Adventures in Risotto

Advice to a young man on what to cook for his wife on their first wedding anniversary.

Hey Patrick –

Wow, I still can’t believe you and Amy have been married for a year. That went by fast. So you asked me what you might make her for your first anniversary, and after thinking about your “pity the novice cook” request, I’m here to say: Make her risotto. It’s an incredibly satisfying plate of food, indulgent without actually being rich, as simple or complicated as you want to make it, a meal on its own or a backdrop to a piece of meat or fish. Plus there are so many ways to make it that you could serve it to Amy every anniversary, every holiday, and every birthday for years and never have the same version twice.

Risotto is made with one of four varieties of Italian rice: Arborio (the most common), Carnaroli, Vialone Nano, and Baldo. The varieties vary as to their shape, how much liquid they can absorb, and how sticky they are when they’re cooked. You might develop a favorite over time, but any of them will make a good meal.

The cooking liquid you use depends, of course, on what kind of risotto you’re making. Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cooking, almost always uses a light beef broth; I personally favor chicken broth, but I’ll probably see the error of my ways some day. Bring your broth to a slow simmer on the back of the stove.

The cooking method is sort of like braising. Cook half a fine-diced onion in some butter and/or olive oil over medium-high heat until it’s soft but not brown, then add a cup and a half of rice and cook that in the oil for a few minutes. Now add the hot cooking liquid, half a cup at a time, and stir like mad. The first addition will cause all kinds of dramatic hissing and lots of steam, so watch out. You can turn the heat down a little once you start adding the liquid; I like to keep the pot at a vigorous simmer but not a full-on boil. Add each ladleful of liquid and stir so the mixture is uniform, then let it bubble away, stirring often enough that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan, until the liquid is nearly gone, before adding the next ladle of liquid.

A cup and a half of rice will take roughly four or five cups of liquid over the course of about a half an hour. It’s done, in my opinion, when the inside of the rice is firm but not chalky. The risotto will look like rice coated with a small amount of rich and sticky “sauce”—it’ll look more like grits or porridge than like soup. Grate 1/3–1/2 cup of parmesan cheese and add it when the rice is done. Stir it in, then cover the pot and let everything rest for three or four minutes.

For your anniversary dinner you could try:

A wine risotto: Use about half the amount of broth and set aside the same amount of inexpensive (but not cheap-and-unpleasant) wine. Add about half the wine at the beginning of cooking (when red wine will stain the rice a beautiful deep purple) and the other half near the end, when it will leave behind its flavor. I like this on its own, but if you want to grill a steak or piece of fish alongside and serve a green salad afterwards, you’ll be living the high life.

Squash risotto: Peel a winter squash. Cut it into 1/2-inch pieces, if you like the texture, or grate it on a box grater. In either case add it after ten minutes or so, leaving it time to cook through in the broth. While the risotto is resting, deep-fry some fresh sage leaves and top the risotto with them. The squash will be sweet, the risotto rich, and the sage a kick in the pants. Pure happiness.

Happy anniversary, and let me know how it goes –


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