Risotto makes me think of romantic occasions, a meal shared together, and simple food paired with a nice wine. It’s a great “hanging out together relaxing and enjoying the evening” meal because: 1) It promotes conversation. Risotto requires some hovering and stirring but nothing more complex than that, so you have 30 minutes together while engaged in some easy cooking. 2) It uses 1/2 cup of wine. So while you’re stirring and chatting, you can enjoy the rest of that bottle. 3) It makes you look like a total gourmet. There’s a deliberate technique and process to making risotto, so while it’s a simple one, it’ll impress the person you’re making it for.
When you make risotto, timing is everything. Make sure everything else is ready to go. As soon as the risotto is done, you’ll want to sit down and enjoy it since it’s best when eaten right away. (Don’t finish cooking and then suddenly go scrambling for plates and silverware and candles and the salad that you forgot all about. Remember the “relaxing” part I mentioned before? Have all that taken care of before you start cooking.)
The ingredients in risotto should be few and simple and the rice should be the star. Don’t throw in a million veggies and peas and shrimp and scallops and big chunks of chicken. Save that for paella (ahh…another relaxing meal shared with wine and friends…), although a few seared scallops do pair nicely with risotto. But I digress. In this risotto that I made today, the flavor comes from umami-packed Shiitake mushrooms, broth, onion, and a touch of garlic, rosemary, and white wine. Usually risotto has a lot of heavy cream and cheese, but I think a good risotto is more about distinct flavor and good fluid consistency. The “creaminess” is already there and comes from the gradual process of cooking and stirring Arborio rice.
To make risotto, start with real Arborio rice – look for it sold in boxes at Trader Joe’s. It’s that fat, pearly, short grain Arborio rice that makes risotto what it is. The creaminess of risotto comes from the high starch content, and the grains of Arborio can absorb a huge amount of liquid without becoming mushy. Try making risotto out of other kinds of rice and you’ll end up with a goopy mealy mush.
The next thing you’ll have to do is toast the rice in oil before adding any liquid such as your wine or broth. And as you add the broth, make sure it’s heated first and add the broth in increments, allowing the rice to absorb most of it before adding more.
Unlike other kinds of rice, Arborio rice is done when it’s al dente. It should be cooked but still firm to the bite (a texture which you might consider underdone in other kinds of rice).
Did you watch Top Chef last week? Then you’ll know that poor Tre was sent packing for making risotto that was too stiff and dry. As the judges said over and over, “risotto should spread.” Risotto shouldn’t be watery or runny, but it should definitely be fluid, creamy, and smooth. If you were to put some on a plate and jiggle the plate from side to side, the risotto should easily move and spread. If not, then it’s too dry and you need to add more liquid to the pan.
Click to see my recipe for Shiitake Mushroom Risotto. This particular recipe makes enough for 4. If it’s just the two of you, you can simply cut the rice and broth in half (but keep everything else the same). Enjoy your risotto and most of all your romantic evenings!