Italian rice primer: Saffron & risotto, an Italian marriage
Saffron has coloured and flavoured risotto since its earliest origins. Cooking perfectly creamy risotto is a kitchen art worth cultivating.
Creamy, buttery-yellow, sensuously tender yet each grain still holding its own, a well made risotto is a splendid thing. It does not have to have that subtle yellow hue and today rarely does, but the marriage of Italian rice and saffron has been associated with risotto since at least 1809 in a recipe for rice cooked with butter, onions, stock, bone marrow, sausages and saffron. This is thought to have been used for its pigment at first, rather than its flavour and aroma.
The Wikipedia entry for risotto describes an unnamed glassblower’s apprentice in Milan who used saffron as a pigment in a dish for a wedding feast, but it was only in the last century that the now popular rice varieties known for risotto today were developed. In South Africa, we generally choose between Arborio and Carnaroli, but in Italy other varieties such as Maratelli, Vialone Nano, Baldo, Padano and Roma are also used.
The essential difference between an Italian rice such as arborio and carnaroli, and long grain rice or basmati, is that the former are highly absorbent of liquids. Anyone who has cooked a risotto dish has marvelled at how much liquid can be added, again and again and again, yet it all gets soaked up and cooked away. Eventually, if you don’t cook it with some restraint, you can go too far and the grains of rice will ultimately disintegrate, throwing the balance out. And the balance you’re looking for in a completed risotto dish is of grains that have held their shape yet become soft to the tooth (al dente, just like pasta) with some pleasingly creamy sauce surrounding them.
Risotto is regarded as one of the most challenging things to cook, but it has become one of my favourite things to cook, and I no longer fear it. It was when I stopped following recipes for it, and just cooked, that I lost my fear.
There are some rules to be learnt.
- Risotto needs time, care and restraint. This means constant movement with a gentle touch; no violence in the pan. It means your eye must always be on the dish while it’s cooking, so that you can tell just when to add more wine or stock, and when it’s done, when not to add anything more, and when to stop agitating the contents of the pan. The constant movement helps the grains release their starches as they rub together, which creates the creaminess.
- Do not rinse your risotto rice. Its starchy coating, unlike with other rice, is what is needed to create that creamy finish you’re in search of. Starch is everything in a risotto.
- Tostatura, or toasting: The rice must first be cooked gently with either olive oil or butter (toasted), for every single grain to become coated. The dish will not work if this is not done. And it needs to be gentle and take a bit of time.
- Know when it’s ready, and serve it immediately. When you have reached that point when the rice is al dente, the sauce is creamy, and you’ve judged that adding any more stock means you have gone too far, stir in Parmesan (if using) and a little cold butter, dish it up and serve it right away. Risotto will not improve from standing.
What goes into a risotto? There are many options, from mushrooms or seafood to broccoli or even one in which the hero, other than the rice, is cheese. But the following are needed at the dish’s essence:
- Arborio or carnaroli rice. Straight from the packet into the oiled or buttered pan. Not rinsed.
- Olive oil or butter. Start by oiling the base of the pan on a low heat, add the rice, drizzle more oil in, and move the rice around in the oil with a flat-edged wooden or silicone spatula so that every grain is coated. I like to then add more oil and keep the gentle movement going while the grains take on more oil and a faint tinge of colour.
Alternatively, you can do this with butter. Or, either oil and chopped onions or butter and chopped onions. My own preference for my recipe here was to first cook the chopped onions and garlic separately in another pan, then add them to the rice once the above procedure has been followed.
- Wine. Add this, a little at a time, once the tostatura (toasting: the successful coating of the grains of rice in fat) has been achieved.
- Stock. It must be hot. There is no risotto dish without stock, which can be either a meat, vegetable or seafood broth. You need to have your cooking stock ready when you start cooking the risotto. Add this once all the wine has been absorbed, a little at a time, all the while moving the rice around with care to promote even cooking of every grain.
- Herbs and other aromatics. Depending on what kind of a risotto you are making, add your herbs during the process of adding the stock. Garlic, chopped, can go in with the onions. If using mushrooms, follow a particular recipe, as these water-heavy ingredients need special attention.
- Cream and cheese. A little blue (or other type suitable for melting) cheese and/or some cream can enrich a stock near the end of cooking, when the last ladle of stock goes in.
- Finally, off the heat, stir in fridge-cold butter and grated Parmesan, if using this to finish your risotto. In the case of my recipe to accompany this column, however, I did not use any Parmesan, as I wanted the saffron to shine.. You can find my recipe for saffron prawn risotto here. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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