Mention starch in Italian food, and most people’s thoughts will turn towards pizza, and pasta. But in northern Italy, rice is as much a staple as pasta; pizza’s an import.
Food anthropologists believe that rice came to Italy in a roundabout way, having been brought to Spain by Arab merchants who imported it from India. From Spain, rice made its way to the Po valley in the 14th century. The Po river runs horizontally across the top of Italy’s boot; the surrounding valley turned out to have perfect conditions for rice growing. In the following centuries, it was intensely cultivated there.
The thousands of workers who came to the rice fields every May became legendary in northern Italy, inspiring musicians, poets, artists, and eventually moviemakers. Known as the Mondine, the workers were women who left homes and families in the Veneto (Venice) and Emiglia-Romagna areas to travel to the Po Valley. The rice fields gave them newfound freedom, but also subjected them to harsh conditions and cruel supervisors. Dressed in short pants — which at the time would have been scandalous anywhere else — and long sleeves for insect protection, the women worked long days walking backwards in the water, bent at the waist, to tend and harvest the rice, until the 1960s advent of mechanization. Their songs of hardships endured, and longing for love and home became famous.
Even more famous is the Po Valley rice specialty — risotto. There are countless variations and flavorings, but all risottos have in common a specific method, and must use Po Valley rice. This isn’t solely for regional authenticity. It’s because only those medium-grained, fat ovals can tolerate the unique cooking method. There are three types: Arborio, the most common available in the U.S.; Vialone nano, prevalent in the Veneto, but rarely found here; and Carnaroli, the most highly prized of all. Carnaroli has especially good flavor and is easiest to keep from overcooking. It’s somewhat more expensive than Arborio, but well worth the extra pennies, and it’s available locally at Angela’s Taste of Italy.
It’s that method which defines a risotto. The rice effectually makes its own sauce. By cooking the rice slowly, constantly stirring, and adding hot liquid in small amounts, the starchy surfaces are gradually abraded and incorporated into the cooking liquid, creating a creamy sauce. Stirred occasionally, or at the end, the softened grains merely break apart. Additionally, by adding the liquid slowly in small amounts, water evaporates, which concentrates the flavor of the stock or other cooking liquid.
Risotto has a reputation of being tricky, but I’ve never found it so. What’s important is taking it slow and easy — risotto can’t be hurried.
Sometimes I use a specific recipe but just as often I improvise, following basic
Never wash the rice before cooking. In a heavy, wide pan, sauté aromatics, such as shallots, onions, or garlic in butter, about 2 T. for two servings. Butter is traditional, olive oil or a combination can be used. Vegetables such as asparagus or mushrooms to be added at the end of cooking should be sautéed in the same pan in extra butter before being set aside. Next the rice is added and sautéed for a few minutes until the grains absorb some of the oil and become translucent. Then comes the wine, and the mixture is cooked until almost all of the wine has evaporated. Stock or broth must be kept hot and added as described in the recipe below.
Italians consider using cheese in seafood risottos heretical, especially strong cheeses such as Parmagiano, but it’s common in most others. When the risotto is perfectly al dente and saucy, remove the pan from the stove, add an appropriate grated cheese, and swirl in a bit of additional butter.
Most versions use white wine, but red wine risottos, flavored with bay leaves and thyme, are a wonderful way to turn small amounts of leftover braised red meats, such as pot roast, into a full meal.
Vegetable possibilities are endless, from sweet corn (especially good with
lobster/seafood summertime risottos) to broccoli, beans and so on. Though less
traditional, there are even dessert risottos (essentially rice puddings) made
with milk, a bit of sugar or honey and fruits, such as strawberries or
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Risotto is a great way to enjoy lobster affordably. The shells impart flavor to the rice (classic lobster bisques use only the shells for flavoring). The creamy rice studded with lobster chunks is as decadently luxurious — if not more so — than lobster by itself.
This recipe is easily doubled. Though there is that last minute stirring,
everything else can be prepared ahead of time.
1 to 1½ lb. lobster, cooked
¾ c. Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone nano rice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 c. minced shallots, preferred, or onion
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 c. dry or bianco vermouth
1 tsp. dried tarragon
4 c. chicken or vegetable stock
kosher or sea salt and pepper to taste
1 T. each of minced fresh tarragon and flat leaf parsley
Note: Crab legs or shrimp can be substituted for the lobster, or use them in
combination. Use the same amount of cooked crab as lobster, or ¾ lbs. uncooked shrimp, using shells as above. Add shelled, uncooked shrimp to
the risotto a couple minutes before finishing.
Shell lobsters, keeping the claw meat intact if possible. This is easiest to do by cutting the clawshells with kitchen shears. If you’ve been able to keep them whole, set aside. Otherwise, add the claw meat pieces to the rest of the lobster meat, cut into bite-sized chunks, along with any bright red roe. The roe is found in females and is considered a delicacy. During cooking, it will have solidified into clumps; roll the clumps gently between your fingers to separate the tiny eggs, then add to the reserved meat. The flavorful greenish tomalley inside the body cavity is the lobster’s “liver.” Reserve it separately to add to the stock.
Discard the cartilage and body sac. Cut the thinner, more pliable parts of the shell into small pieces with kitchen shears; crush the harder claw shells with a clean hammer or mallet.
Combine crushed shells and chicken stock in a pot, and simmer over very low heat. The mixture should barely simmer (an occasional bubble lazily rising to the surface), covered, for an hour. Before beginning the risotto, strain stock through a fine mesh sieve, add the reserved tomalley, and keep warm on the stove.
In a medium heavy pan, melt the butter over medium low heat, then add the shallots and sauté until they are soft but not brown. Add the rice and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring so the rice is thoroughly coated and absorbs the butter. Add the tomato paste and cook a couple minutes longer, until the tomato paste just begins to darken. Add the tarragon and vermouth and cook until it’s almost completely absorbed. Ladle stock into the pan until the rice is completely covered to about ½ inch of liquid above the rice. Stir slowly but constantly. The rice will gradually absorb the liquid. When enough liquid has been absorbed so that none is above the rice, ladle in more stock to again cover by ½ inch. Continue stirring and adding more stock until the rice is “al dente” tender, but still firm (although completely cooked). This should take 18-20 minutes. The mixture should be quite liquid — “saucy.” You may or may not use all the stock.
Gently stir in the reserved lobster meat and cook just until heated through. Taste and adjust seasoning. Gently warm reserved lobster claws in a microwave or on a stove. Serve in shallow soup plates or wide-rimmed plates, garnished with the claw meat (if possible), sprinkled with the fresh tarragon and parsley.