Risotto

January 27, 2009

Any healthy man can go without food for two days, but not without poetry.
~Charles Baudelaire

My dawn ablution of a poem and three cups of joe reminded me of risotto. The poem, entitled Rotary by Christina Pugh, ruminates about the slow-paced rotary phone which predated the touch tone and ubiquitous cell. Her verses reminded me of the ritualistic patience needed to make refined, satiny risotto…and in general how simple home cooking can diurnally stall the usual frenetic pace demanded by modern life. The nexus between a rotary phone and risotto my seem a stretch to some, but on this morning it seemed perfectly logical.

Risotto is rustic yet elegant fare whose rural roots have now spread their reach to a more chic audience. The object is to produce a smooth, velvety risotto whose texture plays upon the essence of each individual grain in a way in which they all coalesce to form a sumptuous symphony. An the type of rice and an assiduous hand produces the desired consistency.

A good risotto begins with premium Italian rice, usually Arborio or Violone, which are short, stubby and absorb liquid—resulting in a creamy product which retains a slight bite (al dente) to each grain. Two starches are found in rice: amylose (which does not gelatinize when heated) and amylopectin (which does break down when heated). Rice with a lower percentage (ergo more amylopectin) is shorter and starchier. For instance, Arborio rice contains roughly 19-21% amylose. The desirable gentle chew in risotto is actually due to a defect in the Arborio called chalk. During maturation, the starch structures at the grain’s core deform, making for that firm, toothy center when cooked.

The rice should stirred gently and somewhat constantly, with hot stock added a cup at a time, until it has reached a point of softness yet with the grains retaining their shape. The rice should be creamy, with a slightly resistant core and should not stick together or to the bottom of the pan. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes of your focused attention. Risotto is not a dish you prepare haphazardly while performing other tasks around the house, but please do not be fearful or assume it needs expert coaxing…just some gentle pampering.

Some diehard aficianados suggest there is an added ritual of properly eating risotto. While such over wrought etiquette often falls on deaf ears here, here is a primer on the process: (1) the cooked risotto should be served mounded in the center of shallow bowls; (2) as you eat, push the risotto push the grains out slightly toward the edge of the bowl, eating from the now shrinking ring of rice; (3) Continue spreading from the center and eating around the edges in a circle, so that the mound in middle will keep the risotto warm as you savor the risotto around the rim. The more extreme sects of risotto eaters even insist upon using spoons rather than forks.

RISOTTO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS

7 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 lb fresh wild mushrooms such as porcini or chanterelles, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
1-2 T fresh tarragon, minced
2 plump fresh peeled garlic cloves, smashed
1/3 cup minced shallots (about 1 or 2)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
¾ C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer as you prepare the risotto.

Heat the oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté until browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with minced tarragon, drain them and set them aside. Wipe out the skillet with paper towels.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add the garlic for perfume, pressing the garlic down and around the pan with a spatula to spread the aromatic wealth. Remove and discard the garlic. Add shallots and cook over low to moderate heat, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until it is well coated and semi translucent, about 1-2 minutes. The heat and butter will separate the grains of rice, assuring a creamy consistency in the end.

Ladle in 1 cup simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 16 to 18 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from heat and stir in parmigiano-reggiano, a scant tablespoon of butter, sautéed mushrooms, a drizzle of truffle oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately with a Barolo from Piedmont or pinot noir.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For a more full bodied version, add already coarsely chopped and sauteed pancetta to the risotto at the end.

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