If there is one language I long to speak, it is Italian. It is a language that you don’t just speak – you inhabit it with your entire body. Watching people at a train station talking on their mobile phones, it is impossible not to guess immediately who the Italian is. Most people will walk while talking on their mobiles; some may even use the odd hand gesture. But the Italian will be the one who is shrugging, throwing his hands up, rolling his eyes heavenward and talking with his whole body as he makes a particularly strident point. It is more like watching a carefully choreographed piece of modern ballet than something as banal as a phone conversation.
And anyway, words just seem to sound better if you emphasise them with the appropriate lilt to your voice and rhythm to your speech (Lu-iiiii-gi! Giu-seeeeee-ppi! Mangi-aaaaaa-mo!). Plus you have to love a language that comes up with delightfully eccentric food names like:
- Tiramisu (“pick-me-up”) – a dessert of mascarpone, cocoa and coffee & booze soaked savoiardi cookies
- strozzaprete (“priest-stranglers”) – a large variety of pasta.
- ligue di gatti (“cats’ tongues”) – sweet cookies
- spaghetti puttanesca (“whore’s style spaghetti”) – a pasta sauce with chilli, anchovies, tomatoes olives and capers
- Sospiri di Monaca (“nun’s sighs”) – a type of macaroon
- Le Palle de Nonno (“Grandfather’s balls”) – a kind of knobbly salami
The Italians also gave us the far less eccentrically named dish of risotto – rice cooked in a soupy broth until al dente and suffused with the flavours of the cooking liquid. Rice was brought rice to Sicily and Spain by the Arabs and made its way across the Italian border to the Po Valley in the fourteenth century, where it found the perfect combination of environment and climate: flat lands, an abundance of water, and high humidity. Rice cultivation became so intensive in the area that rice is now considered a staple food of this part of Italy, and risotto is certainly its flagship dish.
Yet all that risotto recipes require are four basic components: soffritto (sautéed vegetables), broth, flavoring ingredients, and Italian rice. The soffritto consists of a combination of finely diced vegetables and onion, butter and oil sautéed in the same pot or pan in which the rice will be cooked. The broth can be beef, chicken, vegetable or fish, depending on the flavour of the finished recipe, usually with some wine included. The flavoring ingredient is what will give the finished risotto its unique flavour (mushrooms, butternut squash, truffles, shrimp etc etc). The Italian rice varieties (e.g. Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone) all have short grains, are rich in starch, and can absorb a considerable amount of cooking liquid while still remaining firm. The final result is a flavourful, glutinous dish where individual grains of rice remain firm but stuck are stuck together because of their high starch content.
People have this impression that preparing a good risotto is hard, but it really isn’t – and here are my top tips for the perfect risotto:
- Choose the right rice. No, you cannot make a proper risotto with basmati or par-cooked long-grain rice! It needs to be short-grained and starchy. Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone might be expensive where you live, but they are a necessary extravagance if you want a good risotto.
- Do not wash the rice before cooking as washing would eliminate a large part of the starch that gives the risotto its texture.
- When you are sautéing the soffrito/onion, do not do so for too long (2 minutes or so is sufficient) and stir constantly so that the onion does not catch, otherwise the burnt/caramelised taste will permeate the whole risotto and spoil it.
- Do not stint on the broth. There is not much else going on, flavour-wise, in a risotto so if you use a cheap-tasting broth, that will be the predominant flavour of your risotto. A good homemade broth or premium instant broth is best.
- Add the broth a ladleful at a time, not all at once and keep the heat at medium – too fast, and the rice will not have a chance to absorb enough moisture! Add more broth as soon as the last lot has been absorbed, otherwise the rice will stick to the pot/pan.
- When the rice is close to being fully cooked, taste it for readiness. It should be neither too hard nor too soft, but just al dente (cooked on the outside but still slightly resistant in the middle) – it should take about 20 minutes. Once the texture is right, remove the risotto from the heat, otherwise it overcooks.
- If you want a creamy risotto, do not skip mantecare – the final step where you stir cubes of butter into the finished dish!
This particular risotto (based on a Jamie Oliver recipe) is perfect for Spring and early Summer, when English asparagus are in season. Although risotto is often seen as a starchy and possibly heavy comfort food, the addition of lemon juice and mint makes this one seem as light and summery as a warm summer evening in the garden. Mangiamo!
ASPARAGUS, LEMON AND MINT RISOTTO (serves 2)
200g fresh asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into 2cm lengths, plus a couple whole for garmish
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
Juice from half a medium lemon
300g of risotto rice (see above for types)
60g Parmesan cheese, grated
150ml dry white wine
2 tbsp olive oil
20g +20g butter
600ml vegetable stock
1 tbsp fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Melt 20g of the butter together with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onion is translucent and soft but do not let it brown.
Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly stir so that each grain is well-coated with oil/butter. Add the white wine and keep stirring until the liquid has been absorbed almost completely.
Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time (probably about 150-200 ml per ladle). Keep stirring until each ladleful has been completely absorbed, but do not let the rice dry out and stick to the pot. Once each ladleful is absorbed, add the next until the stock has all been added. The rice should be soft but each grain should retain some bite in the centre, perfectly al dente, which should take about 20 minutes.
5 minutes before the rice is ready, cook the asparagus pieces in boiling water for 3-4 minutes, or until tender. Drain and reserve.
Stir the asparagus, mint and lemon juice into the risotto. Cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until heated through. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and remaining 20g of butter. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Using a vegetable peeler, slice your reserved whole asparagus into thin ribbons. Garnish the risotto with this and a little more grated Parmesan and serve immediately. In keeping with the Italian theme, I paired this with a Morrisons Best Italian Gavi, which had enough fruit flavours to pair well with the creamy rice.
If you liked this risotto, you may also want to try my: