December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Rice Away!

By |2018-03-21T18:20:18+01:00December 1st, 2005|Food & Wine Archive|
Pick the right rice for the best risotto.

henever I get caught outside amid the cold wind and rain, one of the images I conjure up to help me shrug off the chilled-to-the-bone feeling is a steaming plate of risotto with porcini mushrooms. I feel warmer now, just typing the words.

Unlike its equally starchy cousin pasta, there is no real way to make a “light” risotto, which is why this delicious meal is common only during the winter months. But risotto’s creamy richness, hearty texture, and the variety of flavors it can impart make it perfect for the months when the thermometer seems to fall lower each night.

Compared to most dishes, risotto takes longer to prepare, and so it risks throwing off the rhythm of a restaurant meal — unless everyone at the table decides to order the same thing (not a bad idea…).

But I think it’s a dish better prepared at home, where the heady perfume drifting from the kitchen will do nothing but arouse your appetite. It’s also a great meal to prepare socially. Even though it requires regular attention, it doesn’t necessitate any mid-course judgment calls and so it’s a perfect meal to prepare while chatting with friends and sipping wine.

Sound like a good way to pass a chilly evening? The easiest way to make a bad risotto is to start with the wrong rice: It must be special high-quality rice grown only in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Veneto, which thankfully produce enough to supply the world. It should be a stubby grain and the color is at once slightly off white, and, on further inspection, translucent. Types to look for include Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli (my favorite), Sant’Andrea, and Vialone Nano, though most markets in Italy carry rice simply labeled “per risotto” or something similar, which is good enough.

What comes next depends on what flavor risotto you want. Any vegetable that requires boiling — like the dry porcini mushrooms I mentioned — can be used along with its broth. Or drain the fat off of any kind of cooked meat you might like and use it to replace some of the butter. If none of those is the case (or if you don’t have enough liquid) make or get your hands on some chicken, beef, or vegetable broth. You’ll need about three times as much liquid as rice by volume.

The first time I ever made risotto at home, the way of cooking the rice seemed counterintuitive: How could something that ends up so rich, soft, and creamy start out with raw rice in a hot pan, without water? But that’s just how to do it: melt butter and sauté some chopped onions, garlic, and maybe some celery, and when it is cooked add a healthy splash of wine along with the rice, and stir until the grains are covered with a dull gleam from the butter.

The meal is made by adding the liquid — the porcini juice, broth, whatver you choose — a cup or so at a time, and only after the rice has absorbed the last bit you poured. Err on the side of adding too little rather than too much, and be sure to keep stirring the whole time. Eventually the rice will release its starch and you will begin to see the creamy texture form.

Near the end, add whatever you have left — mushrooms, spinach, sausage, chicken, along with a final ladle of liquid if you have it. Stop cooking when the rice is firm but no longer crunches when you taste it, stir in some butter and some grated pecorino or parmesan, and salt and pepper if needed. If the final product flows rather than clumps, you’ve got a dinner fit for a cold night.

What do you drink with your risotto?

It depends a lot on what flavors you add, but my preference is usually one of Italy’s easy-to-find, mid-priced, and food friendly reds: Chianti, Barbera, Dolcetto, or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. But almost any but the lightest reds will do. Even a hearty white can be a good option — last winter I really enjoyed the delicious combination of a good bottle of oak-aged Trebbiano d’Abruzzo with a risotto made with saffron and leeks. A risotto with seafood is a good match for a crisp Sauvignon or a dry Pinot Grigio.

Final thoughts:

— Keep it simple. If you add more than two or three optional ingredients to the risotto, it becomes confusing. If you have a lot of tempting ingredients available, make another risotto tomorrow.

— Some unusual and tasty risotto combinations I’ve tried over the years: gorgonzola and walnuts, peppery sausage with spinach, mild peppers and pine nuts, and saffron and salmon. If you come up with any intriguing combinations of your own, try them out!

About the Author:

Eric J. Lyman's monthly "Pane al Vino" essay appeared from 2004 through 2006.