Romancing rice

For best results, go slow

click to enlarge Arancini di Riso. - PHOTO BY GEORGE CHERNILEVSKY/WIKIMEDIA.ORG
Arancini di Riso.
Arancini di Riso.
Risotto is a northern Italian rice dish that is cooked in broth until rich and velvety yet slightly firm and chewy. In Italy, risotto is most often served as a primo, or first course, or as an accompaniment to a meat course.

Cooking risotto is like making love. It can be made quickly, without much focus or foreplay. Made that way it will taste good and can be satisfying. But if risotto is prepared slowly and sensually, the result can be quite memorable.

Perfectly cooked risotto requires some time and constant attention. Most restaurant risotto is precooked and cooled, then reheated as needed. Truly great risotto is cooked to order, requiring 20 minutes of constant stirring, and is served immediately.

The rice should have the ability to both absorb liquids and to release starch, resulting in a dish with a creamy, slightly al dente texture. Properly cooked, the grains should double in size, plumped but unbroken. The most commonly used varieties are Arborio and Carnaroli, which are available at local grocery stores.

A typical risotto starts with onions and herbs sautéed in olive oil or butter. Dry rice is then added and toasted until the grains are slightly browned and coated with the fat. Toasting the rice intensifies the flavor and coating with the oil allows the rice to absorb the cooking liquid slowly without bursting. Wine is added and simmered until the alcohol burns off. Warm stock is ladled into the rice gradually so that all is absorbed before adding more. Stirring the rice continuously helps release starch and creates creaminess.

After 20 minutes the risotto should be tested for doneness. The rice should be doubled in volume and slightly chewy. Vegetables can be stirred in at this point. After the pot is removed from the heat and allowed to rest a few minutes, cubes of cold butter and the cheese are added and vigorously stirred until the risotto is velvety and irresistible.

click to enlarge Butternut squash risotto. - PHOTO BY PETER GLATZ
Butternut squash risotto.
Butternut squash risotto.

Butternut Squash Risotto

  • 1 ½-2 lb. butternut squash
  • 4 T. olive oil plus more to coat squash
  • 4 c. chicken stock
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • ½ c. finely diced onion
  • 1 T. chopped fresh sage
  • ½ c. dry white wine
  • 1 ½ c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
  • 4 T. cold unsalted butter cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ¾-1 c. freshly grated Parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375°. Cut the squash in half lengthwise with a large knife and scoop out the seeds. Brush the cut edge of one squash half lightly with olive oil and place, cut side down, on a non-stick or a parchment-lined baking sheet. Peel the other squash half and cut into ½-inch cubes. Toss with just enough olive oil to barely coat and scatter in a single layer on the baking sheet with the squash half. Roast in the oven, stirring the squash cubes occasionally, for 30-40 minutes, or until the squash half can be easily pierced with a knife and the cubes are lightly caramelized on the outside. Remove the pan from the oven and set the cubes aside. When cool enough to handle, scoop the flesh from the squash half and lightly mash, then stir into the stock along with the salt and turmeric. Heat the stock/squash mixture on the stove and keep warm while cooking the risotto.

In a large heavy pan, heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat and add the onion and sage. Sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion is softened and translucent, but not browned, 3-5 minutes. Add the rice to the pan and cook a few minutes more until the rice has absorbed most of the butter and has become somewhat translucent, a few minutes more. Add the wine and continue to stir until it is almost completely absorbed. Reduce the heat and add enough stock mixture to cover the rice by about 1 inch. Cook at a very low simmer, stirring frequently. As the liquid is absorbed, add additional stock to keep the rice covered. When the stock mixture has been absorbed, check the rice. It should be cooked through, but still firm. Total cooking time should be 20-30 minutes. When the rice is cooked, add the reserved squash cubes and heat through. Stir in the cheese and cold butter cubes and check the seasoning. Serve immediately.

Serves 4-6.

Arancini di Riso
Leftover risotto can be reheated but loses its desirable textural qualities. Instead I like to repurpose the risotto into fried rice balls named Arancini. Arancina means “little orange” in Italian. I once served Arancini to a friend and she started crying. I thought she had burned her mouth. “I’m crying because these are so wonderful!” Arancini make a nice appetizer or snack and can be enjoyed warm or at room temperature.

  • Vegetable oil, for deep frying
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 c. leftover Risotto
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan
  • 1 ½ cups Panko
  • Fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • Salt and pepper

Heat a pan with 3 inches of oil over medium heat to 350° F. Combine the eggs, risotto, Parmesan, and ½ cup of the Panko. Place remaining Panko in a shallow bowl. Form 2 tablespoons of risotto into balls. Insert cube of mozzarella into center of each ball. Roll the rice balls into the remaining Panko. Fry the rice balls a few at a time until golden brown and heated through. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.

For 30 years Peter Glatz has been hosting live music weekly in Last Chance Bar & Lab, his private nightclub hidden in a pine grove behind his house.

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