Whenever I want to rediscover my love of cooking, I go back to the classics. The dishes that I learnt to cook years ago and which have brought me many moments of good eating. For me, that dish is risotto.
In the fanciful youth of this blog I cooked risotto all the time. I was mad for it. I’d toil away with ladle after ladle of stocks (chicken, lamb, duck, mushroom), experimenting with types of rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano), and generally throwing anything into them that I thought might work. Cream, cheese, wine, champagne, fistfuls of parmesan and knobs of butter, all absorbed into the mess that were my creations.
I used to be under the impression that you could make anything into a risotto… and in following that theory I came up with a Chinese risotto, a Japanese Risotto with wasabi, a beef and red wine risotto, and curried chicken risotto. All of which seemed like a good idea at the time, but now haunt my blog like the ghost of bad cooking past, only to appear when a lonely web searcher puts a few fatefully wrong keywords into their search engine.
These days I’ve gone a little more classical with my eating and cooking. I lean towards clean flavours, simple combinations of a few main elements with as little bastardisation of styles as possible. There’s nothing wrong with experimenting of course, but I think you need to know the basics before you can really appreciate anything expanding on it.
So the risotto milanese is one of the most classic forms around. It’s essentially a plain risotto flavoured with saffron and parmesan (and traditionally bone marrow). It’s often paired with Osso Buco for a power packed duo of formidable comfort food.
My risotto starts out with finely chopped onion, sautéed in olive oil and a little butter til it’s soft and translucent. At this point I add in a cup or two of rice, tending to favour carnaroli for it’s high level of starch which results in a particularly creamy consistency. The rice gets tossed through the oil and onion mixture until it’s well coated, at which point I turn up the heat just slightly and add a cup of dry white wine (It doesn’t have to be great wine, but generally something you’d drink).
From there the magic of the risotto begins. A pot of chicken stock sits side by side the risotto pan, and I take a ladleful at a time pouring it into the risotto and stirring gently til it absorbs into the rice. You don’t want to rush this process, but people who think it takes hours to make a risotto should not be put off.
The absorption process takes a little time, but the rest of the bottle of wine sitting next to you (this is why it’s important to use something you’d drink) makes it a leisurely affair of stirring and swirling and tasting that I often get lost in the simplicity of (read: I get drunk while cooking).
There are a couple of different ways to add the saffron to the dish. One being to add it to the stock, and the other being to infuse it in some warm water to draw out the colour, and then add the liquid and strands to the risotto towards the end. I normally use a hybrid approach, and have adopted a little trick I saw on a cooking show, whereby the chef crushed some saffron threads in a mortar and pestle with some salt. Creating a rich yellow saffron salt that both seasons the dish and imbues it with saffron flavour. Stingy cooks beware though…a generous dose of saffron is necessary for the richness of flavour this dish deserves.
Then as the rice is becoming softer and closer to that elusive “al dente” we hear so much about, I add a final addition of a large knob of butter and a good handful or two of parmesan cheese (freshly grated is always best, generally a nice Reggiano). This gives the risotto it’s final glossy appearance and creamy texture (without adding any cream).
A quick season with salt and pepper at the finish and this dish is complete. I quite enjoy it on it’s own, or as the base to a host of other options. In the photos above you’ll see I served the risotto under some pan fried fish (Pearl Snapper), that was fried in butter. A combination that I think worked quite nicely, but not one you need to follow.
Because If you’re anything like me, you don’t follow recipes prescriptively, you take a bunch of starting points and references and then head off on your own merry dance… often at your own peril. But when it all comes together and you put that first spoonful into your mouth and it tastes like liquid gold dripped from the wings of angels… It makes all your efforts that little bit more worthwhile.