June 16, 2013

Ode to Risotto

I first had risotto sometime between 2002 and 2004 while I was working for some local publications and had the fun job of dining at local restaurants and writing up nice things about them. (They weren't reviews, but more like extended advertisements, as I was supposed to say only nice things, which sometimes was challenging. And I didn't then know anything about wine so I missed the opportunity to try good ones on my boss's bill--I only ever ordered "white wine" or sometimes "Pinot Grigio" at the time, but still it was a great gig). I had my first risotto at Pane Salute, a restaurant in Woodstock, Vermont, that serves authentic Italian food and that is one of the most special restaurants in our area, in just about every way. The risotto was transcendent. It was creamy and perfectly seasoned. It showcased ingredients that were fresh and local on that summer evening that we ate on their tiny patio. After every bite, it made you want another. Seriously, one of my best food memories that was not part of a food-themed vacation.

From then on, when I saw risotto on a restaurant menu, I ordered it with the thinking that it was not something I was going to make at home. I was intimidated by it. It seemed so delicate and just-so. You had to pay so much attention to it. The little I knew about how risotto was made made me compare it to caring for an orchid, or making caramel-- the latter something I still can't manage without my sister's close supervision. 

But of course, this is the story of my finding out I was wrong! Risotto as an absolutely delectable, nearly perfect food, just one that takes some care and attention. Risotto takes some time-- probably close to 45 minutes from start to finish, though I haven't timed it. It does not need to be stirred constantly, though you can't walk away from it. You have to stay in the kitchen and keep a close eye on it and stir it gently, almost constantly. But that's the hardest part. Other than that it is simplicity-- of ingredient and technique-- in a pot. 

If you have white wine, a wedge of Parmesan, Arborio rice, and something oniony in your house (and I hope you do!), you can make delicious risotto. The basic formula is:
  • Melt butter in a heavy large pot.
  • Saute some finely diced onion or shallot in it.
  • Add about a cup of Arborio rice and stir it for just a minute.
  • Add about a half cup of dry white wine and stir for a couple of minutes while it deglazes the pan and evaporates.
  • Finally, finish the risotto for the next 20-30 minutes or so by adding a cup full of chicken broth at a time that you have gently simmering in a separate pot, and stirring gently until that liquid is absorbed (until your almost-constantly-stirring spoon leaves a visible trail for a second in the risotto), and then repeat...until you have a delicious creamy-looking (yet cream-free) dish of tender grains with just the slightest tooth left to them.
  • Stir in grated Parmesan and a bit more butter and serve.

It is not a dish I make on weeknights (anymore) when I am delicately balancing dinner preparation with playing knee hockey, finding jobs for Willem to do, and singing the Star-Spangled Banner (or other song of the moment) by request. It is, instead, a Sunday meal I can very happily make when the adult-to-toddler ratio in the house is 2:1, while I sip a glass of white wine (from the bottle I had to open in order to deglaze the risotto pot-- which will therefore pair perfectly with the meal). It is sort of a meditative/therapeutic meal to make because you do have to focus on it, absorb yourself into it. You can't multi-task. But that makes it all the more special. I always feel when sitting down to a meal with a nice wide shallow bowl of risotto at its center like singing, "Ta-da! Can you believe I made this?"

Some might serve risotto as a side dish, as my mother-in-law did when she asked me to make a favorite butternut-squash one to serve alongside a ham and a few other things for a nice holiday meal. But we love risotto so much in our house, we serve it as the meal itself with just a little chunk of crusty bread and some butter on the side, and maybe a simple little salad.

There are tons of risotto variations and flavorings. Our household favorites have been with mashed butternut squash stirred in, or with bacon on top, or with blue cheese and spinach. These days we love to have pure and simple risotto garnished at the table with a generous spoonful of our own pesto, thawed from the freezer. You could also garnish it with roasted chicken, or muffaletta, or with chopped-up roasted veggies.

Basic Risotto
Ingredient amounts from an Everyday Food recipe, informed by every risotto I've made

6 C chicken broth
1/4 C butter
1 large shallot or a 1/4 of an onion, finely diced
1 C Arborio rice
1/2 C dry white wine
2 T or more grated Parmesan, plus more for serving
salt and pepper

Bring broth to a simmer in a medium saucepan and keep it warm.

In a good-sized heavy pot, melt half the butter. Cook shallot (covered or uncovered, over low or medium, depending on whether you want them to brown-- I do covered on fairly low temp) until it softens. Add rice and stir about a minute.

Add wine and stir over medium-high until evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add about a cup of broth with a ladle or a small glass measuring cup dipped into your saucepan. Cook, stirring almost constantly, on medium heat, until broth is mostly absorbed and you can see a trail left by your spoon in the pot. Repeat with additions of remaining broth (or sometimes not all of it) for 20 - 30 minutes, until rice is creamy and tender but still al dente. 

Turn off heat. Stir in remaining butter, Parmesan, salt, and pepper, and serve with a big spoonful of pesto swirled into it if desired.


  1. What's knee hockey?

    I have friends who'll do risotto in a pressure cooker. Takes about 5 minutes. It doesn't turn out as well as if you do it properly, but it's close enough that if you're not in the mood to wait...

  2. I wondered the same about knee-hockey. Pesto cubes! Did we get that idea from you or vice-versa? I'm jealous you still have some left. We need to make some more batches of those to freeze now that it's farmer's market season.

  3. Hi FatTom. Hope you're feeling better.

  4. It's hockey played indoors on your knees with short little (toddler-sized) hockey sticks, but for anyone. I discovered it when looking for a mini hockey stick for Willem to play around with and found quite a selection, along with soft indoor pucks. He stands, we play on our knees.