Exploring Risotto: History and How to Take It From Comfort Food to Classic Dining
It's not dessert, but cooking risotto is "a piece of cake."— Carb Diva
What Are We Talking About?
With the quotation above, I introduced one of my first articles on this website. In the eight years since then, I have grown as a writer; I’d like to think that I have found my voice and created a style that is all my own.
Today I do more than simply offer a list of ingredients followed by a few “how to’s” to assemble the completed dish. I research the origins of the food and share the facts and folklore. I examine how that food migrated from its place of origin, how it was adopted and adapted, and then I present the dish itself, with variations on the theme.
So, let's talk about this thing called “risotto."
If you look at Wikipedia, they will tell you that
"Risotto is a class of Italian dishes of rice cooked in broth to a creamy consistency. It is one of the most common ways of cooking rice in Italy."
Yes, it is cooked rice, and it is a bit more complicated than Minute Rice from a box, but it's also far more satisfying. Let’s explore how it began (I love a good story), create a simple recipe, and then examine how to turn this “peasant” dish into something amazing!
How Did It Begin?
The tale of risotto, of course, begins with the story of rice and how it spread from Asia to Europe. The first rice plants were wild, growing along the banks of the Pearl River in Southeast Asia. Legend tells us that Shennong, mythical ruler of prehistoric China, carefully tended and domesticated the plant in the 13th century B.C.
China was a common trade partner along the Silk Road, the network of routes connecting the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Seven centuries later, the Book of Ezekiel (Ezek 27:17) mentioned rice as one of the commodities carried to Persia, present-day Iran. In this Middle Eastern climate, rice flourished. Anyone who has had the pleasure of eating Persian rice will attest to the art form, the almost reverential treatment of the cereal which has developed over thousands of years.
Fast-forward to the 13th century A.D. The Saracen (a nomadic people from the Sinai near the Roman province of Arabia) introduced rice to Italy, to be precise, Sicily. The humidity of the Mediterranean was particularly favorable for the growing of short-grained rice, the kind we use today in the cooking of risotto. However, according to Italy Magazine:
“From the 13th to the 1th centuries, rice was only cooked in boiling water. The first change took place in 1779, when rice was, for the first time, sautéed in a little butter and wet with broth. Later, a pinch of chopped onion was added as well.”
From Sicily, the cultivation of rice spread to Naples and then the Po Valley, 27,000 square miles of fertile agricultural land in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Gently nestled between the southern Alps and the northern Apennines, beneath the bosom of Switzerland is a landscape which boasts an abundance of vegetation—in addition to the wine-making grapes are wheat, olives, hazelnut groves, and rice paddies.
There are more than 4,000 rice growers in Italy, most of them in the Piedmont region. The rice is planted in April at the end of the rainy season when temperatures are mild. Twice-monthly meltwaters from the Alpine snowfields are directed to irrigation channels to sustain the growing plants. By August the plants are mature and the grains are allowed to ripen; harvest occurs in September.
Value her. She is like a precious pearl,” he said, holding up a tiny grain to the sunlight. “She is in the heart of every Italian.”— Gabriele Ferron, Pila Vecchia Antica Riseria (Old Rice Mill) family farm, 20 miles south of Verona
It was in Milan that the short-grain rice of Italy met its destiny. The culinary style of the city of Milan bears a distinctly Spanish influence (and two centuries of Spanish rule is probably why). Slow simmering and using locally-sourced wine, cheese, and saffron resulted in “Risotto Alla Milanese” created by chef Felice Luraschi in 1829.
"Cut one onion with a crescent knife, add some beef marrow and a little butter, toast and sieve everything, put the needed amount of rice, a little saffron, a little nutmeg, and cook it by adding a good stock from time to time, when half cooked add half a cervellata sausage, let it cook, put the grated cheese and serve."
And the Perfect Rice for Risotto?
...is short, round, plump, and a little bit sassy (just like me). Arborio is the most common short-grain rice used but Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma, and Vialone Nano are also good choices. What makes them “risotto rice”? They all have a high percentage of the starch amylopectin.
If you have ever cooked homemade jam or jelly, you will recognize the word "pectin". Pectin is the natural thickener in apple juice, and the "amylopectin" in short-grain rice serves as a thickener as well. It makes the cooked grain starchy and creamy, while still holding its shape.
Short-grain rice is not cooked like its long- or medium-grain cousins. First, it is gently sautéed in butter or olive oil so that each grain is coated. Next, a splash of wine is added to the pan; at this point, the rice is stirred constantly until the wine has all but evaporated. Then the fun begins. Hot broth is added to the pan, one ladle-full at a time, and allowed to simmer and be absorbed into the rice. This process is repeated until the rice is rich and creamy, but still holds its shape (test a grain with your teeth to see if it is done). You want al dente "Goldilocks rice"—not too hard, not too soft, but just right.
This quick video will show you exactly what I'm talking about.
- Basic Parmesan Risotto (V)
- Butternut Squash Risotto With Pine Nuts, Balsamic Drizzle, and Fried Sage (V)
- Carb Diva's (that's me!) Mushroom Risotto (V)
- Hell's Kitchen Copycat Lobster Risotto
Risotto Alla Milanese
- Roasted Tomato Risotto (V)
- Spinach Risotto (V)
- Chocolate Risotto (V)
- Cheesy Italian Arancini (V)
(V) = vegetarian
Basic Parmesan Risotto
Here is a simple, beginner risotto. I chose this basic Parmesan risotto recipe because there are no fancy ingredients, just the basics. This is true comfort food and the perfect springboard for your first attempt at conquering your fear of risotto.
Butternut Squash Risotto with Pine Nuts, Balsamic Drizzle, and Fried Sage
A few years ago my older daughter and I went to Portland, Oregon for a "girl's getaway", a little mother-daughter time. We window-shopped, explored the zoo, rode the trolley, and vowed to try foods we had never eaten before. A few treats came from the food-truck alley, but one of our most memorable meals was dinner at an Italian cafe. I had never (before then) paired sweet butternut squash with salty-savory Gorgonzola, but I did that evening. It was life-changing.
I suggest that the first time you try this butternut squash risotto, you prepare it exactly as written. But, the next time, sprinkle some Gorgonzola cheese on top.
Carb Diva's Mushroom Risotto
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 1/2 tsp. olive oil
- 1/2 cup minced onion
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced
- 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 cup arborio rice
- 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
- 3-4 cups chicken, vegetable, or mushroom broth, heated to a simmer
- 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated
- 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese
- In a large frying pan melt 1 tablespoon butter with olive oil over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until onion is soft (about 2 minutes). Stir in mushrooms and cook until lightly browned (3 to 4 minutes). Stir in thyme.
- Add 1/4 cup of the wine and cook until wine is absorbed. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.
- Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add rice, pepper, and remaining 1/2 cup white wine. Stir to ensure that rice does not clump together and cook until wine is absorbed. Add 1 cup broth, reduce heat to low, and stir until broth is almost absorbed. Continue to add broth, 1/2 cup at a time and stirring until rice is creamy and tender but still firm in center. This should take about 15 to 18 minutes.
- Stir in mushrooms. Remove from heat and stir in Parmigiano-Reggiano and mascarpone cheese.
Hell's Kitchen Copycat Lobster Risotto
Angela, the author/creator of the blog Bake It With Love, admits to loving to binge-watch any cooking show featuring Gordon Ramsay. Although I can't agree with his "management style", he is definitely an accomplished, talented chef. Angela vows that this lobster risotto is just like Gordon's (but without the attitude).
Risotto Alla Milanese
Lidia Bastianich is a celebrated cook, author, and TV personality, and she holds a special place in my heart. There is no snobbery or pretension with Lidia. She's articulate but ever so warm and friendly. She's like the Italian grandma I never had. (If you have ever watched an episode of Master Chef America with Gordon Ramsay you've seen her son Joe in action as one of the celebrity judges and mentors).
Her list of awards and bibliography are too lengthy to mention here but if you are interested click on her name above. I own several of her cookbooks; my favorite is Lidia's Italian Table, published in 1998 by William Morrow. David Leite (Leite's Culinary) reprinted her recipe for Risotto Alla Milanese in his blog post dated April 27, 2018.
I think risotto’s popularity has to do with the fact that it’s the kind of food that embraces you and holds you tight. It comforts the soul.”— Lidia Bastianich
Roasted Tomato Risotto
This dish requires more time than the typical risotto, but it's worth every additional moment. Tomatoes and garlic are roasted in the oven, then blended with chicken stock to create a flavorful broth. That broth is then stirred into arborio rice to create roasted tomato risotto. The result is beautifully colored and bright with the tang of fresh tomato.
This spinach risotto is bright with fresh baby spinach and a kiss of lemon zest. As written, this is a beautiful recipe for a light vegetarian brunch or evening side dish. But, if you have a carnivorous craving, cooked diced chicken (perhaps leftover from a rotisserie bird?) or cooked shrimp would be a perfect addition. Or, if in the mood to emulate Gordon Ramsay again, top with golden sauteed scallops.
Is there any chance that I still haven't convinced you that risotto is the most amazing comfort food on the planet? What if that rich, creamy rice is cloaked with dark melted chocolate?
And, in case you have leftover risotto . . .
Cheesy Italian Arancini
I personally have never met "leftover risotto." It simply does not exist in my house. However, I have been known to go the extra mile and cook a batch of risotto so that I can make arancini. This recipe by Nag is easy to follow with clear instructions and lots of step-by-step photos to guide you.
Have I Convinced You?
Are you willing to give risotto a try?
© 2019 Linda Lum