sweat, and eventually darken ever-so-slightly. Let that go for a good 20 minutes, stirring on occasion with a wooden spoon (gotta use a wooden spoon…that’s an important detail!), but mostly just watching and sipping wine as the onions start to caramelize and its lovely aromatic compounds flavor the olive oil. This part is kinda like the foreplay…take your time with it. You’re forming the flavor base for everything that’s to come.
As the onion softens, get your pot of water onto the back burner and bring it to a simmer. A lot of folks insist on using stock even for something like a risotto bianco, but I think that overcomplicates it. Using water yields a crisp, clean dish where the individual flavors of the onion, rice, and cheese shine, and it keeps the rice nice and white, true to its name. Save the stock for another time.
3) When the onions turn all gooey and golden, go ahead and add the rice to the pan. Toast the rice in the olive oil, stirring it with the onions. This step only takes a minute or two, just long enough to coat the grains of arborio with olive oil and give them a little color. You’ll have just enough time to drain the wine in your glass and pour yourself another one. Make this one nice and big…
4) …and then go ahead and pour that glass on into the pan (promptly refilling it, of course). Stir just enough to deglaze, and let it sit as the alcohol boils off. Sip some wine while you wait. Start bopping your head a bit in time with the music. Loosen up, groove a little.
You should still be at the same medium-low heat where you started, by the way, and you’re just leaving the burner at that temperature through the whole cook. So if you haven’t already found the perfect temperature, go up or down a notch ’til you stumble on it.
5) When the wine has mostly boiled off, add ladle of water and start to stir, ever so gently, just moving the rice around in the water. Do this for a good minute or so, and then stop and wait while the rice simmers in the water. Toss and catch your wooden spoon a few times in the meantime, in time with the music, paying careful attention to the weight and balance of the spoon, the feel of its handle in your hand.
When the water has mostly been absorbed by the rice, add the next ladle, stir it gently for another minute, and relax with a few sips of wine as the pan simmers. At this point you should really be starting to become one with the pan of risotto. How you handle the risotto over the course of this step will determine the eventual texture: The more you stir, the more of its starch it gives off and creamier it will eventually become. Once you can get a feel for this you can play with it to achieve different textures and effects, but for now we just want a nice, middle-of-the road dish with a smooth and delicious creaminess. So moderate your stirring, and pay attention to how the texture of the rice evolves as you cook.
And again, take your time. This step alone can take 30 minutes or so. Go with it. Don’t turn up the heat and stir more—that’s how you wind up with the signature risotto texture of shitty Italian restaurants, where the dish is cloyingly creamy except for the still-raw centers of the rice grains. Indeed, the risotto comes to its ideal al dente texture on its own terms; our job is to softly guide it there. It’s done when it tastes done. It should be cooked all the way through yet still with a firmness to the bite.
6) When the rice is cooked through and most of the remaining water is absorbed, throw in a generous fistful of grated cheese, stir just enough to mix and melt, and pull the pan off the heat. Cover and let sit for a few minutes, allowing the cooking to stop and the flavors to coalesce into the finished form. Top it with a few more shavings of cheese, some freshly cracked black pepper.
Of course Pinot Grigio works well with this, and in fact there aren’t a lot of white wines that won’t. But by the time this is ready you’ll have been drinking white wine for an hour and you’ll be more than ready to move on. It’s a little more adventurous with a red. Try an inexpensive Montepulciano or Barbera.
I’m trying to up my pinterest game, so here’s a ready made pin for ya if you’re on there…