Risotto - it is one of those dishes that started as a humble meal that has moved on to gain gourmet status.
The history of risotto goes back to when rice first arrived in Italy.
There are many stories regarding the arrival of rice in Italy. However, it has been commonly accepted that it was first introduced by Arab traders who travelled through Sicily en route to Spain during the Middle Ages.
From there, the grains spread north with cultivation becoming concentrated in the plains of the Po Valley through the 13th and 14th centuries.
Italy proved to be an ideal place to grow short-grain rice due to the humid weather and flat landscape, with rice traders in Genoa and Venice soon making good profits.
In early times, rice was generally eaten by the wealthy due to its exorbitant price. However, once the Venetians lifted the tax on rice, it became more widely accessible and its popularity continued to rise.
During the Renaissance period risotto was often served as a side dish to Osso Bucco, a Milanese speciality of cross-cut veal shanks. Interestingly, the early risottos were made with the same core ingredients as they are today. Rice, chicken stock, onions, butter, wine and parmesan cheese are the staples.
Perhaps the most renowned risotto dish is Risotto al la Milanese, said to date back to 1574 when a stained-glass worker on the Milan Cathedral, who was well known for creating yellow glass by adding saffron to his pigments, coloured the rice at the wedding of his boss's daughter in the hope it would ruin the festivities.
Instead, the rice was well received by the guests. They named the dish "Risusoptimus", Latin for excellent rice.
Risotto is the classic Northern Italian rice dish in which the grains remain firm but merge with the cooking liquid to become a creamy, almost pudding-like dish.
True risotto is made from a short grain starchy rice such as Arborio but the risotto method can also be used to cook other grains such as barley and oats. The grains are not rinsed before cooking as this would remove the starches needed to achieve the desired consistency.
The grains are coated but not cooked in a hot fat such as butter or oil at the beginning of the cooking process.
A hot liquid is then gradually added to the grains so that the mixture is kept at a constant simmer.
The cooking liquid should be a rich flavoured stock.
Unlike simmering or the pilaf method, the risotto method requires frequent and even sometimes constant stirring. When finished, the grains should be creamy and tender but still al dente in the centre.
Grated cheese, cream, cooked meat, cooked poultry, fish, shellfish, herbs and vegetables are all suitable additives to create a favourable dish or side dish to a complete meal.
BASIC RISOTTO (6 portions)
1.25 litres of chicken stock (this could be replaced with vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
75g finely chopped onion
350g Arborio rice
125ml white wine
60g grated parmesan cheese
1. Bring the cooking liquid to a simmer.
2. Heat the fat in a heavy saucepan over a moderate heat. Add the onions, garlic or other flavouring ingredients and saute for 1-2 minutes without browning.
3. Add the grains to the saucepan, stir well to make sure the grains are well coated with the fat. Do not allow the grains to brown.
4. Add any wine and cook until it is fully absorbed.
5. Begin to add the simmering stock, about 120ml at a time, stirring frequently. Wait until each portion of cooking liquid is almost fully absorbed before adding the next.
6. Test for doneness after the grains have cooked for 18-20 minutes.
7. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in any butter, grated cheese, herbs or other flavouring ingredients of your choice.
8. Serve immediately.
NOTE: Follow the basic procedure and enjoy as is or, as we often have it, with 100g of cooked peas and 200g of wilted spinach, or add your own favourite additions.
Graham Hawkes operates Paddington Arms at the Queens Dr/Bainfield Rd roundabout.
- The Southland Times