My recent trip to the Piemonte region of Italy (strangely called Piedmont in the US), was a year in the making and as anticipated as any trip I’ve ever taken. Piemonte is the birthplace of Slow Food, Eataly and Nutella (forgive me). And the cusine is rich in meats, nuts, risotto and most importantly some of the best wines and cheeses in the world.
I approached my trip with excitement, knowing I would not only enjoy the food but learn from my experiences. What I learned about making risotto was perhaps my greatest cooking take-away from the trip. From early on, I realized I was doing it all wrong. I tasted and watched (and tasted a bunch more). Then I brought what I learned back to the states to share with you.
In Italy, Risotto is made from several types of rice, but the most common are Arborio (most popular in the US) and Carnaroli. While many claim that the Italians prefer Carnaroli to Arborio for their risottos, I found both types all over Piemonte. Carnaroli is more difficult to overcook which may make it the better choice if you can find it. Still, both make a delicious risotto. Both are grown just north of the villa we called home in the areas of Novara and Vercelli where the water covered rice fields lay flat out for miles while the Alps plunge out of the landscape to the north.
What separates Piemontese risottos from American ones is the texture and the delicacy of the flavors. In Italy, risotto is not a side dish or a main course; it’s served between antipasti (appetizers) and secondi (main course) as a primi piatti. The flavor is usually designed to highlight one ingredient and every aspect of the dish is to elevate that one ingredient in the creamy delightful way that a perfect risotto can do. You might find a risotto cooked with the local Barolo or Barbara, or you may find a risotto dotted with flavorful chunks of Speck or in season veggies flavored with little more than a fresh herb or a local cheese. What you won’t find is a risotto with all of those things thrown in together. Simplicity of flavor is an art form in Piemonte.
In my opinion texture is the biggest problem with American risottos. Compared to Italy, we overcook our risotto and we do not serve it loose enough. Risotto should spread out on a plate; not glop or mound. Its real thickness lies somewhere close to a porridge. American’s also tend to cheat our way to creamy risottos. You don’t need to add cream to develop the lovely creaminess; constant stirring and a little butter add all the creaminess you need without weighing down your risotto. The Italians eat a risotto frequently followed by another course or two (or more). In one over-the-top unforgettable meal, a best-ever-tasted speck risotto was served as course number six followed by a full five courses afterward. Adding too much fat and cream would make this impossible.
The creaminess is developed by rubbing the starches of the rice grains against each other. As you stir the rice, a little starch comes off the grains and thickens in the hot liquid you add. The more you stir, the more starch you rub off and develop into a creamy texture. Nothing more than a couple tablespoons of butter at the end is enough to emulsify the entire dish into a perfectly creamy bite. Stopping and serving the rice before it is fully cooked, with just a touch of bite left in the grain provides texture so that the dish is not mushy.
You’ll know if your risotto is too thick if you run a spoon through the bowl and it does not immediately fill back in. If it doesn’t add more liquid. You’ll only have a matter of minutes after finishing your risotto to serve it, so make sure you have hot plates to serve it on and your garnishes and diners ready to go so everyone can enjoy the meal the way it should be enjoyed.
However, just because you have to stir in the liquid and serve right away doesn’t mean that risotto can not be a make ahead dish. Add 1/2 to 3/4 of your liquid, then pour the risotto out onto a baking sheet to cool it quickly. Once you are ready to serve, reheat the broth to a boil and return the risotto to the pot. From that point it will only take a few minutes to finish and serve your perfect meal.
The cheese used in the recipe, Castelmagno D.O.P, is a local cheese to Piedmont. It is difficult to find in the US. Unless you have a very nice cheese shop near you, you’ll need to substitute out another cheese in this recipe. Any strongly flavored cheese will work here. Gorgonzola or a firm truffle cheese sound particularly delicious. You could even use a mild feta in this recipe. One more note: To better highlight the flavor of the cheese, I only use half stock in this recipe. It is certainly fine to use all stock, but I find chicken stock to sometimes overpower the more delicate flavors, and found that in Italy, the risottos did not taste strongly of stock.
Of course I’ve had perfect, delicious risottos here in the states, but now I know how to make them at home. It is not nearly as hard as it seems. Yes you have to do a bit of stirring, but if you start with the best ingredients you can find, you’ll end up with something to be proud of. Enjoy!
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 2 cups water
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 ounces Castelmango cheese, crumbled (1/2 cup)
- 4 tablespoons chives, snipped (1 small bunch)
- Bring the two cups of water and two cups of broth to boil. Cover and keep hot.
- Heat a large deep pan over medium heat. Saute onion in the olive oil with a teaspoon of salt until very soft and translucent but not yet brown. Add the rice and continue to cook until all the rice is coated with oil and the rice has turned opaque. Add the wine and cook, stirring frequently until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Pour one cup of broth into the rice and stir until that liquid is absorbed. Repeat the process of adding liquid and stirring until three cups of the liquid are absorbed. Taste the rice. It should be almost cooked through with just a small crunch of dry rice in the middle. Add the final cup of rice and bring to a full simmer.
- Remove from the heat and use a spoon to beat in the butter stirring rapidly for a full minute. The final texture of the rice should be firm in the middle but not quite crunchy. The final consistency should spread when ladled on to a plate; it should not hold up in a mound. If there is not enough liquid add additional water or broth. It will continue to absorb liquid so adjust accordingly. Fold in the cheese but do not completely stir it in. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve topped with the snipped chives.