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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

De-Mystifying Risotto

Note: What To Do With... will return next week

Risotto. If there is a word that strikes fear in the hearts of most accomplished home cooks, it would be this word (okay, maybe also, souffle. But that's for another day.)

Who could imagine that little humble arborio rice and ladles of broth could cause so much fright. Forget teetering bain maries over a hot oven rack, jarring fiddly home-made jams, or squeezing unctuous duck confits into mason jars, risotto is what scares me. What is it that makes risotto so fearsome? If you think about it, risotto is really a simple food. Rice and hot broth stirred together lovingly with the dedication of a doting parent until it is rendered al dente with each grain still fully defined but contradictorily, swathed in it's own carbo-rich creaminess.

But I think I can explain my fear...

I grew up eating steamed white rice. Like any good Chinese mom worth her salt, my mother taught me on how to cook perfectly steamed rice. Too much water and it's mushy and gummy. Too little and it's hard and chalky. Steamed rice is fully cooked and while each grain is fully defined, they cling longingly to each other. Making steamed rice is an easy process: measure out rice, wash it until the water runs clear and add the right amount of water (Knuckle-method* or generally a proportion of 1 c rice to 2 c water.) and as Ron Popeil says, "Set it and forget it!" The rice cooker performs white rice magic.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese also have congee (or jook) which is a silky, creamy brothy rice "soup." This is also easy. Measure rice, wash until clear and this time, LOTS of water (about 6 c water to 1 c rice) and slowly simmer for an hour or so. But neither of these two things are risotto's equivalent. So I had resigned myself to enjoying risotto, but only in a restaurant. Recently it dawned on me that my fear of risotto was irrational. Be afraid of baking Montreal-style bagels or making nougat (what exactly is the soft ball stage, anyway?) but not risotto.

With a couple of things to keep in mind, anyone can make a luxurious creamy risotto. The reason risotto was a "restaurant" only meal for me, was largely in part to the commitment to stirring. You can't set it on the stove, and peel onions while it cooks. Oh no, risotto demands your attention, in fact, a full twenty minutes of stirring. Yes, it's labour intensive. You have to be faithful to the task. But don't mistake labour intensive for difficult. They are not the same and in the case of risotto, it was never more true.

This Italian rice dish is one of the easiest things to make provided that you consider some principles for making the perfect risotto:

Patience: risotto needs your attention and you cannot rush the process, you will need to stir constantly to extract the creamy consistency from the rice
Top quality ingredients: Your risotto is only as good as your ingredients. Use a flavourful stock, Arborio rice, the highest quality ingredients you can afford. This is a treat.
Hot stock: a barely simmering pot of stock should sit beside your risotto pot
One ladleful at a time: don’t be tempted to rush the process by pouring a large amount of stock into your risotto, use modest amounts.
Full absorption: Again, this addresses patience, once you add the stock, slowly stir to incorporate. Wait until the stock is absorbed before adding more.

If you follow these principles, you should have a creamy and perfect risotto every time. I promise.

This risotto is fantastic. It is creamy and richly flavoured and the hint of lemon brightens this dish. Admittedly, when we make this risotto, it is a 2 person job. One of us stirs while the other makes the scallops.

Vegetarian version: try making this risotto and top with these flavourful simmered mushrooms

Lemon Chive Risotto with Seared Scallops
Serves 4 (as a main) or 8 (as an appetizer)

2 c Arborio rice
1.5 to 1.75 liters of simmering chicken broth
2 tbsp butter
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
¼ tsp salt

1 ½ preserved lemons, seeds removed and finely diced**
approximately 3-4 tbsp finely snipped chives
1 tbsp crème fraiche

8 large sea scallops (or 16 smaller scallops)
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil

1. On a paper towel, dry sea scallops. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.
2. Heat a medium size pot. Add butter and toss in garlic. Stir. Do not allow the garlic to brown. Turn down heat if necessary. Add Arborio rice. Stir until the rice is coated and glossy.
3. Add chicken stock 1/2c at a time. Stir constantly. When the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2c. Do not rush this process. It should take approximately 20 minutes. The rice is ready when the rice is creamy and soft but each grain intact. Each grain of rice should have a starchy center.
4. Meanwhile, heat a frypan. Add butter and olive oil. Once it starts to smoke, add scallops. The scallops should sizzle and develop a rich dark brown crust. Within a minute, turn each scallop over and turn off heat. (Do not over cook scallops.)
5. Remove risotto from heat, stir in crème fraiche and chives.
6. Serve risotto with scallops on top.

*Knuckle-method for cooking rice in a rice cooker - once you have rinsed out the rice. Add enough water, so that your middle knuckle rises out of the water while all other knuckles are submerged. Chef Ming Tsai calls this the Mount Fuji method, for obvious reasons.

**If you don’t have preserved lemon, I would stir in the zest of 1 or 2 lemons and a little squeeze of lemon juice just as you add the crème fraiche and chives.


Lisa Petrarca said...

I love your pictures...I had never heard of Risotto. Which isn't surprising since I'm not the best cook, even my kids hate my cooking. I guess I'll have to stop by more often to learn a few tricks.

Alisa@Foodista said...

It may take some time cooking up a risotto, but it sure looks worth the effort :) What a lovely dish!

Jennifer said...

Risotto is one of my favorite foods! Its amazing how scallops pair so well with it too! Beautiful pictures and recipe!

Christina Kim said...

Risotto is always worth the time and effort. Sometimes, I replace the rice with barley for an extra-nutritious meal. Beautiful photos, and great recipes!!

matt wright said...

I love risotto - in fact, I cook a version most weeks. I have to say though, that unless you have good homemade stock, just use water. Or, just simmer some veg in water for 15 minutes, and you are going to have something far better than store bought stocks.

V said...

Beautiful picture! And what a good idea to use scallop.

Anonymous said...

Do you use the pulp of the preserved lemon as well as the rind?

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