Risotto is an Italian rice dish that is originally from the northern parts of the country, principally from the Lombardy and Piedmont regions. Risotto is prepared with a high-starch and low-amylose round medium or short grain white rice that is cooked with a broth (meat, fish or vegetable) and that produces a very creamy texture while remaining firm as it releases its starch. The main varieties of risotto rice that are used in Italy include Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, Arborio as well as Maratelli, Padano or Roma.
Carnaroli is actually the main variety of rice that can be used for most kinds of risotto. It features medium starchy grains, which help produce a rich creaminess.
Vialone Nano is a high quality of rice that is only grown in Veneto. Its grains are plump, round, and extra-white. They are coated with a thick layer of starch that help produce the richest risottos.
Arborio features slightly longer and more transparent grains. This variety of rice is not as good as Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, but it is still a great choice for risotto, especially recipes that are supposed to be more soupy.
I personally use arborio as it is the most commonly available risotto rice variety in the United States. However, remember that whatever variety you use, you should never rinse the rice.
Although risotto is often served as a main dish outside of Italy, it is considered a primo (first course) like most pasta courses, before the main dish is served.
There are various rules to follow when cooking a perfect and authentic Italian risotto.
The fat: it is used for the stir-fry at the beginning of the recipe in orde to coat the rice at low temperature, and when finishing it. Extra-virgin olive oil, butter or a combination of both can be used.
The soffritto is typically a combination of finely minced onion, carrot and celery that is used for a light stir-fry. For risotto, very finely minced white onion or shallots are traditionally used. For a fish risotto, you should favor shallots. For a vegetable risotto, go with a combination of onion and shallot. For meats or mushroom risotto, only use onions.
The stock: You would want to go with a fish stock for fish risottos, a meat stock for meat or mushroom risottos, and a vegetable stock for vegetable stocks. You can also use a vegetable stock for most risottos. The most important thing is for the stock to be very hot as you incorporate it into the risotto.
The wine: Most risotto recipes call for dry white wine, although a few including mushroom risotto, also call for dry red wine.
Mantecatura: This Italian word with no direct translation defines the process of adding the fat, off-heat, at the end of a recipe to produce an even creamier texture and taste. Although mantecatura applies mostly to risotto, the same technique is often used for pastas and thick soup recipes. Most traditional and authentic risottos are finished with butter as well as Parmesan cheese. However, fish risottos are typically finished with olive oil and butter, or just olive oil.
We all know that pasta should be served al dente (literally “to the tooth”). Risotto however, should be served all’onda which can be translated to “with waves”. What this really means is that it shouldn’t be too loose or too thick, but should feature a luscious creaminess from the starch and the fat (mantecatura).
The word “risotto” has two possible origins. Some sources claim that it came from an exclamation of Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor of the 12th century, who praised a risum optimum. Other sources claim that the word is derived from the term “risott” used by the Insubres, the Gaulish people settled in Insubria (now Lombardy). In 1790, the term is found for the first time in the book Il Padre di famiglia in casa e in campagna by Jacopo Antonio Albertazzi, a lawyer living in the Val d’Ossola, in northern Piedmont.
The risotto recipe was finally featured for the first time in 1829, in chef Giovanni Felice Luraschi’s cookbook Nuovo cuoco milanese economico with his “Risotto alla Milanese” that included all the standard steps of a traditional risotto.
But how did rice make it to Italy?
Rice was actually brought by the Moors and Saracens after they settled in Europe during the Middle Ages. Rice was initially introduced in Sicily around the 13th century, then to Naples and later to the Po Valley in northern Italy, where you can find the best conditions for growing short-grain rice, including flat lands and humidity. It soon became a high priced item.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who was visiting the Piedmont region in the northwest of Italy at the end of the 18th century, hid a few handfuls of rice grains in his pockets to take them back to the USA in order to develop the culture of rice on the other side of the Atlantic. Smuggling rice might seem anecdotal, but the act was punishable by death at that time .
Risotto was born in Milan. The city was actually under Spanish rule from 1559 to 1714, which explains the parallel evolution of risotto and paella. Slow-cooking principles that were prevalent in the region (such as in ossobucco) were combined with the locally grown rice and saffron. Risotto alla Milanese was born. This original recipe is typically made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard (or butter) and cheese. It is flavored and colored with saffron.
Although risotto alla Milanese is the most common and popular version of risotto recipe, there are other variants that are just as delicious.
Risotto al Barolo is a specialty from Piedmont. It is made with red wine, as well as sausage meat and Borlotti beans.
Risotto al nero di seppia is originally from the Veneto region. It is prepared with cuttlefish that is cooked with their ink, producing the characteristic black color.
Risi e Bisi is also a specialty from Veneto. It is more of a thick soup that is served with a spoon. It is prepared with green peas and flavored with pancetta.
Risotto alla zucca is prepared with pumpkin, nutmeg, and grated cheese.
Risotto alla pilota, a specialty from Mantua (Lombardy) is cooked with sausage, pork, as well as Parmesan cheese.
Risotto ai funghi is traditionally prepared with porcini mushroom but may include other mushroom varieties such as boletus luteus, pholiota mutabilis or agaricus bisporus.
Risotto verde is the recipe I chose to prepare today. It is typically prepared with spinach, although it can also be made with other green herbs or vegetables such as peas, basil or asparagus.
I served this risotto for a weekday family dinner with pan-seared salmon. Simply delicious!
- 2 cups risotto rice
- 1 onion , finely minced
- 8 oz. green asparagus
- 2 oz. spinach
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 4 cups vegetable broth (hot)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 5 oz. parmesan
Grate 3 oz (90g) of parmesan. Keep the rest for shavings.
- Slightly peel the asparagus from below the tip to the bottom.
- Cook the asparagus in a large volume of salted boiling water for about 8 minutes. Then, plunge them into a large bowl with iced water to stop the cooking and maintain the color of the vegetable.
- Drain the asparagus. Dry gently in a paper towel without damaging the tips.
Cut the asparagus tips to a length of about 2 inches (5cm), then cut them very carefully in half lengthwise. Set aside.
Cut the remainder of the asparagus into ½-inch (1cm) pieces and set aside.
- Cook the spinach in a large volume of salted boiling water for about 3 minutes, then cool immediately. Drain thoroughly, then chop very roughly. Set aside.
- Cook the onion in a mixture of butter and olive oil for approximately 5 minutes over medium heat until it is tender.
- Then, add the rice and stir for a few minutes until it becomes translucent.
- Deglaze with white wine, stir and wait until the wine has been totally absorbed.
- Pour a ladle of boiling vegetable broth, and wait until the liquid is absorbed before adding another ladle of broth.
- Repeat the process until the rice is well cooked, about 20 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to low, add the asparagus bits, chopped spinach and grated parmesan. Add salt and pepper and stir gently.
- Serve the risotto immediately with a few asparagus tips and parmesan shavings.