Thursday, September 17, 1998
MFK Fisher called it a "more intelligent" way to cook rice. The diva of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan practically does a thesis on it in her book, Marcella''s Italian Kitchen. And Cibo chef and owner Rosa Catalano is so enamored of it that she makes a different variety every day for her menu. The first time I tried it, I was further convinced that there was a supreme cosmic mix-up at fault for hatching me in Dixie, instead of somewhere around Milan.
Risotto is the quintessential comfort dish that is technically rice, but with all the rich and satisfying qualities of a creamy pasta dish, without the cream. And you can throw out all the rules for cooking it like its regular, po'' white-trash cousin. Arborio is the short-grained, starchy superfino variety, the Lamborghini of its class, prized for its portly capacity for swelling to about three times its dry weight, making it all the better to suck up all the flavors of the other components that go with it, into the pot.
Hazan maintains that the fundamental technique for making risotto is "unalterable." But "unalterable" seems to me to be too fundamentalist an approach to something as soulful as getting in the kitchen with the idea of creating something wonderful to eat; the inexactness of such artistic pursuits allows for occasional forgiveness, in my book. But the truth of the matter is, there are a lot of ways to screw up your risotto; until you get the hang of how it should look and feel throughout each cooking stage, it''s possible, quite frankly, to end up with a gummy, chalky mass of wallpaper paste that will make you regret the day you were born.
But further, when you consider that a few simple ingredients can yield such phenomenal results--and are subject to endless variations--it becomes a skill worth mastering. The first trick is to ''"toast" the rice--Catalano uses a mixture of whole butter and extra virgin olive oil, good for both flavor and less likely to scorch than whole butter. Some chefs insist on sauting the rice for a full five minutes, others claim that a couple of minutes are adequate. Onions, shallots, garlic, or a mixture of all are finely chopped and tossed together with the rice until translucent.
Trick number two is courtesy of MFK Fisher, who recommends having more stock standing by than you think you''ll need; three parts hot stock to one part rice is a good rule of thumb. But first douse the mixture with a glass of white wine. And you might as well pour yourself one and turn on some Pavarotti, because the next trick is to avoid getting impatient. All that''s left to do is stir, add stock, and stir some more. And if you like it like they do in Milan (and some parts of Alabama) you''ll put a big pinch of saffron in the stock, and have some Parmigiano-Reggiano grated and ready for a finishing flourish.
For a couple of cups of arborio, Hazan figures about 20 minutes cooking (and stirring) time. She''s probably also capable of lifting you over her head and shaking you silly if you even thought about only cooking it halfway, cooling it down, and finishing it to order when your guests arrive. But certain culinary iconoclasts, without saying where they''re from, swear by it. cw