Risotto

Why do we consider pasta to be easy and versatile but risotto to be challenging? Italians, the masters of both, don’t see it this way. “Every conceivable vegetable, seafood, and meat can go into risotto,” says my sumptuously illustrated copy of Venetian Taste. “The frugal Venetian does not hesitate to stretch a bit of leftover into half a meal by amplifying it with rice.”

I have often eaten delicious risotto, but my first memorable one was in Venice, turned deep violet-black by cuttlefish ink. Although replicating this particular pairing is nearly impossible stateside, the pale, creamy rice dishes colored by local vegetables and various spices are well within reach. All you need is to start with the right rice and then adjust your standard technique for cooking it. The rest, as the Venetians would say, is due volte più gustoso.

Why do we see pasta as easy and versatile but risotto as challenging? Simply start with the right rice and then adjust your cooking technique. Learn to make Fresh Improv Risotto and Sunshine Risotto.

Fresh Improv Risotto

  • Servings: 4–6
  • Difficulty: 2
  • Print
This is a basic recipe, giving you the ratios that I’ve found to work best for a tasty risotto. For ideas on which specific ingredients to use, read the Tips & Tricks that follow the recipe or check out the ingredient list for Sunshine Risotto farther down the page.

5 cups stock and/or water
4 tablespoons olive oil and/or butter, divided
2 large shallots or 1 small onion, diced
garlic, herbs, and/or spices to taste
1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
1–2 pounds main ingredient, such as shellfish and/or chopped or pureed vegetables (optional)
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a saucepan, heat the stock and keep it warm. In a large, heavy-bottom pot, melt 3 tablespoons of oil and/or butter over medium heat, add the shallots or onion, and sauté for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic, herbs, and/or other spices; stir to combine. Add the rice and stir for 1 minute, until thoroughly coated.

Start adding the hot liquid a little at a time: Add about 1 cup stock and let it simmer uncovered, stirring every couple of minutes, until the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in any raw main ingredients that need time to cook. Then, over the next 20 minutes, continue adding about 1 cup of stock at a time, letting the rice absorb it before adding more and stirring often enough to keep the rice from sticking to the pan.

When the rice is almost done, add any precooked or quickly cooking main ingredients. Stir in the wine for about 2 minutes, until absorbed. Stir in the remaining butter and the Parmesan until they melt into the rice. Taste, adding salt and pepper as needed. Turn off the heat and let rest 1–2 minutes before serving. Serves 4–6.

Tips & Tricks
  • Starting with the right rice and adjusting your cooking technique are key: Instead of covering a pot of short-grain rice and water with a lid, buy medium-grain Arborio rice and cook it in an open pot. Add a little hot liquid at a time, stirring often and letting the rice absorb it before pouring in more.
  • It helps to keep the rice cooking steadily by preheating the stock. Avoid salty commercial stock; the saltiness increases as it cooks down. If your homemade stock has a little salt and you’re adding cheese, you may not need additional salt.
  • A good risotto really does need highly glutinous rice; American short-grain rice, particularly quick-cook versions, won’t cut it. The traditional rice releases starch as it cooks. The grains cling but aren’t sticky, the texture grows creamy with a firmer center, and the rice absorbs a lot of liquid without getting mushy.
  • Arborio is the most common risotto rice available, but Carnaroli or Vialone Nano are suitable upgrades. Resist the urge to rinse the rice; it washes away the desirable starch and creaminess.
  • This liquid-to-rice ratio can support a range of seasonings and up to 2 pounds of main ingredients. Besides tomatoes and squash (see below), you can make pairings such as mushrooms with pumpkin, shellfish with asparagus, tomatoes with eggplant, or spinach with herbs—or stick to one main ingredient.
  • Add ingredients that need time to cook just after the rice; those that cook quickly, like shrimp, or will leach a dulling color, like mushrooms, can be cooked separately and added toward the end.
  • Make a simpler side dish by skipping all optional ingredients in this recipe. Instead, add a pinch of saffron, lemon juice and zest, or 2–4 tablespoons of fresh herbs—or simply let the Parmesan shine.

Twice as Tasty

Why do we see pasta as easy and versatile but risotto as challenging? Simply start with the right rice and then adjust your cooking technique. Learn to make Fresh Improv Risotto and Sunshine Risotto.One of the classic Italian risottos is risi e bisi, a soupy mix of peas and rice traditionally served on April 25, St. Mark’s Day, in Venice—even though it’s so early in the growing season that the available fresh peas are expensive and lack flavor. In my area, we’re lucky to have snow-free ground, let alone fresh peas, by that date. But snow doesn’t stop me from craving the vegetables of spring and summer.

This is where planning the season comes in. Homegrown peas frozen at harvest time can be defrosted and added to the dish, as can many other frozen and stored vegetables, any time of year. One of my favorite combinations uses whole frozen Yellow Pear tomatoes, grated and frozen yellow summer squash, and frozen cubes of squash blossom puree. It’s pure sunshine in a bowl and brightens my meals until the fresh ingredients are available again.

Sunshine Risotto

  • Servings: 4–6
  • Difficulty: 2
  • Print
1 pound frozen Yellow Pear tomatoes (about 2–3 cups)
1 pound grated, frozen yellow summer squash (about 2 cups when defrosted)
2 1-ounce cubes frozen squash blossom puree
5 cups frozen Vegetable Stock
4 tablespoons olive oil and/or butter, divided
2 large shallots or 1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried parsley
1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine (optional)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

The day before you plan to make risotto, pull the tomatoes, squash, blossom puree, and vegetable stock from the freezer and let them defrost in the fridge; alternatively, substitute fresh, in-season veg and herbs.

Remove the defrosted ingredients from the fridge. In a saucepan, heat the stock and keep it warm. Place the defrosted tomatoes in a colander set over a bowl, pierce gently with a fork, and let them sit so that some juice separates from the solids.

Cook as you would for Fresh Improv Risotto, melting 3 tablespoons of oil and/or butter over medium heat, sautéing the shallots or onion, and stirring in the garlic and herbs and then the rice. Then add about 1 cup of stock at a time followed by the wine, letting the rice absorb each addition before pouring in more and stirring often enough to keep the rice from sticking to the pan.

When the last of the liquid has been absorbed, add the summer squash; if the rice is still too hard, stir in the tomato liquid until it too is absorbed. Stir in the tomato solids and squash blossom puree, followed by the remaining butter and the Parmesan, until they melt into the rice. Taste, and then add salt and pepper as needed. Turn off the heat and let the risotto rest 1–2 minutes before serving. Serves 4–6.

Tips & Tricks
  • This recipe is just one example of how you can use my Fresh Improv Risotto recipe with specific ingredients. Like last week’s freezer and storage soups, it’s also a great example of how a little planning when planting and harvesting can yield you a freezer full of ingredients for Twice as Tasty winter meals.
  • I love this risotto as a freezer-based recipe because it brings sunshine into a dreary winter day, but it’s delicious in season. Simply substitute fresh for frozen vegetables, chopping the tomatoes, grating the zucchini, and slivering the squash blossoms. Use 2 tablespoons of fresh herbs instead of 2 teaspoons of dried. Orange Sungolds or larger yellow or orange heirloom toms also let the color shine through.
  • Frozen tomatoes leach a lot of juice when defrosted, which may be unnecessary for this risotto. Save the juice until the end and add it only if you need it or if you don’t want to use the wine.
  • Farmers’ markets overflow with summer squash and tomatoes in summer, but squash blossoms aren’t always sold. Fortunately, squash vines are easy to grow just for their flowers, even if you don’t have the space or desire to grow full-size squash or pumpkins. I love to train the vines up a trellis or fence; since I eat all of their blossoms before they can form squash, weight is never an issue. By the time your vines are in full bloom, I’ll be sharing my recipe for puree—along with one for gorgeous stuffed squash blossoms.

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