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I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I lik...

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.

Arborio is just a variety of short-grained rice.  It can be boiled and drained like pasta, to be eaten on its own or added to soup (instead of pasta), and that’s how it’s used down south. What makes it into risotto is the slow feeding and long stirring. To me risotto is quintessentially Northern:  steamy and creamy, fatty and velvety, blended both in texture and flavor, with subtlety more delicious at its last bite than its first.  Done right, it’s plate-scraping good.  It was my friends’ plate‑scraping that finally converted me, the time I made risotto for them from the broth of a bollito misto, as inspired by the apologetic of Marcella Hazan. 

Before Marcella got famous and editors, she was just a biologist giving cooking lessons to neighbors in her New York apartment, and her cookbooks were little paperbacks in which she waxed freely in her introductions to her recipes.  Being Bolognese, Marcella was to risotto born, in Lombardy, the heartland both of Arborio’s rice fields and Parmigiano’s cows.  At first I followed her risotto recipes to a tee and was thoroughly unimpressed with the result.  Much a gush about mush, I thought.  Taking the easy way out, I used canned broth, and I adjudged the dish well not worth the trouble.  My zeal against pasta’s invidious detractors felt vindicated.  Risotto was a lot more work, and tedious work, and for all that work, bland tasting stuff.  It tasted to me like the sort of staple‑food you learn to love by growing up with it, and not worth learning to love if you don’t.  I still feel this way about polenta.

But then I came across Marcella’s recipe for bollito misto, which could not fail to pique my curiosity with its call for a whole calf head and tongue, in addition to a whole veal breast, chuck roast, and chicken.  She said that traditional restaurants in Piedmont featured a cart in which these sundry slabs of meat sat simmering at the ready to be fished from the delicious bath they made for themselves, and sliced table‑side, served with sundry sauces, red, green or white, hot, herby, or sweet.  She testified that a traditional bollito misto was well worth trying sometime for a large dinner party of a dozen or two, and she promised that the broth will make the most delicious risotto you’ve ever had.   

If that wasn’t enough to capture my imagination, she offered by way of apologetic the following:

“This makes me think of an episode in The Passionate Epicure, Marcel Rouff’s legend of that prodigious gastronome, Dodin‑Bouffant.  Dodin had been the guest of the Prince of Eurasia, who, in the anxiety to parade the richness of his table before this most discerning of gourmets, overwhelmed him with a vulgar and grandiloquent display of pretentious courses.  Dodin countered by inviting the Prince and some friends to dine with him at home.  When his guests were seated, trembling in anticipation of the feast that awaited them, Dodin announced his menu.  Not only was it astonishingly brief, but its principal course was to be a ‘boiled beef garnished with its own vegetables.’  This is what follows:

‘The Prince, reflecting that this meagre program would hardly have provided the first course of his ordinary meals, wondered inwardly whether he should countenance having been brought from so far in order to eat boiled beef which, at home, he left to the servants’ hall …  It arrived at last, that fearsome boiled beef, scorned, reviled, insulting to the Prince and to all gastronomy.  Dodin‑Bouffant’s boiled beef, prodigiously imposing, borne upon an immensely long dish … held so high aloft at arms’ length, that at first the anxious guests could see nothing whatever. 

But when, cautiously and with purposeful slowness it was placed upon the table, there were several minutes of genuine astonishment.  Each guest’s return to self‑possession was marked by person rhythms and reactions.  Rabaz and Magot mentally scourged themselves for having doubted the Master.  Trifouille was seized with panic before the display of such genius; Beaubois trembled with emotion.  As for the Prince of Eurasia, he wavered between the noble desire to create Dodin‑Bouffant a Duke immediately, as Napoleon had wished to do for Corneille; a wild urge to offer the gastronome half his fortune and half his realm to take over the reins of his gustatory administration; the irritation of being taught a lesson which was now crystal clear; and his haste to cut into the marvel which laid before him its intoxicating promises.

The beef itself, lightly rubbed with saltpeter and then gone over with salt, was carved into slices of a flesh so fine that is mouth‑melting texture could actually be seen.  The aroma it gave forth was not only that of beef‑juice smoking like incense, but the energetic smell of tarragon with which is impregnated and the few, very few, cubes of transparent, immaculate bacon in the larding.  The rather thick slices, their velvety quality guessed at by every lip, rested languidly upon a pillow made of a wide slice of sausage, coarsely chopped, in which [was] the finest veal escorted pork, chopped herbs, thyme, chervil ….  This delicate triumph of pork‑butchery was itself supported by ample cuts from the breast and wing fillets of farm chickens, boiled in their own juice with a shine of veal, rubbed with mint and wild thyme.  And, to prop up this triple and magnificent accumulation, behind the white flesh of the fowls (fed exclusively upon bread and milk), was the stout, robust support of a generous layer of fresh goose livers simply cooked in Chamertin. …  Each guest was to extract, in one stroke, between spoon and fork, the quadruple enchantment which was his share. …

Congenial whole hearted enjoyment could now give itself free rein. … They might abandon themselves, in all contentment, to the pleasures of taste, and to that sweet, confident friendship which beckons to well‑born men after means worthy of the name.’” (From The Passionate Epicure by Marcel Rouff, Tr. Claude, E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1962; as cited in Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, Ballantine Books, N.Y., 1984, pp. 311-12.)

I just love that vignette (can you believe that the editors edited it out of the subsequent and now definitive Fundamentals redaction?), and my imagination was still captivated by the scene when, what should I come across at the uninspired meat section of my local low-end supermarket, but a huge calf tongue!  I had never even seen one before.  It’s quite disgusting—looks just as you’d fear a severed tongue might, dangling roots and all.  And what should be beside it, but a veal breast, which I hadn’t seen since early childhood, when my mother could still get away with serving it for dinner, stuffed with scrambled eggs.  And what’s more, whole chickens on sale—we never don’t buy what’s on sale, do we?  The only thing missing was the calf‑head—which Marcella had sensibly admitted could be omitted—and the braising cut of beef. 

It could of course be just coincidence that such relatively rare ingredients should present themselves to me in the full flush of fancy all at the same time and in the most unexpected place, but it could also be Providence, for what is providence if not coincidence willed from on high?  And as if to confirm and ratify, one of my fellow ABD foody friends had the missing beef roast to offer from her freezer, when I called around to announce the bollito misto dinner party and assign each ABD foody a sauce to make and bring.  But wait, who has a pot big enough for all that meat?  I’ll tell you who, the local discount store has a mega-one on saleAmen.

By the way, I still have that pot.  And would you believe I made this bollito in it on one of the two electric burners of my basement apartment’s compact kitchen console, a Sears catalog special, the size of a kitchen cart, yet complete with mini-sink, mini-fridge, and two electric burners?  Ah the days of poverty that delighted to be resourceful!  The bollito took all day to make, and peeling the tongue mid-boil proved even more disgusting than trimming away its roots.  While peeling, it occurs to me, “Who’s going to eat this thing, and for that matter, what in God’s name am I going to do with all that other meat besides?”  There are, after all, only 6 ABD foodies to feed, and even 6 doggy bags won’t make enough of a dent, I figure.  So I decide to make only a little risotto, to be sure they don’t fill up on that and not eat the meat.  Well, that didn’t go over well.  They were scraping their plates, furrowing their brows, and clacking their lips the louder, as if in protest, at the news that there weren’t seconds to be had.  Boiled meat for a second dish was a hard sell, even with their own homemade sauces to recommend it.  “The meat’s good, but my God, that risotto!” 

That’s when the vision came to me:  Good risotto is but good broth incarnate!  Oh, and lots and lots of butter—the amount Marcella gives in the old paperback, not in the later healthier hardback.  Then there’s the heaping fistful of freshly grated Parmigiano to be given its due.  Of course, of course, all gifts of the cow to the people of the milk pail!  That’s when I first understood risotto, as in a flash.  Conversions are always in a flash. 

I’ve never made bollito misto since, but that recipe was my metanoia, in that it freed me from the exacting statutes for making stock.  Traditional recipes for stock originate from the frugality of farmhouse and restaurant kitchens.  It was a way to make use of what was too old and tough to eat otherwise:  an old hen, meat scraps from trimming, wizened root vegetables.  But you and I, Gentle Reader, are not poor, and not in the kitchen continuously to keep a huge pot barely simmering at the back of a stove to be fed a steady supply of food scraps.  So I’ve come up with a broth recipe that needs not more than 3 hours of simmering and uses cuts of meat good enough to have for dinner that night—a baby bollito misto.  As often as I have a reason to be home all afternoon anyway, I make a broth (which makes the house smell delicious), if not to use in the next couple of days, then to freeze for future use.  I always have appropriate cuts of meat at hand in the freezer because I buy them to keep in stock whenever I see them on sale.  Then when the grace of risotto’s moment calls, I answer.

The Broth

The key to good broth is soup bones.  You want them for the viscosity of their marrow rather than for meatiness, so look for small ones with tender white centers, not big hard ones with speciously alluring scraps of meat clinging to them.  There was a time when your butcher gave them as a complimentary bonus, but since the likes of Anthony Boudain televises sexy Spaniard chefs roasting marrow bones and sucking on them, the likes of Whole Food does not scruple to gouge you with prices as for steak.  I am fortunate to get good soup bones at reasonable rates at my local Grauls, and I always grab and freeze fine specimens. 

A mix of both beef and chicken is needed for good risotto broth.  My go-to beef is beef shank, also readily available at my Grauls, and shank, being shin, gives you more marrow to boot.  Its cartilaginous meat becomes delicious if boiled long enough to start falling tender from its marrow bone.  I enjoy it on its own when I put an herb like fresh thyme or parsley at the bottom of a soup bowl, lay the meat on top, ladle some broth over, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and fresh grindings of pepper.  I’ll sometimes supplement the boiled beef with wedges of potato and/or escarole that I’ve boiled in the broth.  For a fancy dish worthy a guest even, I’ll make my recipe of Brussel sprouts braised with potatoes, and add some of that to the soup bowl with the meat.  That’s a very delicious addition, but not a little work in its own right, so I often plan to braise the Brussel sprouts a day or two before, as a vegetable side to another meal, and save leftovers for use with the broth later that week.

A reasonable substitute for beef shank is a chunk of chuck roast.  Again, you want to boil it long enough that it’s not just fork-tender but falling apart.  Cartilaginous meat boiled this far is often soft enough to eat with only a fork.  For broth I also boil chicken to falling off the bone.  I usually collect chicken thighs and legs on sale to put in the freezer for the purpose, but I’ll occasionally dedicate a whole chicken to the broth, if a sale is good enough to merit profligacy.  (I never use a cooked chicken carcass—that’s only frugal, not delicious.)  I’ll serve the boiled chicken in a soup bowl prepared just as for the beef above.

Here’s how I make broth.  A few hours before, I put the soup bones and frozen meats into a briney bath of ¼-cup salt to 1‑qt. water.  When I’m ready to start the broth, I fish out the soup bones, rub them clean under running water, and put them into a 400 degree oven, to dry off and then sizzle golden.  Meanwhile, I put an 8-qt. pot half‑filled with water on high heat to come to a rolling boil, adding in a palmful of salt (1 tablespoon?), a half dozen whole peppercorns, and a bay leaf. 

I next trim a large onion, a couple of celery stalks, and a half dozen carrots.  Yes, a half dozen carrots, or more.  That’s how my mother does it, and I like it that way, rosy and sweet.  Wash and halve the celery stalks; peel, wash, and halve the carrots; peel the onion, and then cut a scant quarter from each end, so that the onion will hold together during boiling.  Put all these aromatic roots into the pot of heating water.  Before long they’ll make the water smell good, long before the meat goes in.  We’re in fact preparing an aromatic bath for the meat to simmer in, vaporizing scents and flavors to infuse the meat with. 

Next, peel, wash, and halve a small potato.  The ideal of classic gourmet recipes for broth is broth as clear as water, and there is much fuss made about clarifying your broth, so that potato starch would be counterproductive.  But we care for flavor and texture more than for clarity, so we don’t care what gourmets say.  We put in a potato, and several pelati (whole peeled tomatoes, never not imported from Italy), and several branches of fresh parsley.  If it’s true that any effect of that parsley will be long gone after 3 hours of simmering, we also don’t care.  We put them in anyway, because we like to.

By now, the water is close to a rolling boil and the roasting soup bones have blushed golden and are probably smoking, having shed now sizzling fat into the roasting pan.  Grab the bones with tongs and place them in the rapidly boiling water.  Now lower the temperature under the pot to bring the water down to a gentle but steady simmer, with the pot covered.  Simmer those bones for as long as an hour or as little as 20 minutes, before introducing the edible meats.

We now have a brew worthy our beef.  The beef goes in before the chicken, to simmer for an hour and a half, and as long as two hours, depending on how beefy your beef chunks are.  You might want to temporarily raise the heat under the pot when first adding the beef, until the water comes back up to a steady simmer.  Gourmets say the simmer should be lazy and the cover well ajar, but they also say a good broth needs 4 or 5 hours.  I keep the pot covered and at a steady simmer for the first two hours, uncovering it, if need be, only during the last hour, when the chicken is simmering.

If I wished to be fair to gourmets, I would distinguish between Italian broth and French stock.  Stock is generally intended to be used as a seasoning for sauces in cooking, so the aim in making it is extraction and concentration of flavors, and French culinary economy is ready to do what’s needed to extract flavor from such kitchen castoffs as superannuated hens, roast carcasses, the peels of tomatoes, potatoes, and whatnot.  But you, Gentle reader, have neither the need nor the time for such extractions.  Allow me to recommend to you, instead, the lightness of Italian broth, which is used in cooking not as a seasoning, but rather a tasty substitute for water—in fact, risotto is sometimes made with plain water (or else water in which the featured vegetable has been parboiled), and if you’re ever short on broth, you should start with boiling water and finish with simmering broth.  To be sure, Italians want their broth tasty enough to enjoy on its own—with pastina boiled in it, for example—but still fresh, frank, and friendly.  I’m a proud omnivore, but one of the few things I could not bring myself to eat was French stock served cold in summer for a first course.  Nothing fresh, frank, or friendly about that, I assure you.

Okay, after 90 minutes or more of simmering the beef, I taste the broth.  If the broth seems thin and watery, then it’s time to uncover the pot altogether, raising the heat to keep it at a steady simmer for the next hour, to ensure that the broth concentrates in flavor by the end.  If the broth seems not so much thin as bland, then I add some more salt, taking into account another hour’s worth of concentrating.  The balance to be struck is between tastiness and quantity:  we want to end up with the most broth we can, but tasty, if lightly.  The gourmets warn you not to salt until the end because it’s easy to overdo it, but whereas they care only about the stock, we care also about the meat, and the meat won’t come out tasty if its cooking broth isn’t tasty. 

Add the chicken to the broth now, raising the heat to bring the water back to a steady simmer after you do.  When it does, leave the cover ajar or remove it altogether, depending on the previous tasting of the broth.  Either way, keep the broth at a steady simmer, for about another hour, until some meat starts pulling away from the bone.  At that point, we’re done.  Take the pot off the heat, cover it, and let the meat cool down for another half-hour in its protective broth.  You need to keep the meat under or in broth to keep it moist.  If you pull it out of its protective broth before it cools, you better eat it right away, because like a fish out of water, it will soon dry and die. 

Now, if you intend to use this broth the same day to make risotto, then while it was simmering you needed periodically to skim off with a spoon the slicks of fat that rise to the top.  However, if you only intend to eat the meat and to save the broth for another day, then don’t skim, because when you refrigerate, that fat will rise to form a protective layer on top that naturally seals the broth.  Delicious broth is as beloved of bacteria as of us, and this seal helps suffocate the little buggers; the fat‑seal is easy to remove with a fork when you’re ready to reheat the broth for use.  If you are going to use the broth in a few days, be sure to simmer it for another 10 or 15 minutes first. If you’re not going to use the broth in a few days, it’s best to freeze it right away, lest you forget it for too long in the fridge without boiling in between and then have to toss it. 

After the broth has rested at least a half-hour, you can strain it. I set a colander over a bowl, and use tongs to fish out the vegetables and bones and pile them up in the colander to drip.  I collect the edible meat in a pot or storage container, basting it with broth.  I then strain the broth by ladling it through a fine sieve strainer, either into a pot for use now or a storage container for use later.  I likewise strain whatever broth has dripped from my colander into its bowl. I certainly do not bother with the gourmet’s cheesecloths and egg whites, because I see only art’s vanity in broth strained crystal clear.

As I’ve said above, dinner tonight will be a couple pieces of this boiled meat laid over a fresh herb at the bottom of a soup bowl, with broth ladled in, and olive oil drizzled on top, sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper.  If I have the boiled meat tomorrow night for dinner, I’ll add some cut up potato or escarole to cook in the simmering broth while I reheat the meat.  If I plan it right, I might have leftover Brussel sprouts braised with potatoes to add to the simmering broth.  Or maybe, instead, while reheating the meat, I’ll boil some pastina, and when the meat is ready, I’ll fish it out with a little broth and add the drained pastina to the rest, for a first dish of soup.

Or maybe I’ll use the broth to make risotto.   

 Finally, the risotto!

Risotto, now?  After all that simmering, with all the mess still to clean up, I’m supposed to pull out yet another pot and stand over it steaming for another 20 minutes stirring continuously? And then have a second dish with vegetable side after that?  Is this really worth it?  I feel you, Gentle Reader, but I can’t answer that question for you, only you can.  For certain, your eaters will think it worth your while.  But you, the cook?  Such cooking is the stuff of self‑oblating Italian mothers from the North.  It may well be like celibacy, a thing willed not by man but vouchsafed by God.  My own self‑oblating Italian mother from the South loves risotto, yet professes to be unable to learn how to make it, leaving her son to take his turn at self‑oblation.

But can’t you just do it with canned broth, you ask.  Yes, you can, you can use 2 of chicken broth, one of beef, and one canful of water.  But know that as your apostle I will hold you apostate and your risotto anathema.  Indeed, in testimony against you, I here give you the recipe for white risotto, the mother of all risotti, seasoned with nothing but butter and Parmigiano, so as to shame you with the taste of canned broth incarnate.

We begin with not too much onion.  Half a not large onion will be plenty for 2 cups of rice, plus 4 tablespoons butter, for a first dish for four.  We are in the North, so we mince our onion fine.  Then we melt 3 tablespoons of butter (for 2C rice, minus 1T for later) into 1-1/2T of light oil (i.e., half as much oil as butter, to keep it from burning), together with the finely minced onion and a scant sprinkling of salt, stirring.  As soon as the onion turns translucent and aromatic, add the rice, stirring and scraping and flipping, until it glistens with the oil.  Some say to sauté until the rice grains show a pearly center framed by a translucent border, but I don’t know what they’re talking about.  So as soon as my rice glistens satiny and my butter foams, I add in a ladle of broth, 4-5 cups of which is lazily simmering in a nearby pot.  The broth sizzles almost angrily upon hitting the hot pot, but when we stir it in, the rice seems to soften with pleasure.

We now add a shot or two of light white wine, and stir that in to perfume the rice.  Then begins the long feeding.  Like a farmer fattening an animal for slaughter, feeding it steadily and well, coddling it like one of the family, perhaps naming it with a pet name, seeing to its health, even its comfort, for the day of slaughter, so must you patiently and methodically fatten your rice with a ladleful or two of broth at a time, stirring it in and sliding your spatula under the rice to flip it over and fold it into itself, gently, steadily, patiently, until the fatted grain is ready for the prodigal feast.  The simmering rice must be kept at a simmer steady but not fervid, yet  lively enough to require continuous stirring—gentle, graceful, rhythmic stirring, in long loving strokes—to keep the rice from sticking.  You might well think this a good time to chat with your guests over cocktails in the kitchen, but you would not think well.  You would do well, rather, to attend to your rice’s transformation, to feel it, as does a dancer leading his partner or a priest leading his lamb to the altar.

Add enough broth just to cover your rice and make it soupy.  Then stir, slide, flip and fold, until the broth simmers away and leaves the rice a creamy mass that allows streaks of pot to appear.  Add more broth to make it soupy again, and stir and stir, placidly, rhythmically, feelingly, until creamy again.  As you faithfully feed it, your rice will grow and grow, and finally plump.  After around 15 minutes, taste.  The plumped grains will likely still have a dense, chewy center.  Not ready yet, as far as I’m concerned. 

Northern Italians are at least as fussy about their rice being al dente as Southern Italians are about pasta.  Each grain must be firm enough to be felt separately on the tongue, they insist.  Very well, but I don’t want it stuck in my molars.  I want my every rice grain integral, to be sure, but evenly tender throughout too.  The critical thing to understand is that it’s not the length of cooking time, but rather the amount of liquid fed the rice that softens it. Too much liquid, and you have mush, and it’s just when you’ve tired of stirring so long and the rice is on the brink of perfection that a precipitate ladleful too much of broth will send it and you over the cliff. 

So, when that moment comes that I can taste that that last bit of dense center is about to turn tender, at that point, I turn up the heat to maximum and stir in broth vivace, con moto!, so that it boils off fast, as I force a final bloating of my rice grains on billows of broth.  Finally, done!  Off heat!  Flick a wad of fresh butter onto the steamy mass of creamy rice, with fresh grindings of black pepper, and a brimming ¼ cup of freshly grated Reggiano-Parmigiano (never Pecorino Romano—let the sheep give way to the cow—tangy milk to sweet!).   Fold the bovine cheese vigorously in, until blended with the creamy mass of rice.  Taste and correct, if need be for yet more salt, pepper, or cheese.  Then cover, and let rest.

Get the guests to the table, along with a bowl of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper mill.  After 5 minutes, uncover the pot and vigorously stir the risotto to fluff it anew.  Then either pour it all out into a serving bowl, topped perhaps with sprinklings of freshly chopped parsley, to pass around the table, or else serve up individual portions in bowls.  I have found that a half cup of raw rice per person for a first dish is about right on average, because some eaters will want twice as much risotto as others, or else seconds.  I have found that, on average, Italians will eat twice as much risotto as Gentiles, but Gentiles are twice as likely to ask for seconds, not having taken enough in the first round.

I made a lot of mediocre risotto before I learned to make it well.  It requires a zenny knack that comes only with experience.   I learned to make it right, as I have so many other things, by cooking it for myself.  When you cook for others, it’s about performing and pleasing.  When you cook for yourself, your cooking becomes about your food, and your food becomes another self.  When I lived in Rome for a year, I was often alone and lonely, so I took long walks, and I was free to see and feel and befriend the city itself.  In a similar way you feel food you cook for yourself differently, free to attend to it in its own right, to see and feel its virtues and graces, and to learn thereby respect and gratitude when it gives them up to you and for you.  You have time to wonder, Who makes these good things whose good is to pass away, if not one who is good and never passes away?     

Porcini Risotto

For my Southern Italian family, risotto is not a staple but a specialty, the stuff of holidays.  In their prejudicially narrow experience, it is nearly synonymous with porcini risotto.  When I’ve tried to make other risotti, my parents said, “It’s not like the porcini one.”  They think the asparagus one is okay.  They keep trying to get me to make a seafood risotto like the one they get at their favorite Italian restaurant in Brooklyn, but I resist.  It took only one failed attempt at a clam risotto for me to see that fish risotti are a sub-specialty, an art for which, as with baking, ordinary cooking does not prepare you.  But my porcini risotto is a proven pleaser with both novices and the cognoscenti, so I here offer it to you as a first and perhaps finest variation on white risotto.

Porcini are wild mushrooms sniffed out and dug up by pigs in forests.  They are then dried and sold in little packets at exorbitant rates.  Unfortunately, you’ll want two little packets for two cups of Arborio rice, itself not a cheap item.  Northern Italians, like Frenchmen, are great entrepreneurs, and get you to pay dear for their food.  If you get addicted to porcini, you can buy it in big bags at reduced but still not reasonable rates, so I don’t recommend addiction.  Sometimes recipes will try to stretch porcini’s stirringly earthy flavors by mixing them with other, fresh mushrooms, such as Baby Bella, but I have a different recipe for risotto made with Baby Bella, one I made up myself and give in my post on “Mushrooms garlicky”.

My porcini recipe came from the back of a packet of them I got while living in Rome, and the recipe is distinguished by the unusual direction to rehydrate the dried porcini in milk rather than in water.  It’s precisely because that sounds like such a bad mix that I was eager to try it, and it gives a remarkable result.  The milk seems to extract and dilate porcini’s signature flavor and suffuse the rice cream with it.  It’s the secret agent of my porcini risotto.

While a half-cup of milk heats to shy of scalding bubbles, I rinse my porcini one by one under a light stream of water, to remove any loose sediment.  I normally don’t have patience for such care of singulars in cooking, but at this price, I find the patience.  I pour the warm milk over the rinsed porcini in a little bowl, and leave them to drink it, expand, and soften, for at least 20 minutes. 

Once they’re plumped, I grab fistfuls of the now tender porcini and squeeze their milk back into the bowl whence they came.  I leave that milk to settle down and its sediment to settle out to the bottom of the bowl, so that I can later very gently pour out the milk into my risotto pot, leaving the sediment behind.  Meanwhile, I chop the porcini very fine, for maximum diffusion of its flavor in the risotto; since there’s no particular pleasure to be had from chewing porcini, there’s no reason to regret their disappearance into the rice.

Now we’re ready to start the risotto as above, sautéing a bit of finely minced onion in a lot of butter and a little oil; and then sautéing the rice to glistening; then a searing ladleful of broth.  But instead of a shot or two of light white wine to follow, we gently pour out the porcini milk, leaving all the sediment behind, and cook the milk into the rice, stirring and scraping and flipping and folding, as usual.  Once streaks of pot begin to show, we’re ready to continue cooking with simmering broth, a ladleful or two at a time, in rounds of soupy to creamy. 

About half way through, in perhaps ten minutes, add in the minced porcini with a ladeful of broth, and continue cooking as usual.  Porcini do not require long cooking, and are in fact liable to toughen if overcooked.  The milk allows us to introduce their flavor to the rice from the start, so they may come in midway as rear guard to finish the job.  

The rest is the usual drill:  taste for tenderness at 15 minutes; finish with vivace stirring on high heat in the last minute; off‑heat, fold in fresh butter, freshly grated Parmigiano‑Reggiano, and fresh grindings of black pepper.  Cover and let rest. In five minutes, fluff and serve, along with more cheese and a pepper-mill at table.  Don’t led the ensuing adulation go to your head.

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 A Baby Bollito for Broth

* Get some nice soup bones, with soft centers.  Collect sundry cuts of beef and chicken:  e.g., beef shank, chunks of chuck roast, beef ribs; chicken thighs, chicken legs, or even a whole chicken.
*  Put the soup bones to soak (as well as any frozen cuts of meat) in a briney bath of ¼ cup salt to 1 qt. water for a few hours.  Then rinse the bones, rubbing them under running water, and put them in a pan in a 400 degree oven, until they start to smell good. 
*  Fill an 8 qt. stock pot half full with water, and put it over a high flame covered, to bring to a rolling boil.  Add a tablespoon of salt, a half‑dozen whole black peppercorns, and a bay leaf.
*  Meanwhile, trim, peel, rinse &  halve a half‑dozen carrots; trim, rinse & halve a couple of celery stalks; peel a really big onion, and slice off a scant quarter of each end.  Put all these aromatic roots into the heating water.
*  Rinse, peel, & halve a potato.  Add the potato to the heating water along with several pelati (whole peeled tomatoes) and several fresh parsley branches.
*  When the soup bones have blushed golden and smell sweet, add them to the by now boiling water.  Cover the pot and lower the flame to achieve a steady simmer, for a half-hour or so.
*  After a half-hour or so, add in the beef, and set the timer for an hour and a half.  After an hour and a half, taste the broth for flavorfulness.  If thin and watery, remove the cover from the pot here on in.  If bland, add more salt.  If the beef doesn’t seem relaxed, cook it another half-hour.
*  Add the chicken and simmer steadily for another hour, with the cover either ajar or uncovered, depending on the concentration of the broth at last tasting.
*  (If you’re using the broth tonight, use a large spoon to periodically skim off the slicks of fat that rise to the surface of the simmering broth.)
*  When some meat begins to pull away from the bone, the baby bollito is done.  Take the pot off the flame, cover the pot, and let the meat cool down in its protective broth.
*  To serve the meat, put a fresh sprig of thyme, parsley, marjoram, or tarragon at the bottom of a soup bowl, and lay some boiled meat on it.  Ladle some broth over, then drizzle some olive oil.  Sprinkle with salt and fresh grindings of black pepper. 
*  For fuller fare, during the cooling of the meat, boil some potato chunks and/or escarole in some of the broth on the side, to add into the bowls of meat at serving. 
*  For fancy fare, add Brussel sprouts braised with potatoes.

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 Risotto Parmigiano

*  Make delicious broth, and don’t bother with this risotto if you’re unwilling or unable to.  Have a lazily simmering pot of broth at hand besides your risotto pot, at least 2 cups broth per 1 cup rice.
*  Figure on ½-cup of Arborio rice plus 1-tablespoon butter per person, and ¼ small onion per cup of rice.  (For example, for 2 people, 1 cup rice, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 onion.)
*  Mince the onion fine.  To half as much light oil, add all the butter save 1-tablespoon (for later), in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, together with the minced onion.  As soon as the onion starts sizzling, keep stirring and saute it to translucent and sweet-smelling.
*  Add the rice, and stir, scrape, flip, and fold, until the rice glistens with the butter and the butter starts to foam.  Now add a ladleful of broth, for a searing sizzle, and stir it into to rice, which will soften and amass.  Now stir in a shot or two of light white wine.
*  Continue cooking for about 15 more minutes, adding a ladleful or two of broth at a time, continuously stirring it with long loving strokes, sliding your spatula under the rice and then flipping it over, folding it into itself.  Be rhythmic, graceful, perhaps wistful.  When the soupy rice cooks back down to creamy, allowing streaks of pot to appear from below, add another ladle or two of broth, and continue stirring, sliding, flipping, and folding, for another round of soupy to creamy.
*  After 15 minutes, taste for doneness.  You want each grain to remain whole and distinct, but be tender throughout.  If there’s still a dense core, keep feeding the rice broth, and tasting.  When you feel a last bit of density ready to give way to tenderness, then turn up the head to fervid, add one last ladleful or less of broth, and stir vivace, con moto!, to inflate the rice on the fumes of the boiling broth.
*  Remove the pot from heat, and add that last tablespoon of butter, a big palmful or two of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper.  Vigorously blend it into the rice, and then taste.  More salt?  More cheese?  More pepper?
*  Cover the pot and let the risotto rest 5 minutes while you get your guests to the table, with a bowl of more cheese and a pepper mill.  When time to serve up bowls of the risotto, fluff it first with some vigorous stirring, sliding, flipping, and folding.

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Porcini Risotto

*  Make delicious broth.  If you instead use one can of beef broth, two of chicken, and 1 of water, I don’t want to know about it.   
*  Figure on ½-cup of Arborio rice plus 1-tablespoon butter per person, and ¼ onion per cup of rice.  Then figure on 1 packet of dried porcini per 1 cup of rice.  (For example, for 2 people, 1 cup rice, 2 tablespoons butter, 1/4 onion, one 2-oz. packet of dried porcini.)
*  Warm up some milk while rinsing the porcini, one at a time, under a running trickle of water.  Pour milk just short of scalding bubbles over the porcini in a bowl, just to cover.  After at least 20 minutes, squeeze the porcini dry, letting the milk drip back into the bowl.  Chop the porcini fine.  Save the milk
*  Mince the onion fine.  To half as much light oil, add all the butter save 1-tablespoon, in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, together with the minced onion.  As soon as the onion starts sizzling, keep stirring and saute it to translucent and sweet-smelling.
*  Add the rice, and stir, scrape, flip, and fold, until the rice glistens with the butter and the butter starts to foam.  Now add a ladleful of broth, for a searing sizzle, and stir it into to rice, which will soften and amass.
*  Now very slowly and gently pour the milk out the bowl into the pot, stopping short to leave all the sediment behind the bowl.  Stir the milk into the rice and let it simmer away.
*  Continue cooking the rice with broth, adding a ladleful or two of broth at a time, continuously stirring it with long loving strokes, sliding your spatula under the rice and then flipping it over, folding it into itself.  Be rhythmic, graceful, perhaps wistful.  When the soupy rice cooks back down to creamy, allowing streaks of pot to appear from below, add another ladle or two of broth and continue stirring, sliding, flipping, and folding, for another round of soupy to creamy.
* After almost ten minutes, add the minced porcini with a ladleful of broth.  Continue stirring, sliding, flipping, and folding, as heretofore.
*  After 15 minutes, taste for doneness.  You want each grain to remain whole and distinct, but be tender throughout.  If there’s still a dense core, keep feeding the rice broth, and tasting.  When you feel a last bit of density ready to give way to tenderness, then turn up the head to fervid, add one scant ladleful or less of broth, and stir vivace, con moto!, to inflate the rice on the fumes of the boiling broth.
*  Remove the pot from heat, and add that reserved tablespoon of butter, a big palmful or two of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, and freshly ground black pepper.  Vigorously blend it into the rice, and then taste.  More salt?  More cheese?  More pepper?
*  Cover the pot and let the risotto rest 5 minutes while you get your guests to the table, with a bowl of more Parmigiano and a pepper mill.  When time to serve up bowls of the risotto, fluff it first with some vigorous stirring, sliding, flipping, and folding.
* Eat it fresh and fluffy, and finish it, for it will never be as good as it is in this its finest hour.