Risotto isn’t anywhere near as difficult to make as some people would have you believe. Once you master the basic techniques, you’ll find it’s easy to make it your own. It’s truly an all season food ~ I have summer and winter versions, and I’m always inventing new recipes!
The thing I love most about risotto is how easily it feeds a crowd and makes fabulous leftovers. In fact, I prefer eating day-old risotto to a freshly made batch; the flavors just blend together so nicely.
My spring risotto included leeks, peas, celery and lemon; I was looking for good asparagus but left it out because everything I found looked a bit tired.
I also make a fall version with roasted red peppers and sundried tomato chicken sausage. It’s super hearty and my husband loves it. Experiment to your heart’s content!
The first thing to know about making risotto is that you need a handful of essential ingredients before you can customize. You’ll want to use arborio rice; it usually comes in a cardboard carton, vacuum sealed, and can be found either with the other rices or in the ethnic/organic section of major food markets, depending on where you go. I buy mine at Trader Joe’s because their packaging is exactly the amount of rice you need for one batch (about two cups). Arborio rice is an Italian short-grain rice that is high in starch and absorbs lots of liquid to give you a creamy finished product. When I lived in Italy, I learned that risotto is truly a staple — you can throw just about any leftover veggies into it, and it reheats very well as I mentioned. The children in my host family ate it most days of the week when they came home from school for lunch.
The second thing you need is broth — chicken or vegetable, either works fine. You’ll either need two cans or one of the cardboard cartons. I don’t recommend getting low sodium, unless you are on a strict heart-related diet, but fat free and/or gluten free versions (like the one above) are just fine. To get started, set a pot of stock on to boil while you chop your other ingredients. Once the stock boils, you’ll want to keep it at a medium simmer — not so high that it starts to burn off, but not so low that it cools down, either. You need it hot to mix into the risotto properly.
The second thing you need is a chopped onion. In this case, I used leeks. While your stock is boiling, chop your onion and add to a large stock pot with equal parts olive oil and butter. Be liberal here — you really need it to coat the onion and bubble up when heated. The olive oil and butter keep each other from burning. You’ll start by sauteeing the onion over medium-high until translucent.
Next, you will pour all the arborio rice into the pot and stir immediately so it doesn’t stick. Why do this? The butter and olive oil actually coat the arborio rice and prevent it from getting soggy, which might happen if you started adding liquid right away.
Then, pour in a healthy glug of white wine. Just eyeball it; you’ll almost always use white, unless you are making something so meat- or seafood-heavy that only red makes sense. Stir until the wine burns off, just a minute or so. Get a measuring cup ready — after the wine burns off, you’re going to add a cup of water to the pan and stir.
Now there’s two ways you can go from here. If, like me, you’re using things that would benefit from longer cooking — like celery — you can add them in at this point, before you start adding the stock to the pan. If you are mixing in meat, I’d cook that in a separate pan and add it in the end; anything you don’t want to get soggy you won’t cook with the risotto. Most things fall into that category. Celery just happens to be pretty tough. Since I was also using a package of frozen peas, I tossed them in at this stage, too, so they could cook alongside the rice and celery.
Now it’s time to add the broth! It should be simmering away on medium-low. Using your measuring cup, add it one cup at a time, and stir the rice slowly until the liquid is absorbed. Then repeat. I don’t recommend leaving the room for longer than a minute or the rice could stick to the bottom of the pan — death to your risotto! If there’s one thing you can’t rescue, it’s burned rice. But don’t get sneaky and add too much veggie stock at once, either, because risotto is fickle that way. You have to go slow.
Once all your broth is gone, you’ll want to do a taste test. Check the risotto for tenderness. You want it to be al dente; a little pushback when you bite, somewhere between mushy and hard. If it’s still doesn’t taste done, then you can add water from here on out, tasting after every cupful to get the right texture. If you are cooking veggies or meat on the side, now would be the time to add them in. For my spring risotto, now was the time to add fresh squeezed lemon.
When you’re done, it’s time to add in grated cheese. Before you do this, you can also add salt and pepper to taste. Some people like to stir in a creamy element at this point, such as mascarpone cheese, but I prefer not to. Up to you!
Now if you decide you like your risotto more luiquid-y, that’s fine. Some people prefer a porridge feel, and that’s just as good. I wouldn’t skimp on cheese either way; I mix in a blend of parmesan and pecorino, because pecorino lends a nice salty bite that cuts the inherent blandness of a dish like risotto. Of course, fresh basil is always a good option.
hands on time: 30-40 minutes // serves 4
- 1 package of arborio rice, about 2 cups
- 1 onion, chopped, or one bunch of leeks, sliced
- 1 large carton (or 2 cans) of vegetable broth (chicken stock is OK too)
- 1 small package of frozen peas
- 4-6 stalks celery, diced
- freshly shaved parmesan and pecorino (or just use one of these)
- EVOO & butter
- salt and pepper to taste
Set a sauce pan on medium-high and pour in the stock. Once it reaches boiling, reduce heat and keep the stock at a low simmer, so it doesn’t burn off but stays warm.
Meanwhile, chop your leeks and add them to a large stock pot with equal parts olive oil and butter; stir until melted, well coated and translucent. Salt well to help leeks release their flavors.
Pour a healthy splash of white wine into the pan and stir to reduce. Next, add about a cup of water and stir until absorbed.
Add the celery and peas and stir to combine. Then, start adding the simmering stock, one cupful at a time, stirring constantly to prevent sticking.
Once the stock is gone, taste test; if the rice is too al dente, add water gradually until it achieves the right texture — firm but not stiff, and before it gets soggy.
Squeeze one organic lemon into the pan and stir.
Grate parmesan and pecorino directly into the pan. Pick a not-too-small grater and be heavy handed with the cheese.
Taste; add salt and pepper if needed.
Optional: Stir in a spoonful of mascarpone or cream cheese. I don’t do this; it’s a tad too Americanized for me. If anything, a drizzle of excellent olive oil is more authentic, as would be some freshly torn basil.
Serve with white wine and enjoy leftovers the next day!