Monday, March 21, 2011

Risotto: From Italy With Love (Via India and Spain); How To Succeed in Creating a Classic Entrée Without Really Trying

Risotto is popular common entrée served in Italy and a favorite around the world. I wondered how a rice dish achieved this status in a land noted for pasta and discovered that risotto has an interesting history. In the 14th century, the Arabs brought rice to Sicily and Spain most probably by way of India.  That same century, rice made its way into the Po Valley and it's flat lands, plentiful water and humidity made perfect growing conditions. In the centuries that followed rice became a staple in that part of Italy.

A young stained glass artisan is credited as the creator of risotto. In 1574, Valerius was put in charge of making a window for the Cathedral Duomo Di Milano. In what seems to be a case of 16th century bullying, the Milan townspeople made fun of him, implyng that the herb saffron was to be credited for the beautiful colors in his artwork. Valerius became angry and decided to retaliate by adding an excessive amount of saffron to the rice being served at his master's wedding hoping to ruin the event. Instead, everyone loved the rice, and risotto became an instant culinary favorite in Italy! 

There are several varieties of rice used in the preparation of risotto but here in the United States arborio is the most common. Others include carnaroli, vialone nano, baldo, and Calriso. They all have several things in common: plump, medium to short grains and a high proportion of amylopectin, a type of sticky starch which produces the creamy texture of risotto. 

The recipe I used tonight is a plain risotto made with Parmesan cheese, leeks and white wine, a very easy and inexpensive meal to prepare. As simple as it is to make, risotto is rich and satisfying: fresh bread, a salad and a glass of Italian wine is all you'll need for an enjoyable evening meal.

Parmesan Risotto
Serves 4

6 cups of chicken stock
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup minced shallots
1 cup arborio rice (or any others mentioned if available)
1/2 cup white wine
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (also shave some extra for garnish)
1/4 cup fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

  • Heat stock in saucepan and keep at low temperature.
  • In large saucepan, heat olive oil and add chopped shallots cooking until translucent.
  • Add rice and cook until you hear a clicking sound about 3-4 minutes.
  • Add wine to the mixture, stirring slowly until wine is absorbed.
  • Ladle small amounts of heated stock into the rice constantly stirring until stock is absorbed. Keep adding stock in small amounts until rice is translucent. Rice should be al dente but not crunchy.
  • Remove from heat. Add butter, cheese and parsley.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Rice should be served as a mount with shaved Parmesan cheese topping the dish.
Note: according to Martha Stewart Living where I saw this recipe the proper way to eat risotto is to flatten the outer edges of the mound to cool it slightly. Slowly eat you way into the middle so that the rice will always be at the right temperature.

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