Imagine the scene. It’s cold – very cold. You’re tired. You’re under the weather with a heavy cold, and you are wandering around a large city. But quite frankly, you just want something to make you feel warm, and well. Enter the hero: risotto.
That was pretty much my introduction to risotto rice, back in December 2000. Our good friends had just moved back to Italy. We were on our first visit there, around new year. And yes, the cold was a bad one. Thankfully we chanced on a little restaurant still serving lunch, somewhere vaguely central in Milan.
Mindful of visiting the Po Valley, home of arborio rice, I thought I’d order risotto. Was that ever the best decision! I still don’t know exactly what went into it – I think some grilled radicchio lettuce, some red wine (Barolo? something like that), not much else.
But it was exactly what I needed. The heat was medicinal. The softness of the rice, still with a little bite, helped it slip down nicely. The red offered – and delivered – a warmth that permeated the fug of the head cold. I breathed easier. I relaxed.
I have a suspicion I’ve blogged on this before. But I am fairly unrepentent. Looking at my criteria for choosing ingredients, risotto rice has to make the cut. So here it is again.
Why wouldn’t I want to cook risotto again? And indeed, it’s one of our favourites at home. I love the ritual of making it. I don’t stand and stir it the whole time, as I probably should, but I find it soothing to make, wonderful to eat. (And most meals that can be eaten out of bowls do that for me, to be honest.)
I’m a big fan of theme and variation recipes – work out the technique, then switch in different ingredients. Risotto is a perfect dish to do this with – and it makes those ingredients go a long way. So you can even choose more indulgent ones at times.
So here’s my top three. The one I make most of the time is bacon and sweet potato. There is something very satisfying about the textures: crunch of bacon (I like to fry it to a fairly crispy stage), graininess of the sweet potato, smoothness of the rice. It can go well with butternut squash too (my earlier combination) but I think I’m pretty hooked on this version.
Number two: using up a roast, make it a chicken and mushroom risotto. If you’ve got leftover meat from the chicken, and you’ve made some stock from the bones (not hard), you’ve got everything to hand. You could add something different for veg, but as the chicken has more bite, I like something softer for veg. And chicken and mushroom: can’t go wrong.
Number three: a Jamie Oliver one, with prawns and peas. An instant freezer ingredients meal, and the final ingredients go in right at the end, so there’s a juiciness to both.
I remember now that I have also done one with different colours of peppers (traffic light risotto, anyone?), which works well with a nice vegetable stock. I’ve occasionally used strips of turkey too. It’s up to you if you spin a few more variants.
I have experimented with a pork mince and spinach one more recently (courtesy of the Two Hungry Italians TV series). I haven’t got it right yet, but I quite liked the notion of trying a mince in a risotto, so I think I’ll persevere. Needs a good amount of seasoning.
Only in recent years have I come across arancini – ‘little oranges’. The notion is that you make extra risotto, form it into little balls, and push some cheese into the middle, then shallow fry them off. The dimpled appearance of the rice balls looks a bit like oranges. The cheese definitely helps – though putting cheese into most things is a good idea, in my opinion.
So: plenty to be going on with. Some day, I’d like to try the Venetian classic, risi e bisi, made with fresh spring peas. I even tried to track it down on our trip to Venice one time, and had to conclude that it was out of season, and not to be had that time. I might even try some of the other risotto rices, but tend to stick to arborio. (Support for the Po region, and all that.)
Just make sure you’ve got your parmesan or grana to hand, and you have a meal that will make its way back onto the home menu, month after month. It does here, anyway.