Risotto is the perfect canvas on which you can always play with the ingredients of the season. The variations on risotto are endless and once you know a few important details described here, you can feel free to improvise.
What kind of rice should I use for risotto?
Arborio rice has short, stubby grains and have a high starch content which makes it ideal for creamy risotto. It used to be grown exclusively in Italy, but has become popular and is grown all over the world. (Most large brands of arborio rice available in American grocery stores are grown in Texas.) The pitfall of arborio rice is that it you overcook it even a little bit, it becomes gummy and sticky instead of creamy.
I always use Carnaroli rice, which has been called "the caviar of Italian rice" and makes the absolute best, creamy risotto. It has a high starch content, but longer grains than arborio and absorbs water inside the kernel as opposed to on the surface of the grain, the culprit that produces that gummy texture. Carnaroli grows in Northern Italy and is the rice of choice for classic Risotto Milanese with saffron.
Vialone Nano is good second choice and some Italian chefs, especially from the Veneto, prefer it. It is a medium grain rice and keeps its shape very well.
You can find Carnaroli and Vialone Nano at Mount Carmel Foods inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market, perhaps my favorite stop on an Arthur Avenue Shopping & Tasting Tour. It's usually behind the counter at this wonderful food stall that stocks the best imports from Italy. Many restaurant owners in New York City buy their risotto grains from Teitel Brothers, wholesalers of the best Italian foods who have been in business since 1915. If you don't live anywhere near Little Italy in the Bronx, you can buy risotto rice from Teitel Bros., online.
What is the secret to perfect risotto?
The biggest misconception about risotto is that you have to stir it constantly to make it creamy. NOT TRUE. The trick to coaxing out the creaminess of the rice is to first "toast" the rice in a hot pan. Italians call this important step "tostatura" and it absolutely ensures consistent cooking of the grains. Then add enough hot broth to just cover the rice, stir a few times to combine all the ingredients, then leave it alone. The rice will slowly absorb the liquid and release its starches. You'll notice shallow bubbles popping up in the pan. When the broth is almost completely absorbed, ladle in more broth to cover it once again, stir and then let it alone. What is most important is to taste it along the way and adjust the salt accordingly and check the texture. Stirring primarily serves to make sure the rice doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan, so only stir as needed. (Lower the flame if you find your rice sticking too much.) Repeat this process of adding broth, salt and tasting until the rice is al dente.
What can I do with leftover risotto?
Leftover risotto is almost better than the original dish when the flavors have had some time to concentrate and get stronger. Add a little butter or olive oil to a hot pan and make crispy risotto pancakes. Author Marisa Huff recently explained on NPR's The Splendid Table how risotto pancakes are a popular aperitivo snack in Milan.
In the hot summer months, lemon and rosemary risotto paired with a cold glass of Fiano di Avellino from the Cilento region of Italy make for an elegant meal. Here's the recipe:
Lemon and Rosemary Risotto
1/2 stick of salted butter
1 shallot, sliced very thin
4 sprigs of fresh, cleaned rosemary
1 1/3 cups rice, preferably Carnaroli or Vialone Nano
1 quart vegetable stock, boiling
2 lemons, zested
1 egg, beaten
Kosher salt to taste
Heat the vegetable stock in a medium sized pot. Meanwhile, heat the butter and the chopped shallot in a large saucepan over a low flame. Add the rice and two of the rosemary sprigs, raise the flame to medium high and stir so that the rice becomes completely coated with butter, shallots and rosemary. Let the rice kernels lightly toast for about two minutes. Remove the rosemary sprigs.
Adjust the flame to medium low. Using a ladle, add the broth to your rice until it is covered. Stir several times and then let it cook until the stock is almost all absorbed. Use a small spoon to taste the rice and add salt as needed. Then add another ladleful and stir again. Continue adding stock, salt and tasting until the rice is al dente. (You will need to add stock about 3 times.)
Mix the zest of one lemon and the egg together in a bowl. Turn off the heat and pour the mixture over your rice and stir it in very quickly before the egg can cook on top of the risotto.
Pile your risotto on a serving plate, garnish with the zest of the second lemon and place the two remaining rosemary sprigs on top for garnish. Serve immediately.