Taking The Risk Out Of Risotto

A bowl of 'Pumpkin Pie Risotto' topped with candied pecans and whipped cream i i

hide captionGreat risotto is all about technique. Once you master it, you'll be free to experiment with countless seasonal flavors — like pumpkin pie (above).

Susan Russo for NPR
A bowl of 'Pumpkin Pie Risotto' topped with candied pecans and whipped cream

Great risotto is all about technique. Once you master it, you'll be free to experiment with countless seasonal flavors — like pumpkin pie (above).

Susan Russo for NPR

About The Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

One night many years ago, when we were newly married, my husband said he felt like having risotto for dinner. "That sounds great. Where would you like to go?" I asked him.

"No, homemade risotto," he replied.

I panicked. Homemade risotto? I had cooked plenty of homemade Italian-American dishes for him, such as lasagna and eggplant parmigiano, but never risotto. Risotto is risky. It requires constant, slow stirring, attention to detail and patience. No shortcuts are allowed. It was too much pressure to handle alone.

"OK," I said. "As long as you do the stirring."

It was an early lesson in marriage and risotto: shared responsibilities.

Risotto is an Italian rice dish that uses a specific type of rice and cooking technique. Rice is first toasted, then cooked in hot liquid that is slowly added until it is fully absorbed, creating a lusciously creamy risotto.

In the 14th century, a plump, round rice that would become the main ingredient for risotto was cultivated in the Po Valley in northern Italy, where the climate and soil were ideal. In fact, arborio rice, traditionally used for risotto, is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley.

While risotto refers to a method of cooking rice that has evolved over centuries, food historians often cite risotto alla Milanese as the prototype for what we call risotto today. This risotto, cooked with saffron, first appeared in the early 19th century.

A perfect risotto starts with the perfect rice, and there are three main varieties from which to choose: arborio, vialone nano and carnaroli. All three are high in amylopectin, a starch that dissolves in the cooking process, giving risotto its characteristic creaminess and slightly clingy texture.

Arborio, the best-known rice for risotto in the U.S., has a slightly larger grain that allows it to easily absorb liquid, resulting in a creamy texture. It is widely available at U.S. specialty markets and online. Look for rice labeled "superfino," which indicates a higher starch content and, ultimately, superior risotto.

Vialone nano has a plump grain that makes it firmer than arborio after being cooked. Though popular in the Veneto region of Italy, it is not as prevalent in U.S. markets, but is available online.

Carnaroli is prized for its delicate flavor and satisfyingly firm, yet creamy texture when cooked. Like vialone nano, it is not as common in U.S. markets as arborio, but is available online, often at a higher price than arborio.

Risotto cannot be made from long-grain rice or minute rice; neither will produce the appropriate texture or flavor.

To make basic risotto, you'll need a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed pan and a wooden spoon. In a separate saucepan, start by heating plenty of stock — generally 3 1/2 cups of stock to 1 cup of rice. I always heat a little extra in case I run out of liquid. Hot stock is essential, as cold stock will result in hard, undercooked grains. Homemade stock is preferable, but not always practical. Store-bought low-sodium vegetable stock works well for most risottos. Otherwise, match the type of stock to the risotto you're making, such as beef stock for hearty meat risotto.

Most risottos start with sauteed onions for flavor. Heat butter and/or olive oil and cook the onions until tender and translucent, but not brown, about 3 minutes.

Next, toast the rice for one to two minutes in the fat-and-onion mixture, until it is slightly translucent. Coating the rice with fat prevents it from absorbing the liquid too quickly and creates a more tender risotto.

Once the rice is toasted, add wine, which will be quickly absorbed by the rice, infusing it with the wine's essence.

Now it's time to stir. It's debatable whether continuous stirring is necessary. Some risotto purists insist on it. If, however, you don't like stirring constantly, rest assured that occasional stirring still results in wonderfully creamy risotto.

The key is to gently simmer the rice while stirring and to gradually add hot stock to the rice, making sure the liquid is completely absorbed before adding more. This allows the rice to slowly absorb the liquid and to slowly release its starch, which creates a creamy, not gummy texture. Risotto generally takes 18 minutes to cook, but may vary slightly depending on your stove and pan. When stirring, be sure to incorporate all of the risotto, even along the edges of the pan, to prevent it from sticking.

The only reliable way to know when risotto is finished is to taste it. Cooked risotto should be al dente — that is, fully cooked, yet still somewhat firm to the bite. If you prefer a softer, soupier risotto, simply add an extra one-half to one cup of liquid.

The final step, called mantecare — "to stir together" in Italian — finishes the risotto. The cooked risotto is removed from the heat, and a knob of butter and some freshly grated Parmesan cheese are quickly stirred in. This adds silkiness and flavor, and helps bind the ingredients together. (For seafood risotto, though, skip the cheese.) Serve risotto immediately, preferably on warm plates.

Great risotto is all about technique. Once you master it, you'll be free to experiment with countless seasonal flavors. Enjoy spring and summer risottos featuring tender vegetables such as asparagus, English peas and zucchini, and fresh-flavored herbs such as mint and basil. Robust autumn and winter risottos made with ingredients such as sweet acorn squash, earthy Swiss chard, savory meats, and full-bodied herbs such as sage and rosemary are especially appealing. Of course, risottos with just butter and freshly grated Parmesan cheese or a basic marinara sauce are as simple as they are satisfying.

But don't stop there — risotto makes a luscious dessert, too. Made with hot milk, sugar and your choice of spices, dessert risotto can range from humble to sophisticated. Swirl in some dark chocolate and sprinkle with toasted almonds for a simple indulgence. Or for a touch of elegance, try risotto pudding topped with wine-poached fruit such as fresh figs, apples or pears.

I've learned some valuable lessons about risotto:

• Don't experiment with making risotto when you've invited your new boss or girlfriend over for dinner. Practice really does make perfect, and there are some people you don't want to practice on.

• Don't try to make risotto for 14 people. It's just too hard to manage, and the consistency usually suffers. Risotto for two to four is better.

• Don't leave the responsibility for stirring to your husband when a football game is on. One reviewed play can quickly lead to an entire pan of scorched risotto.

• If you're running late for a dinner party, don't try to speed up the cooking process by raising the heat on the risotto. You'll end up with rice that is raw on the inside and sticky on the outside. (Crunching should never be heard when your guests are eating risotto.)

• Serve risotto immediately. Sitting for even 10 minutes on the counter will adversely affect the texture, making it clumpy and gooey. If it sits even longer, then you might just be able to use it to glue that piece of loose wallpaper that's been hanging in your bathroom.

Now when my husband says he feels like having risotto for dinner, I don't panic. I hope you won't, either.

Autumn Risotto With Apples, Pancetta And Sage

Autumn Risotto With Apples, Pancetta And Sage i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Autumn Risotto With Apples, Pancetta And Sage
Susan Russo for NPR

Apples, one of autumn's most beloved fruits, star in this hearty risotto. Sweet, crisp apples are complemented by salty pancetta, savory sage and earthy toasted walnuts for a satisfyingly textured and flavorful risotto.

Makes 4 servings

Risotto

3 1/2 cups regular or low-sodium vegetable broth

2 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large shallot, finely diced

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

Apples And Pancetta

1 teaspoon butter

1/4 pound pancetta, diced

1 large crisp apple, such as gala or fuji, thinly sliced

Lemon juice for sprinkling apple slices

1/4 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

1/4 cup gorgonzola cheese, crumbled

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh sage

1 tablespoon butter

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan over medium heat, add broth and bring to a simmer.

For the risotto, heat butter and olive oil in a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add diced shallots and saute 3 minutes, or until tender and translucent. Add the rice and toast for 1 to 2 minutes, or until slightly translucent. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated.

Cook the risotto at a slow simmer, adding heated broth a half-cup at a time. Stir occasionally, making sure the risotto absorbs the liquid before adding more. Use more or less broth as needed.

Continue cooking in this manner for 18 to 20 minutes. Taste the risotto — it should be creamy and thick. It's best al dente, which means it should be fully cooked, yet still retain some firmness when you chew it.

After about 8 minutes of cooking the risotto, place a large skillet over medium heat and melt 1 teaspoon of butter. Add diced pancetta and cook until crisp, about 2 minutes. Add apple slices (that have been sprinkled with lemon juice) and saute 3 to 4 minutes, or until golden and tender. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add to the risotto and stir until well-combined.

When the risotto is nearly finished, stir in the toasted walnuts, crumbled cheese and fresh sage. Turn off heat, stir in 1 tablespoon of butter, and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve risotto on warm plates and garnish with additional walnuts, cheese and sage, if desired. Serve immediately.

Risotto With Broccoli Rabe And Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Risotto With Broccoli Rabe And Sun-Dried Tomatoes i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Risotto With Broccoli Rabe And Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Susan Russo for NPR

Broccoli rabe, also known as broccoli raab, rapini and rape, is a popular Italian vegetable. Though mistaken for slender broccoli, it is actually a relative of the turnip, as its deliciously sharp, slightly bitter flavor indicates. In this risotto, bold broccoli rabe is tempered by salty sun-dried tomatoes and buttery toasted pine nuts and bread crumbs.

Makes 4 servings

Risotto

3 1/2 cups regular or low-sodium vegetable broth

2 teaspoons butter

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large shallot, finely diced

1 cup arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

Broccoli Rabe

1 bunch broccoli rabe, stems removed and chopped

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, minced

1/4 cup sliced sun-dried tomatoes in oil

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Several shakes of salt

Bread Crumbs

1 teaspoon butter plus 1 tablespoon

1/4 cup plain dried bread crumbs

1/8 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling

In a large saucepan over medium heat, bring broth to a simmer.

For the risotto, heat butter and olive oil in a wide, shallow, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add diced shallots and saute 3 minutes, or until tender and translucent. Add the rice and toast for 1 to 2 minutes, or until slightly translucent. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated.

Cook the risotto at a slow simmer, adding heated broth a half-cup at a time. Stir occasionally, making sure the risotto absorbs the liquid before adding more. Use slightly more or less as needed.

Continue cooking in this manner for 18 to 20 minutes. Taste the risotto — it should be creamy and thick. It's best al dente, which means it should be fully cooked, yet still retain some firmness when you chew it.

Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. After about 8 minutes of cooking the risotto, add the broccoli rabe to the water and boil for 2 minutes, which helps remove some bitterness. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the garlic in 1 tablespoon olive oil for 30 seconds, then add the blanched broccoli rabe to the pan. Add the sliced sun-dried tomatoes, lemon juice, crushed red pepper and several shakes of salt, which will enhance the flavor of the broccoli rabe. Saute for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the broccoli rabe is tender but not mushy, then remove from heat. Add to the risotto and stir until well combined.

In a small skillet over medium heat, add 1 teaspoon butter. Once melted, add the bread crumbs and pine nuts, and toast for 2 to 3 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from heat.

When the risotto is cooked, turn off heat and stir in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Serve risotto on warm plates and sprinkle with 1/4 of the toasted bread crumb mixture and, if desired, some additional grated cheese and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve immediately.

Pumpkin Pie Risotto With Candied Pecans

Pumpkin Pie Risotto With Candied Pecans i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Pumpkin Pie Risotto With Candied Pecans
Susan Russo for NPR

As crisp, cool autumn nights roll in, stay warm with rich, aromatic pumpkin pie risotto. While this pudding gently bubbles away on the stovetop, your home will be filled with the scents of cinnamon, brown sugar and sweet vanilla. Crackly candied pecans add both sweetness and texture, while a dollop of freshly whipped cream provides the perfect adornment.

Makes 4 servings

Risotto

1/2 cup arborio rice

2 cups water

2 cups whole milk

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 heaping teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

3/4 cup canned pure pumpkin

1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

Candied Pecans

1/4 cup pecan halves

1/8 cup granulated sugar

Whipped cream

1/2 cup cold heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

In a medium, shallow, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, add rice, water, milk and sugar and stir well. Once the mixture begins to heat up and rapidly bubble, lower the heat to a simmer and stir in the pumpkin pie spice. Do not bring to a full boil.

Let the rice bubble gently for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn't stick to the pan. When done, the rice will be plump and the pudding thick and creamy. Give it a taste — the rice should be fully cooked, yet maintain a slight firmness. Stir in the pumpkin and vanilla extract and heat through for about 1 minute. Remove from heat.

Before you make the candied pecans, lay a piece of foil coated with cooking spray on the countertop. Also, coat your utensil with cooking spray so the sugar won't stick to it.

In a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat, add the pecan halves and sprinkle sugar evenly over them. As the sugar begins to melt, quickly stir the nuts until evenly coated and lightly toasted, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from heat and slide them onto the foil, including any sugar drippings. (Avoid browning the nuts, as the sugar will taste burnt.) Let cool and harden, then chop into small pieces and set aside. Nuts can be made ahead and stored in an air-tight container.

Before you begin to make the whipped cream, consider these tips: Start with a deep stainless steel bowl that has been chilled in the freezer for about 20 minutes. Chill the beaters of the electric mixer as well. Both will help to create more volume in the cream. Once ready, beat whipping cream on medium-high speed until soft peaks form. Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the whipped cream and beat until peaks re-form.

Whipped cream can be covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated for 1 to 2 hours.

Allow pudding to cool slightly before placing in individual serving dishes, as the whipped cream will melt on hot pudding. When ready to serve, top with a dollop of whipped cream and a sprinkling of candied pecans. If preferred, pudding can be eaten at room temperature or even chilled.

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