Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Risotto: Origins, Variations & Rice

"Rice is born in water and dies in wine."
--Italian proverb

Risotto (which means "little rice") is basically an Italian rice dish that has been cooked in a stock until it possesses a creamy consistency. It is a versatile dish, and can be prepared with many different, additional ingredients, from uni to mushrooms, peaches to tomatoes. Preparing risotto can take 25 minutes or more, and usually is said to require constant attention, continually stirring of the rice and stock. Because of that lengthy time, restaurants often partially premake their risotto as they usually wouldn't have the time to make risotto to order.

When done well, risotto can be absolutely delicious, with rich flavors and a delightful creaminess. I have savored some fine risottos at places like Prezza, Posto, A Tavola and Bistro 5. I have a special memory of an impressive Uni Risotto at Le Bernardin in New York City. Risotto is a dish I rarely have at home but which I should, and maybe that will change after the Risotto cooking class I will attend tomorrow night at Lucia Ristorante in Winchester.

White rice with melted butter and white sugar is not of this world.”

Rice has been known in Italy since the days of ancient Rome however they primarily used rice medicinally, and rarely as a food source. During the Middle Ages, probably around the 14th century, Italians began considering it more as a food and also started growing it, especially in the Lombardy region. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation in Italy dates to 1475 though it is assumed that cultivation actually began before that date. In Lombardy, the Po Valley was considered a perfect place for rice agriculture and rice soon became a staple in this region.

It is also important to note that after the Spanish took possession of the the Duchy of Milan, in the 16th century, they introduced the spice saffron to the region. Saffron is a pricey spice, and it too was once used far more for medicinal purposes rather than as a food ingredient. The Romans valued saffron, cultivating it in Gaul, but after the empire's fall, cultivation seemed to nearly vanish for a time until the Moors seemed to resurrect it. It is likely from the Moors than Spain became enamored with saffron and eventually brought it back to Italy.

"Don’t trust a hungry man to watch your rice."
--Tibetan Proverb

Common belief is that risotto originated in Lombardy sometime during the 16th century. Allegedly, some of the first rice dishes were prepared in a savory or sweet liquid, creating a soft, porridge-like dish and risotto eventually evolved from this dish. Maybe the most famous risotto, Risotto alla Milanese, which is made with saffron, has an "official" date of invention, September 8, 1574. In 2007, the City of Milan recognized several products, such as cassoeula, michetta, ossobuco, and panettone, as specifically Milanese, granting them a Recognition of Communal Denomination (De.Co.). Risotto received this designation as well and they selected September 8, 1574 as the date of birth of this dish.

This date of birth is derived from a legend about the origin of saffron risotto, and like most legends, has several different versions. In the main versions, while the famous Cathedral Duomo Di Milano was being constructed, a Master Glazer, Valerio di Fiandra was in charge of creating the stained glass windows. Saffron was using in preparing some of the colors for the stained glass. Most of the legends claim that one of his apprentices, either as a joke or an act of revenge for a perceived slight, added saffron to one of the rice dishes at a wedding feast, possibly the wedding of Valerio's daughter. The perpetrator of this act never thought that the guests would enjoy the saffron rice dish but they loved it, and Risotto alla Milanese was born. It is also part of the folklore that saffron is an aphrodisiac.

"Rice is the best, the most nutritive and unquestionably the most widespread staple in the world."

Risotto alla Milanese may be one of the most well known of risotto dishes, but there are many variations in Italy. In Lombardy, you will also find risottos made with snails or pork cutlets. In Venice, they make Risotto al Nero di Sepia, a black risotto prepared with cuttlefish ink. You will also find risotto dishes in the Veneto made with pumpkin, shellfish, asparagus, smoked salmon, radicchio and even frog legs. In the Piedmont, you will find risotto prepared with Barolo wine, and maybe mushrooms, sausage or Borlotti beans. The Piedmontese city of Vercelli is well known for making risotto with frog, and they have even been celebrating a annual frog festival in September since the Middle Ages.

It is a dish that seems to lend itself to creativity, a simple base dish which can be enhanced by any number of ingredients. It can be used as a showcase of seasonal ingredients, and is appropriate year round. One of the most creative risottos I have tasted was made by Chef Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 who prepared a Peach Risotto with fresh peaches, Gorgonzola, Prosciutto di Parma & mint oil. I wasn't sure how the peaches would be in the risotto but it all worked so well. A nice blend of sweet, salt and tang.

Without rice, even the cleverest housewife cannot cook.
--Chinese proverb

Rice is the most basic component to risotto but not just any rice lead to a compelling dish. In general, you should use a short or medium grain rice with a high starch content. You probably could make a risotto from any type of rice, but the results might not be what you desire as each type of rice has its own different properties and not all rice varieties lend themselves to the chemistry of risotto. Besides the rice types, there are also designations for rice, indicative of their size and shape, such as Superfino, Semifino and Fino. Superfino is the largest grain and generally preferred for risotto. Three rice varieties are primarily used in risotto, including Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, though you may also hear of varieties such as Baldo, Maratelli, Padano, and Roma.

Arborio rice is the least expensive of the 3 main types though it is not as starchy and doesn't absorb liquids as well as the other two types. It is also easier to overcook so care needs to be taken. Vialone Nano, popular in the Veneto, has more starch and produces a creamier risotto than Arborio. However, the purported king of rice is Carnaroli as it possess lots of starch, absorbs liquids well and the inner starch is firm, allowing the rice kernel to possess a firm texture even after it is cooked, a nice al dente. It is more expensive so the added quality comes with a price.

"Rice is a beautiful food. It is beautiful when it grows, precision rows of sparkling green stalks shooting up to reach the hot summer sun. It is beautiful when harvested, autumn gold sheaves piled on diked, patchwork paddies. It is beautiful when, once threshed, it enters granary bins like a (flood) of tiny seed-pearls. It is beautiful when cooked by a practiced hand, pure white and sweetly fragrant."
--Shizuo Tsuji

What are your thoughts on risotto? What are your favorite restaurants for risotto? What is your favorite risotto recipe? 

1 comment:

Jane Ward said...

I never order risotto out because I make it at home so much. Three favorite recipes: Marcella Hazan's Baked Eggplant Risotto, a Pear and Gorgonzola risotto recommended to me by the chefs at Academia Barilla, and a pea puree risotto I threw together when I had peas but not enough to serve to everyone as a side dish. Makes great leftover "arancini."