Busting The Risotto Myth

I made some beef stock: Big bones plus a very meaty slice of shank in a pressure cooker with celery, carrots, parsley, and leeks and blasted that for about an hour. Then I took the meat off the bones — and even got some marrow from them, too. The stock, after 24 hours in the fridge, was almost thick enough to stand a spoon up in it.

I decided to make a nearly proper risotto Milanese. (Maybe not even close to nearly proper; certainly, the purists among you will scoff.) It’s rare that all the ingredients present themselves: stock, rice, saffron, marrow. And this is top-notch stock.

The rice, not Arborio or even Italian, is from Koda Farms, which produces fantastic short-grain rice in California (and is run by third-generation rice farmers who happen to be terrific people). The saffron — I always have some and, at the risk of repeating myself, so should you: saffron.com. And there was marrow; as I said, this was not a common circumstance.

I don’t make anything the same way twice unless I’m testing recipes, and this wouldn’t be an exception. As I cooked, I thought of my history with risotto.

Back in the seventies, I wasn’t that well-traveled, and I couldn’t afford to eat in many restaurants. Risotto was one of those dishes (and there are many) that I ate for the first time in my own kitchen: I read about it — probably in Marcella Hazan’s first book, or in the less-well-known but at the time equally influential Fine Art of Italian Cooking, by Giuliano Bugialli — decided it sounded good, and made it. I’ve never stopped. (Bugialli, who was far more of a showman than Hazan — was a wonderfully dogmatic and arrogant Italian, a charming man and a fantastic cook. I had the pleasure of meeting with him and writing about him long ago. He died last year; the quote from Lynn Kasper in this obit is perfect.)

In 1987 I became the editor of Cook’s Magazine, the predecessor of Cook’s Illustrated. We didn’t think of it like that, of course: We simply thought we were the most important food magazine in the country. In fact, we were constantly searching for an identity, and that shifted every few issues. (This was before Chris Kimball demonstrated genius. That’s a long story, and you’ll have to wait for the book to hear it — whether his or mine, I don’t know.)

Anyway, around 1988, we ran a risotto story. Are you ready for the headline?

“To Stir, with Love.”

Sigh. At some publications, staff decides that cute puns make the best headlines. I’ve never been a good headline writer, but I won’t take the blame for that one. It’s as memorable as a bad hangover.

The point of the piece (which I edited but I don’t remember who wrote it) was that you had to stir risotto virtually nonstop, which is what everyone used to say. Imagine our surprise when it turned out you didn’t. Imagine my surprise when I learned that almost every restaurant half-cooked their risotto, then spread the rice on sheet pans before finishing cooking to order. (They mostly compensate for this abomination by adding unconscionable amounts of butter.) Imagine my surprise when Lorna Sass showed me that you could make a credible risotto in a pressure cooker.

Still, the best risotto is made at home, and it’s made with attention, although not necessarily undivided.

My risotto has evolved. I stir, but not insanely. I use a non-stick pan, which you might scowl at, but it eliminates worry and allows you to go set the table or whatever, as long as you don’t just vanish. The process is easy, it takes a half-hour or so, and while I will say all the ingredients are important, none — except the rice — is critical. Bear in mind I have never been a purist, and figuratively shoot me if you like, but I have made risotto without stock (water is good if your other ingredients have enough flavor), without butter (olive oil is fine), without parmesan (I do miss it), and of course without saffron, marrow, porcini, and other very fine additions.

But the original is sublime, and this one was close to that: I put a lump of butter, less than two tablespoons, in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. I added a chopped onion, and about an equal amount of chopped carrot; it’s so beautiful in there. A pinch of saffron, and a much bigger one of salt. When the onion was soft (not brown!), I added a generous cup of rice. (This is more than enough for two, and maybe enough for three.) Stirred now and then for a minute, then added about a cup of my (warm) stock, which I’d thinned a bit. From that point on, when the mixture nearly dried out, I added about a half cup of stock, and stirred, and stirred whenever I felt like it. You will see when the rice is getting there, and at that point, you start to taste; the tasting is important, because there is a moment when the rice is perfect, and only your mouth knows when that moment arrives.

Stir, taste, adjust the heat so the mixture bubbles lively but not insanely, add a little more liquid, more salt if you need to, and … at some point the rice is nearly tender. You think “maybe it’s done … no, that’s still a bit too much bite.” (If you like crunch, that’s OK too. Only you can judge.) Add that marrow if you have it, and maybe one more bit of liquid: You want the final product to be creamy but not soupy. You can add a bit more butter if you’re feeling self-indulgent but don’t overdo it. Finish with lots of grated Parmesan; a fistful per serving is not too much.

I think the idea of starting a meal with this dish is completely inane: This Is The Meal. You might want a salad.

Oh, man. I’m writing this the morning after and could go make it again. That shit is the bomb.


My "nearly proper risotto Milanese" recipe is in the text above. If beef stock/marrow isn't your thing (or even if it is), this seafood version is also great.


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