THE ART OF ITALIAN DINING
I remember my first encounters with food like if it happened yesterday.
I remember raising a forkful of my mother’s risotto to my lips. I would close my eyes and savor the moment, then reopen them wide in surprise as the simple, clean flavors exploded and melded with balance and grace. This would happen with each taste of a new recipe, as my delight and ecstasy multiplied at each new discovery.
After 12 years in the profession my enthusiasm for food hasn’t dwindled, but I have become a bit spoiled. Like most native Italians (and chefs) I know I’m eating some of the best dishes in the world, but I’m so used to it that wouldn’t expect or tolerate anything inferior. Less and less often do I find myself widening my eyes in wonder, as I taste a forkful of ‘pasta al pesto’, of ‘risotto milanese’, or ‘focaccia genovese’. The full enjoyment is still there, just not the element of surprise.
Every now and then, however, a dish will appear and transport me back to those first few years, those first few bites of shock and wonder, and truly shake my senses. This happened with more than one tasting while touring Sicily this year (a nice post about the beautiful island of Sicily is in order), the most memorable of which was a classic ‘Risotto al Pomodoro’ or tomato risotto (Video & Recipe at the end of the post)
I watched all the risotto presentations with interest because it’s a dish I absolutely adore both, the eating and making of it and am always curious regarding each chef’s technique and tips.
I must say in fact, that each chef, including myself, is adamant about his own technique, and there are some highly contested issues surrounding risotto. Some say the soffritto must be prepared separately from the rice or the onion will be inevitably burned and bitter, others insist this is a useless variation from the traditional recipe. Some maintain that wine is an imperative ingredient in all risottos, while others argue it lends undue acidity. Some say all the broth should be added at once, while others stress it should be added only a little bit at a time.
But most important ‘Risotto al Pomodoro’ it’s a humble dish which doesn’t much inspire the imagination, yet if done well is the positive metamorphosis of one of childhoods most detested foods, so often overcooked and watery in school cafeterias. As you grow older it is easy to continue to reject and despise the mere idea of it, partly because perfecting a risotto with tomato as the main ingredient is not exactly an easy task. Funny, though, how the exact opposite happens with pasta and pizza. The tomato in fact, almost seems to reject rice.
Risotto needs to be absolutely perfect. It is such a simple dish, a far cry from some of the other exotic and wildly creative inventions I had tried countless times. Yet, there is something so surprising, so intoxicating about the burst of familiar flavors. The rice needs to be perfectly al dente; the flavor needs to be MORE than tomato alone, but rather the quintessence of tomato-ness. And a small dollop of fresh basil and Mascarpone cheese is the perfect twist and bright compliment without overwhelming the integrity of the whole.
When, sitting in the sun at the Osteria’s table overlooking the Ionian Sea I opened my eyes, they were wide with wonder. I turned to my friend whose expression was also a mask of surprise and utter pleasure. “Wow.” I mumbled, suddenly at a loss for words.
I felt like a kid again, running in my mother’s kitchen, sitting at the family table waiting for the next big surprise in a strange land of unending gastronomic surprises.
THE 5 SECRETS OF RISOTTO
The route to risotto perfection is scattered with obstacles, but these five steps will make your dish an impeccable one.
Step 1: Soffritto
Every great risotto starts with a good soffritto: sautéing onions in butter or olive oil. Butter is really for it to taste better, but oil is what I usually use… At this stage, you will also want to add ingredients that are particularly “sturdy”, e.g. will be able to sustain cooking at high temperatures for almost 20 minutes. Not many ingredients are in this category, other than dried mushrooms and meat. I like risotto with peas and sausages, so I add sausage at this stage, and peas toward the end.
Step 2: Tostatura
Tostatura comes from the verb meaning “to toast” and it refers to the rice grains. You will add your rice to the soffritto with no liquid, so that each grain gets warmed up. This is where picking the right rice becomes really important (‘Carnaroli’ or ‘Arborio’ rice are perfect for risotto as well as ‘Vialone Nano’! Tostatura will ensure uniform cooking of the grain, so it’s a fairly important step. Make sure all the rice is nicely toasted, and then you can add a glass of wine and stir till it evaporates completely before moving to the next step.
Step 3: Stock
First of all, don’t use water- use stock. Stock is very flavorful and it will ensure a perfect end result, and it can be prepared in just 20 minutes if you have shrimps shells (for fish stock), chicken bones or just a few vegetables to throw in a pot. It’s seriously worth your time, although I will never admit in public I sometimes use bouillon dissolved in hot water…
Stock will be added slowly, one ladle at the time, and replenished when it is almost completely absorbed by the rice. Stock addition needs to be accompanied by continuous stirring, so that the temperature is maintained constant and each grain gets the same exposure.
Step 3Bis: Ingredients
The important part of risotto comes in about 2 thirds of the way in the cooking process: asparagus (the harder stems can be added at the beginning, the softer tips at this stage), peas, fresh mushrooms- your only boundary is availability of ingredients, as almost anything can be paired in a risotto!
Step 4: Resting
In order to prepare risotto for serving, you first need to give it a break. This means taking the rice off the heat when the rice grains are still a bit al dente and let it rest, without stirring. The process allows the temperature to come down and to prepare risotto for the last and most important step of them all.
Step 5: Mantecatura
Manteca is Spanish for butter. It is said that this process was originally adopted during the Spanish ruling of Lombardia during the Renaissance. At this stage, you will do what you can to emulsify the rice and give its creamy consistence that makes for a great risotto all’onda– beat in really cold butter cubes and cheese (most of the times Parmigiano) till you reach the right texture. This is an intense process that will leave your arm hurting, but you will be rewarded by the wonderful sound a risotto mantecato makes in the pot (a deep tonf tonf) and perfection in the plate for you and your dinner guests.
… IT WAS ALL A JOKE
The history of risotto is naturally tied to the history of rice in Italy. While there are many conflicting opinions on the historical intricacies, rice was first introduced to Italy and Spain by the Arabs during the Middle Ages.
The humidity of the Mediterranean was quickly found to be perfect for growing shorter-grained rices, and enormous profits were made by those selling rice in Genoa, Venice and the surrounds.
The popularity of rice grew through Italy, though primarily among the wealthy owing to the still-exorbitant prices of the product.
Once the outside world discovered the quality of the Italian product, however, the money poured in and the availability of the short-grains spread, making the rice far more widely accessible.
It was in Milan where the rice met its delicious destiny. Milan had been under Spanish rule for almost two centuries (hence the similar evolution of paella in Spain), and rice had become a staple. Slow-cooking also dominated the culinary landscape of the region, with Ossobucco a long-held favourite.
Fast-forward to the year 1574, and the Grand Gothic Cathedral Duomo Di Milano was in the process of being built. Valerius the young apprentice was charged with the task to produce the stained glass needed to finish off the Cathedral. Town’s folk poked fun at Valerius claiming that it was Saffron that he had used to promote the brilliant colors in the glass.
Tired of the continual ribbing from the townspeople, Valerius vowed to get even, and placed large quantities of Saffron in the rice of a main wedding dish for his master. This rice did not fail as predicted by Valerius as a matter of fact; this rice became a smash hit with all who ate it. From this point on risotto and its brilliant history were born, and people all through the land were enjoying this rice with Saffron as a main course of a meal.
The slow-cooking principles were combined with the local rice, emphasising the rich flavours, and spices (particularly saffron) for which the area was known, to create ‘Risotto alla Milanese’
Served by itself, or as an accompaniment to Ossobucco and other dishes, risotto was discovered to be an excellent way of using the shorter-grained rice, the starchy component of the dry grain mixing with the stock to create a thick, creamy sauce.
And that’s how everything started.
RISOTTO AL POMODORO
TOMATO RISOTTO WITH FRIED SAGE and MASCARPONE
For Tomatoes Sauce
FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE
Combine the tomatoes, celery, carrots, chopped onion 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a pot over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil and lower to a slow simmer, stirring occasionally. Let cook for 1-2 hours, until all the liquid has been absorbed and you are left with a thick, velvety tomato sauce. Add the fresh cut basil and set aside. You can prepare this a day ahead and it will be even more flavorful.
FOR THE RISOTTO
Pour chicken broth into a small pot and bring to an almost-simmer. Heat a couple tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil in a wide stainless steal or heavy aluminum pot over medium-low heat and add the half onion. Stir for several minutes to distribute the flavor until the onion is translucent but do not allow the onion to turn brown. Add the rice and toast, stirring constantly for several minutes, or until the rice becomes shiny and of a very light brown.
Add a glass of white wine and let evaporate. Then, add a ladleful of hot chicken broth, a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of sugar to offset the acidity of the tomatoes and stir in the tomato sauce and continue to cook, stirring constantly until absorbed.
Continue to add broth, a couple of ladlefuls at a time, stirring constantly. If the rice becomes too dry and begins to stick, add another ladleful of broth. Depending on the rice, the total cooking time should be between 15-20 minutes. You want the rice to be al dente, and it should have enough liquid to make “waves” if you shake the pot then stir in the Parmesan cheese. Add the mascarpone cheese, a tablespoon of olive oil, cracked pepper and gently stir.
Taste and adjust the salt as needed. Cover the risotto with the pot lid and call everyone to the table. To serve, spoon the risotto into individual plates and garnish with a couple of leafs of fresh sage that you previously deep fried. Sprinkle with Parmesan Cheese.