Friday, January 18, 2013

The Risotto Obsession, Part 1

Fig.1. Risi e Pisi
I want to start my culinary year by obsessing over something.  Obsession gets a bad rap, it’s a great way to promote focus and dedication while making sure one holds on to fixations that nurture one’s faults and insecurities.  In the past I’ve obsessed over such things as pasta, bread, pizza, tortiere, oh, and who can forget the 2003 bolito misto fiasco that saw the consumption of countless sheep, swine and beef innards. So what to obsess over in 2013? After conferring with my neurosis I’ve decided that risotto would be apt to loose sleep over.  Why obsess over risotto? It’s simple: because it’s bliss when made correctly, and tragic when made without love, and it all starts with a grain of rice.

Fig.2. Carnaroli is harvested in Vercelli in Northern Italy, located in the Piedmonte region.  It's a medium grain rice with more starch than found in regular Arborio rice.

Fig.3. Italian Cinema made risotto appetising in more ways than one.   

Short grain rice is a must when making a classic, Italian risotto. Long grain rice won’t work and Uncle Ben’s should only be used after you die.  The difference between short grain and long grain rice is about starch content: the general rule of thumb is that long grain rice emits less starch and medium and short grain rice emit more, it’s the starch that makes a risotto creamy, but only up to a point, to make a creamy risotto, you need to follow certain rules.
Making risotto is all about patience and technique, however, I’ve made risotto many times in the past with both of the above-mentioned traits only to fail miserably with a resulting bowl of clumpy, stucco-like globs of starch. I usually turn to America’s Test Kitchen when I want to quell any food issues I have, but this time, I needed to find someone equally fanatical about their stove-top conquests, someone consumed with whatever recipe might lay before him: Alton Brown.
Alton’s approach to risotto is both traditional and scientific, he dissects the grain of rice and outlines what proteins and amino acids make up a grain of medium and short grain rice.  Brown also contends that technique when making risotto is key, he advises to plan ahead and have all your ingredients ready.  He also writes about the importance of stirring. While most people stir with a wooden spoon, Brown and I agree that a rubber spatula when making risotto is better, although for different reasons. Brown uses a rubber spatula out of habit and because it’s better suited at preventing the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pan, I like to use a rubber spatula because it’s gentler on the rice. The rough exterior of a wooden spoon can damage the outer walls of the rice, which can cause the rice to break apart. (in case you’re curious, the two main molecules that make up the inner part of a grain of rice are amylose and amylopectin. These two glucose molecules are pure starch: long grain rice has a higher percentage of amylose; amylose will hold its shape, which is why long grain rice stays fluffy and independent. Medium and short grain rice have higher concentrations of amylopectin, which will leech out of the rice grain when cooked and agitated, thereby filling the surrounding liquid the rice is cooked in with starch.)
Like any obsession, the best place to start is with a manic approach and tenacious insecurity, so we begin with a simple Italian classic that’s not simple at all.

Risi e Pisi e Pancetta
Risotto with peas and bacon
Serves 4
Risotto is not a make ahead dish, it needs to be served immediately! Make sure whom ever your cooking for is seated at the table with fork in hand, or better yet, obsess by yourself first, impress later. Also, use an Italian risotto, and by that I mean rice grown in Italy. Many of the Arborio packages with Italian sounding names contain grains from other countries, they might not be bad, but rice from Italy, in my opinion, works best for risotto because it keeps it’s ‘grain integrity’ longer, it's creamier, and tastes better. I especially like Carnaroli rice.  Risi e Pisi is a classic Italian risotto.

Fig.4. Hot and ready, like me.

6 cups chicken stock
Olive oil
1 medium onion. diced
½ cup pancetta, diced in small cubes (if you don’t have pancetta, use bacon)
1 ½ cups Italian Rice (such as Carnaroli or  Vialone Nano)
½ cup white wine
1 cup of peas
3 Tblsp butter
Grated Pamigiano Reggiano
Freshly ground black pepper.

Place the chicken stock in a pot and bring to a simmer.
Add your olive oil to a pan set over medium heat.  Once the oil gets hot, add the onion and pancetta and cook until onion is translucent, about 8 minutes.  Add the rice to the pan and stir with a rubber spatula for about 3 minutes. (What you’re doing here is toasting the rice, this really adds depth to the flavor.)  Add the wine to the rice and cook until it’s reduced completely. (the rice drinks up the wine, it drinks it all up!) This is where you start adding the chicken stock.  Add 2 or 3 ladles of stock to the rice, stir the rice until most of the stock is absorbed, repeat this step and continue until the risotto is al dente, don't stop stirring, stirring is essential for a creamy risotto. Don’t let the rice get too mushy, but it shouldn’t be hard either. (if the peas are frozen, add them when adding your stock for the second time, if the peas are fresh or canned, add them at the end.)  When the rice is ready, remove it from the heat, add the butter and grated Parmigiano, and cover for 2 minutes. (This lets the rice come together) Serve immediately.

A Note About North and South.
Northern Italians prefer their risotto creamier, resembling a porridge or thick soup; Italians in the South, on the other hand, prefer it slightly drier. (like you see in the above recipe.)  If you want your risotto to be very creamy, add a bit more broth right at the end, stir well and serve immediately, skip the butter and don’t cover the risotto.


Liliana said...

I love risotto although I have had challenges (and still do) when making it. Next time I will use a rubber spatula instead of a wooden spoon to see it there is any difference.

The recipe sounds delicious! Now I am obsessed about making it.

Tosh said...

Where to buy Carnaroli please. Do you have to shop Italian stores or can you find it in IGA, Super-C, etc. Grazie