January 26, 2016

Blog the Thirty-fourth: A Reaction to RISOTTO

On doing it right, or not at all ~ 
which means you making your own broth!

When it comes to risotto, my zeal is not to be trusted, for it is the zeal of a convert.  Pauline, I am as zealous for it now as I was zealous against it before being knocked off my sheep.  What knocked me off is another specialty of North Italy, bollito misto, as little known as esteemed, and which you best always name in Italian, because there’s just no way to say “boiled meats” in English that will make it sound delicious.  But you’ll never master the art of making delicious risotto, unless you also give yourself to the art of making delicious broth; and you’ll never master the art of making delicious broth, unless a day’s exertion yields you something more than broth to eat.  That means learning to like boiled meat for dinner.  I hope to talk you into that.

I first encountered risotto back in the ‘80s, in the form of expletives gushing from Gentile converts to Northern Italian cuisine.  These self-appointed evangelists had been to the newly prospering North and came back witnessing to fellow Americans, whom they pronounced benighted by Italo-American red‑sauce fare, what real Italian food was like.  Well, my Italo-American family very rarely mentioned Northern Italian food, and when they did, it was with respect, so I didn’t like this dissing of our food by heretofore benighted Gentiles, who managed thus to provoke in me a hostile curiosity about this Northern contender to pasta.

Risotto is in fact North Italy’s answer to pasta, and like pasta, is a first dish, not dinner (if you try to make dinner out of it, you’ll only bloat yourself with eating too much starch and milkfat in one sitting).  Like pasta, risotto is a remarkably versatile staple, readily marrying with many another food to yield spectral variations. However, unlike pasta, it is labor‑intensive to make, if made right, and it is very often not made right, both here and in Italy, because it is, well, labor‑intensive to make right. 

For one thing, it demands homemade broth, which takes all afternoon to make.  For another, it requires continuous stirring for nearly 20 minutes over a steamy pot, because the signature creaminess of risotto comes not from cream, but from the soft epidermis of Italy’s short‑grained Arborio rice breaking down from the friction of continuous stirring, to melt into a starchy cream that absorbs the flavor of whatever ingredient you’re featuring—which is why your featured ingredient must be cooked tastily before adding the Arborio rice to it, so that it too can break down in the stirring and its flavors blend with the rice cream.  Risotto is not fried rice and not rice pilaf, it is creamed rice, and it gets that way from continuous stirring and thorough blending.  Restauranteurs have tricks for stirring less, but I tell you, they are feeding you risotto stillborn.