Jeanne at Cooksister wrote a great post on risotto recently, covering all the important points of cooking one properly and featuring a version of a Jamie Oliver recipe, which started me off reminiscing on my own risotto journey.
Back in the mists of time when I was a student in Exeter, a group of us from the Italian department went out for a celebratory end of year meal at the local Italian restaurant. Having recently spent a year in Rome as part of the course, I fancied I’d learned more than just language there. My Italian boyfriend had broadened my education to include (besides a colourful variety of parolacci - Italian swear words!) the works of Caravaggio, Italian cinema and an appreciation of proper Italian food, none of which he cooked himself unfortunately, but in those days it was cheap enough to eat out quite often in the trattorias around Trastevere. I’d unsuspectingly been given fried brains to try (delicious!), had eaten spaghetti alla carbonara that would never be matched and all sorts of good plain Italian fare.
In that would-be Italian restaurant in Exeter the menu proudly offered risotto. Remembering some of the delicious creamy plates of risotto I’d enjoyed in Italy, I ordered it with anticipation, looking forward to a nostalgic culinary trip back to the previous year. I choked in disappointment when in front of me was placed a plate of boiled rice with several generous dollops of a tomato-based sauce piled in top. Sacrilege! How could a restaurant claiming to be Italian produce such a thing! Being shy and English I didn’t say a word, but tried to eat it, though every mouthful of strident tomato mixed with bland rice was a painful reminder of what I was missing.
That was the Eighties. Now practically every Modern English or Modern European restaurant in Britain can cook a half decent risotto. Jamie Oliver has made sure that we all know what to expect of a risotto and no Italian restaurant would dream of serving up such a cheat of a dish.
In a way that meal did me a favour. Not that much later I discovered the books of Marcella Hazan, the voice of authentic Italian cooking in the English speaking world, and taught myself how to cook risotto properly. I discovered that by following her recipes faithfully I could recreate the tastes of Italy quite easily, so was no longer dependant on anglicised Italian restaurants for my nostalgia trips. Recently I was very happy to discover that Marcella Hazan is still actively writing and championing good home-cooked Italian food on the Hazan family food blog An Educated Palate, and I am still just as much a fan of her recipes as ever, using my original three books every week for one or other of my favourite recipes.
For me the difference between Marcella’s recipes and, say, Jamie Oliver’s is that hers really do taste of Italy. His are good too, but they are creative rather than authentic and they just don’t take me back to any of the hundreds of trattorias and ristorantes that I enjoyed eating in during my years of working and travelling in Italy. Perhaps because a risotto in Italy is only one part of a meal, it can afford to be simple, showcasing just one clear flavour rather than trying to be a meal in itself and cramming in several principal ingredients, as we are often tempted to do when we serve a risotto as a main course on these English-speaking shores!
The risotto recipe that I turn to again and again in Marcella Hazan’s The Second Classic Italian Cookbook is a very simple celery risotto. Surprisingly enough my girls love it (my son loves rice but hates risotto and chokes down his small obligatory portion smothered in baked beans...!). The celery flavour is clear and fresh and there are no distractions, resulting in a wonderful creamy comforting plate of velvet risotto with a little celery crunch and pale elegant colour. It should really stand as an introduction to second course where you could serve something a little more colourful and complex, but we are usually happy enough with this and maybe some salad for supper.
Risotto Col Sedano – Celery Risotto Recipe
1litre / 2 pints good home-made stock or bouillon
1 medium onion chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
60g / 2oz butter
200g / 7oz celery finely diced
1 tablespoon celery leaves chopped fine
300g / 10 ½ oz Italian Arborio rice
30g / 1 oz freshly grated parmesan
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Heat the broth in one pan, so that is only just simmering.
In a heavy bottomed pan or casserole, put the chopped onion with all the oil and 30g of the butter. Sauté the onion over a medium heat until golden and translucent, but don’t let it catch, as the burnt flavour will spoil the whole risotto.
Add half the chopped celery and all the chopped leaves and continue to cook, stirring occasionally for 3 more minutes.
Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly. Add a good ladleful of hot broth and stir continuously as the rice absorbs the broth. The heat should be medium. Too hot and the broth will evaporate too quickly before being absorbed and too low it will take forever to cook through. Keep adding more broth as the last lot is absorbed and stir continuously.
After 10 minutes of cooking, add the remaining celery. Continue cooking and stirring and adding broth until the rice is tender and creamy. This can take anything from 20-35 minutes depending on the type of rice you are using. You may need more liquid, in which case just use hot water.
Once the rice is tender to the bite, with no chalkiness left in the middle, it is done. Stir in the remaining butter and the grated parmesan. Check for salt. Turn off the heat and sprinkle over the parsley then serve the risotto promptly.
Also have a look at Jeanne's post for some good general tips on risotto making.