classic risotto

I really don’t think I had ever had risotto until last year when Gerrit and I went on our little honeymoon to Asheville, North Carolina (seriously the best city I have ever eaten in–if you ever visit, go to the Tupelo Honey Cafe at least two or three times, maybe even every day–and oh my gosh I just realized that they have a cookbook! Amazon wishlist! Right now!).  One night we went to this little Italian restaurant called Fiore’s which I loved before we even got our food because they had all these paintings by local artists of Flamenco dancers (even though I suppose that’s not quite Italian) and our booth was tiny and enclosed and made me feel like I was sitting on the bottom of a bunk bed.  Then we got our food.  I honestly don’t remember what my main dish was (although I do remember Gerrit having some delicious duck), but there was risotto on my plate that was buttery and garlicky and deliciously smooth.

A couple of months later, settled into our new apartment, I looked up how to make risotto and was immediately scared off.  Cook for 45 minutes, stirring constantly, gradually adding chicken broth?  How do you know when it’s done? Which, I mean, duh, taste it.  But I was worried that with only a solitary risotto tasting experience under my belt, I would not know what to look for.  I recorded countless cooking shows that included risotto, explaining the techniques and patience required, but they always cut to commercial break just when I thought they might answer my never-ending questions.  Then Giada De Laurentiis said that cooking risotto is relaxing, and I knew the time had come to try it.

And then I was embarrassed at my intimidation because it really is quite simple.  And guess what.  It really can be relaxing.  Just stirring the same pot gently and patiently, watching the rice transform from toasty grains to creamy risotto.

But making risotto is a cooking method that requires a bit of patience and mastery to get the right consistency, so here are some tips that I’ve picked up.

1.  Toasting your rice at the beginning is important, as this adds nice flavor and gets the rice ready to slowly release its starches (which is what makes risotto creamy).

2.  Make sure your chicken broth is warm when adding it to the rice.  Adding cold liquid could stop the cooking process and the rice will suddenly stop releasing starches (although I do sometimes add my wine cold at the beginning, and so far this hasn’t proved to be a problem).

3.  Don’t get hung up on adding your broth in three steps (as many recipes suggest).  Sometimes mine takes four or even five.  It just depends on how much rice you have and how long it seems to be taking to absorb.  After awhile you’ll get a feel for when it is appropriate to add more broth and how much to add.

4.  Thanks to Anne Burrell, I learned that when you add butter and cheese at the end you should whip it all together (stirring it super fast and moving your pot back and forth).  There is a huge difference in consistency between the dishes where I did this and the dishes where I just stirred it in non-aggressively.

Risotto

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Serves: 2-3*

2 tablespoons butter
3-4 small shallots, peeled and diced *
Salt
Pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
3/4 cup Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1.  In a small saucepan, warm chicken broth over low heat.
2.  Meanwhile, in a saute pan, melt butter over medium-high heat.  When butter is melted, add shallot.  Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook shallot until it is soft and translucent, 3-5 minutes, stirring often.  Add garlic, cooking for about 1 minute, stirring often.  Add rice, cooking and continually stirring until it is toasted and beginning to brown, 2-3 minutes. ***
3.  Add wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to release anything that has stuck to it.  Stir rice gently, until most of the wine is absorbed.
4.  When most of the wine is absorbed, begin adding chicken broth.  Add several ladle-fulls at a time, just enough to cover the rice.  Add a bit of salt and pepper to season.  Stir rice gently, almost constantly.  When one addition of chicken broth has almost completely absorbed, add the next addition.  Continue the process through three or four additions, until rice is done, 35-40 minutes.
5.  When rice is done, add remaining tablespoon of butter and the Parmesan cheese.  Shake the pan back and forth, stirring aggressively.  Risotto should begin to come together in a thicker and creamier consistency.  Serve immediately.

* If you would like to expand the recipe for a larger crowd, keep in mind that simply doubling the amounts will not bring you perfection.  If I were to make this recipe for 4 to 6 people as opposed to 2 or 3, I would double the rice, but not quite double the chicken broth (it would probably take more like 4 to 5 cups instead of 6).  But heat up what you think you will need, and just keep cooking until it is done, always only adding enough broth each time to just cover the rice.

** Most risotto recipes call for onions, but I much prefer the milder taste of shallots.  If you like onions better though, go for it.

***  I’m really not sure what kind of pan you are exactly supposed to use for risotto.  I have a saute pan that I like to use, but I suspect that a large saucepan will do just as well.

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