Well, since I’ve been asked, here’s my best go at explaining what needs to be done.
Some people say it’s all about the rice. You’re going to need hard, starchy, short grain, that’s tough enough to endure half an hour on the hob. Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, or Arborio are the varieties to look for, these days most supermarkets will helpfully label the packet as “risotto rice”. There are tribes of Risotto Fascists who will argue until they’re blue in the face about which of these is best. (One thing you do need to watch out for are packets of “instant” risotto: just don’t.)
It’s not just about the rice. The other essential here is the stock. That tub of Marigold bouillon powder will get you out of all sorts of tight corners, and failing all else, can be used for risotto as well, but, this is a dish that will really show off a good, homemade stock. (Don’t bother with stock cubes.)
So, assuming four generous servings
- 300g rice
- 1.5L stock
- 1 large onion
- 200mL wine (if you’re not prepared to drink it, don’t cook with it)
- butter, olive oil
- grana (preferably Parmesan)
- stuff (chicken, prawns, sausages, herbs, vegetables, …)
So, let’s get going. Start by putting the stock in a saucepan, and bringing it to the boil. Then reduce it to the barest simmer. You may run out of stock, so make sure you’ve also filled and boiled the kettle.
You’ll need a sauté pan, one with a heavy base that will heat evenly, vertical sides so the rice won’t escape, and a tight fitting lid. Peel and dice the onion, and fry in about a tablespoon of olive oil and 20g of butter. Once the onion is translucent, add the rice, and stir thoroughly, until all the grains are coated with the fat. You can always add another knob of butter if there’s not enough.
Turn up the heat a bit and fry the rice, stirring constantly. As the rice starts to toast, you’ll see a slight build up of patina on the bottom of the pan; if this starts to get brown then reduce the heat. After a couple of minutes, the rice will start “singing”, as the tiny amount of residual moisture turns to steam. This is a similar principle to what happens when you make a roux: you’re cooking the grain in fat to help tease out the starch. (You can impress people by referring to this phase as the tostatura.)
Tip in the wine. There will be steam, hissing, and bubbling. You need to keep stirring, making sure you scrape off the patina from the bottom of the pan, incorporating it into the dish.
Once the wine has been absorbed, add a couple of ladles of hot stock, and keep stirring. Now, this business about stirring. You’ll be using a wooden spoon, preferably one of those with a spatula type edge, and you just need to gently move it through the rice, along the bottom of the pan, to keep the heat circulating, and making sure nothing spends too long on the bottom or it will burn.
Now, just for a moment, stop stirring. Does the risotto immediately start bubbling furiously? You need to turn the heat down. Does the risotto just sit there and do nothing? You need to turn the heat up. Does the risotto start to bubble after about thirty seconds? Bingo, the heat is right. Now start stirring again: you don’t want it to burn. Don’t panic if you need to leave it alone for a minute to answer the door, or just pour yourself a glass of something medicinal. Just make sure that if it’s more than a minute that you take it off the heat, and give it a thorough stir when you get back. The world won’t end. But the point of lots of stirring is to get a nice creamy consistency in the liquid.
Much twaddle has been written about the next twenty minutes. In a nutshell, all you need do is add a ladle of stock, keep stirring until it’s been absorbed, and repeat. After about twenty minutes, fish out a few grains of rice on a fork and have a taste. If the rice is still quite crunchy, you’ll need to keep adding liquid and stirring until it’s done; probably another five minutes. If you’ve run out of stock, add some hot water from that kettle I instructed you to boil earlier on. At the end of all this, what you’re aiming for is cooked rice, which will have tripled in volume, sitting in some creamy gloopy liquid.
And now for the mantecatura – another word that you can use to impress people. This is where you turn off the heat, stir in the grana and any other delicate ingredients, put the lid on, and leave it alone for five minutes. Risotto Fascists will argue endlessly about whether or not you should also add some more butter at this stage. If you do, about 25g, chopped into small cubes, should be enough.
- The best risotto is the one that you make using the meat and stock from a leftover roast chicken – add the meat about halfway through the stir’n'add phase
- Mushrooms are good – I use the chestnut ones – you can also make the “stock” by soaking dried porcini in hot water
- Obvious example of the butternut squash in the previous post
- Two chicken breasts that you’ve fried earlier and chopped up, maybe with a handful of wild rocket at the same time as you add the cheese
- Some previously cooked and chopped up sausages and a few veg for something very substantial