Risotto is a creamy rice dish that originated in the rice-growing regions of Northern Italy.
While most of us associate Italy with wine and olive oil, Italy has been growing rice since the 14th century. No doubt brought on ships from the East by Venetian and Genoese merchants, Italian rice cultivation can be documented back to 1475. Italians now grow rice in the Lombardy, Piedmonte, and Veneto regions.
While most food historians believe risotto is a peasant dish turned sophisticated, the Italians are not the least bit hush-hush about the secrets to making good risotto. The first secret is, of course, the rice. Now, you can’t use that box of Uncle Ben’s sitting in your pantry. A creamy risotto requires Italian rice—it is short with a barrel shape, much different than long-grain rice.
Italian rice has two characteristics—a very soft starch on the outside that melts away from the kernel, creating a creamy texture, and a very hard inner starch that stays firm, leaving the finished product “al dente”, or firm to the bite. There are four varieties of rice that will make a good risotto: comune, semifino, fino, and superfino. The type most commonly used risotto in the United States is Arborio, a superfino variety.
The second secret is the technique. Risotto is made by braising rice, which allows it to absorb the flavors of the cooking liquid, usually broth or wine. The rice used in this preparation imparts its starches into the cooking liquid—the results, a rich consistency that resembles a heavy cream sauce.
The process begins by toasting the rice in a “soffrito”, a combination of chopped vegetables like onion, garlic, and carrots, before adding the broth in slowly, usually one cup at a time. While not particularly difficult to prepare, a good risotto requires patience and your undivided attention for 20 to 25 minutes, while you stir it in a rhythmic manner.
What makes risotto distinctive is the combination of local ingredients that give it character. In the Piedmonte region, Italians add truffles and red Barolo wine. In Venice, seafood is a mainstay. Risotto is versatile. You can add any ingredients, and the cooking technique will blend and smooth out the flavors into a deliciously creamy dish.
Following is one of my favorite preparations using seasonal ingredients that are at their best in the spring—asparagus and peas. You can also add chicken. If you decide to include chicken in this recipe, make it before you start the risotto and add it at the same time as you add the wine, asparagus, and peas. For a vegetarian option, use vegetable broth rather than chicken broth.
Risotto with Asparagus and Garden Peas Makes 4 Entrée Servings
Serve with a green salad and a loaf of bread.
For the risotto:
1 can (14 ½-ounces) vegetable or chicken broth 1 cup water 4 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon minced garlic 1 medium yellow onion, chopped 1 leek (white parts only), thinly sliced 2 cups Arborio ice 1 can (14 ½-ounces) vegetable or chicken broth ½ cup chardonnay 1 cup thin asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces 1 cup freshly shelled small peas or petite frozen peas 3 tablespoons fresh chives, thinly sliced ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese 4 tablespoons butter Salt to taste Large grind black pepper to taste Shaved Parmesan cheese for garnish
In a large saucepan, bring 1 can broth plus 1 cup water to a simmer over a medium heat. Add 4 tablespoons butter, garlic, onion, and leek and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft, about 5 minutes. Add Arborio rice and stir until the grains are coated with butter. As liquid cooks down, add the second can of broth, ½ cup at a time, and cook, stirring continually, until Arborio rice absorbs all the liquid, about 20 to 25 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary so that the mixture maintains a gentle boil. Add wine, asparagus, peas, chives, Parmesan cheese, and 4 tablespoons of butter. Mix and cook only long enough to heat through, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with additional shaved Parmesan cheese if desired. Serve immediately.
For the chicken (optional):
2 tablespoons brown sugar 2 tablespoons salt 1 teaspoon large grind black pepper 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
In a small bowl, mix brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Coat chicken breasts evenly with the brown sugar mixture. Place chicken breasts in a medium-sized bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or as long as 6 hours. Grill chicken breasts over medium heat, turning once, until meat is opaque throughout and juices run clear, about 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from the grill and slice thinly. Set aside.
If including chicken, add it when you add the wine, asparagus, peas, chives, Parmesan cheese, and 4 tablespoons of butter.
Shopping for asparagus: The skin of asparagus is a medium green color with purple highlights. The cut ends are white or light colored. Take note of the ends. Spears with large, white-woody stalks and only a few inches of green at the tips were harvested late and will be tough. Moist cut ends indicate the spears have been recently harvested. Pass up asparagus if the ends look split or dry. The white, woody bottoms of asparagus should be less than 15 percent of the total length of the spear. Look for firm, plump, round spears. The tips of asparagus should be tight and compact. Do not buy asparagus that has wet, slimy, or smelly tips. Shop with your ears when buying asparagus. If you give the bunch a squeeze and it squeaks, it is fresh. Also its spears should snap easily when bent.
Storing: Asparagus will keep 2 to 3 days if refrigerated. When shopping in your supermarket, you may find asparagus standing upright with its cut ends in ice or water. This procedure prolongs its shelf life. You can do this at home as well, but it’s important to change the ice or water several times a day. To pamper asparagus for a special dinner party, cut an inch off the bottoms, wrap the ends with wet paper towels, place the spears in a plastic bag, and store them in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator.
Preparing: If a bundle of asparagus includes both thick and thin spears, separate them by size. Fat spears are best eaten whole. Cut thin spears on the diagonal for a sauté or stir-fry. Use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to remove the tough outer flesh on the lower part of fat spears. Peeling makes for faster cooking and a smoother, more elegant taste.
Shopping for garden or English peas: Select garden or English peas with bright green, velvety pods. Discernible pearl-shaped peas should barely fill the pod. Avoid overgrown peas that are flattened against each other like teeth. Do not buy immature peas that are flat, dark green, or wilted. Avoid overgrown peas that are swollen and freckled with gray spots. A yellow color indicates age or damage.
Storing garden or English peas: Peas are best eaten immediately after they are picked. When stored in plastic bags and refrigerated, garden peas will last 3 to 4 days.
Preparing garden or English peas: To shuck garden or English peas, pinch off the stem and pull the string down the side of the pod. Using your thumb, push the peas out. Discard pods.
Carol Ann Kates is the award-winning author of cookbook, Secret Recipes from the Corner Market and Grocery Shopping Secrets. She’s an expert in how to shop, select, and store produce for maximizing home cooking outcomes and minimizing time and money spent. As a former supermarket and deli operator, Carol Ann shares grocery-insider wisdom—the same expertise you used to receive when patronizing a mom-and-pop establishment. Contact her at CarolAnn@CarolAnnKates.com and explore her website, www.CarolAnnKates.com.
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