The rice is right

Soothing risotto is the dish for days that seldom reach above minus 20, and for nights in front of the fire.

Soothing risotto is the dish for days that seldom reach above minus 20, and for nights in front of the fire.

Rice trumps pasta throughout northern Italy. The grain thrives in the marshy fields of Piedmont, Lombardy and the Veneto. Risotto is emblematic of the region.

Risotto, as the saying goes “is easy to make, difficult to master.” The method for making this creamy Italian dish, however, soothes the soul. Ingredients for preparing risottos are simple: Italian short-grained rice, onion (or shallot) good stock, Parmaggiano-Reggiano cheese, patience and attention.

Recommended for risotto is firm-grained high-starch rice namely, Arborio (the most common), Carnaroli, and Vialone Nano (the most costly. All resist overcooking, soak up flavour, and produce a creamy, risotto with a nice “bite.”

(Look for Arborio at Extra Foods, Great Canadian Superstore or an Italian specialty shop)

In order to perfect the dish the key, take it “slow and low” —  long stirring over low heat, ladling just enough broth, to cover rice, while never allowing the rice to become absorbed completely. My method includes sipping on something nice as I stir.

Variations on risotto number many — ranging from squash to squid ink. But the benchmark dish is risotto Milanese that hinges on the onion, broth, cheese combo plus a pinch of saffron and a good douse of white wine.

Most folks agree that I make damn fine risotto. (It took some doing). Depending the ingredients in my larder, I’ve made several kinds, but can always depend on two. One stays fairly faithful to risotto Milanese — I omit the saffron and add porcini or other wild mushrooms — musky morels in spring, fruity earthy chanterelles in fall.

The other is a fresh asparagus and herb risotto. Leeks sub in for onions and crumbled feta for grated Reggiano. The latter strays wildly from any Italian recipe I’ve seen. No doubt the purists shudder. But guests love it. That is what matters to me. Both of these risotto depends on white wine, but my sister turns out a wonderful wintry red wine risotto.

Unless necessity forces your hand to use short-grained rice other than Arborio, Carnaroli or Vialone Nano, resist the urge to add cream to achieve richness. Let the starch do the work.

Risotto doesn’t take kindly to reheating. However Risotto balls are the perfect way to use up leftover risotto. Stuffed with blue or other cheese, these tasty morsels named arancini, after the small oranges they resemble, work the room beautifully at a drinks party.

When it comes to matching wines to risotto, ingredients dictate the selection. Rule of thumb? What grows together goes together. So seek out wines from Italy’s northern climes. Earthy risottos beg for Barolo, Barbaresco or other Nebbiolo-based wine (Nebbiolo is the Piemontese grape of named for the fog — nebbia — that blankets the vineyards during autumn) as well as Amarone and Valpolicella from the Veneto.

Pinot grigio fares well with asparagus, or other lighter risottos. If you can find it, pick up a bottle of Arneis, an ancient varietal that’s slowly making a comeback

The following recipe is noted Iron Chef, Mario Batali’s risotto Milanese. Once mastered you can riff on it to make any number of risottos. Anyone with access to Cucina Italia magazine, December 2008 issue will revel in the eight or so risotto recipes. (Also available at http://lacucinamagazine.com/recipes)

Prep time:

10 minutes

Cook time:

40 minutes

4 servings

Method:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice

1 teaspoon saffron threads

3 1/2 cups chicken stock, hot (my note: I like chicken consommé)

2 cups arborio rice

1/2 cup white wine

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmaggiano-Reggiano, plus more for sprinkling

In a 12- to 14-inch skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until softened and translucent but not browned, eight to 10 minutes. Meanwhile add the saffron to the stock, stirring to infuse. Once the onions are translucent add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until toasted and opaque, three to four minutes.

Add the wine to the toasting rice, and then add a four- to six-ounce ladle of the saffron-infused stock and cook, stirring, until it is (almost) absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladle at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Cook until the rice is tender and creamy and yet still a little al dente, about 15 minutes. Stir in the butter and cheese until well mixed. Portion risotto into 4 warmed serving plates, serving with extra cheese.

Suggested Wines: (available through the Yukon Liquor Corp.)

Red:

Bolla Valpolicella Classico $15.65

Masi Campofiorin Ripasso $20.65

Note: ripasso wines are fermented on the lees or must of Amarone

Masi Amarone della Valpolicella $46.75

Fontanafredda Barolo $40.10

White:

Santpietre Pinot Grigio $16.55

Villa Teresa Organic Pinot Grigio $17.25

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