Risotto Lento – Cooked with patience and attention, risotto delivers.

Risotto. Photo by Tracey Kusiewicz

My initial experience with risotto in a backstreet osteria in Venice didn’t look promising. I had serious misgivings about the grainy grey puddle topped with a green/black blob of—what? And what was I supposed to eat it with? Spoon? Fork?


Finally I dug in. My doubts were needless. I was bowled over by both texture and flavour. Rice, firm yet creamy, melded seamlessly with the delicate broth, red wine (to which, I presumed, the risotto owed its murky appearance) and aged Parmigiano. The blob was earthy, barely wilted spinach. The silky, nutty dish was delicious.


Once I returned home, I ordered the dish again. It looked nice but tasted like tomato-laden glue. Then again, that was more than a dozen years ago and certainly not Venice.


Risotto, which did finally make its way across the pond, is easy enough to make, although it can be tricky to master. When you’ve nailed it once, however, making all manner of risotti is as easy as AVC …


It’s much ado about the rice, you see.


Risotto owes its roots to the more northerly regions of Italy, where rice outgrows wheat, mainly in the Po Valley. Short grain rice, due to its high starch content, allows for a suitable absorption of liquid. The ideal rices are Arborio, Vialone Nano and Carnaroli. Workhorse Arborio “superfine” is the most economical but cannot withstand overcooking. Expensive Vialone Nano turns out a superb risotto but can be a little temperamental in the pan. Therefore, some measure of finesse is necessary. Carnaroli (my favourite) balances the two. It costs a bit more that Arborio, is more forgiving than Vialone Nano, and delivers perfect creaminess while the grains remain al dente.


No matter which of the three you choose, with a little practice and patience your risotto will result in a sublime marriage of starch and broth.


Basic risotto, like pasta, cozies up to a number of vegetables—particularly wild mushrooms, but squash and fennel are also popular, and here and there fish or meat. I find tomato is best left to the noodle. The broth may be beef, chicken, fish (for seafood risotto) or vegetable. (Venetian Risi Bisi—a soupy mixture of rice and peas—relies on the water used to boil the peas.) As the days turn warmer, risotti made with tender asparagus, petit pois or tender spinach are superb. Slivers of fried pancetta make a nice addition. Although Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is de rigueur in risotto, I find grating a milder cheese such as fontina or asiago into the mixture gives spring risotto a lift. Crumbled sheep feta, along with a splash of fresh lemon juice into pea or asparagus risotto, is a splendid alternative to Italian cheeses.


I like to make risotto at home, rather than order it in a restaurant. For one thing, few chefs (note I did not say all) can afford the 25 minutes of TLC that risotto requires. I find it far more pleasant to spend that time (and far less money) sautéing vegetables, toasting rice, going with the rhythm of adding and stirring broth, gauging the risotto’s progress, sipping on a glass of wine as aromas waft about the kitchen—maybe nibbling a couple of olives, perhaps chatting with a guest or my husband, who has offered kindly to toss the salad. Putting together risotto is very soothing and social that way.


Variations on the theme of preparing risotto are many. The following tips have, for me, worked very well. The rice pretty much does all the work to deliver a full-bodied, creamy, al dente risotto.


I use olive oil, forgoing butter. Shallots or leeks deliver a less strident note than onion and/or garlic in spring and summer risottos. I splash a bit of room temperature wine at the beginning and add the remaining wine the recipe calls for along with the final ladle of broth. Finally, I blend in the cheese and never finish the dish with cream. Salt, pepper and fresh herbs (if using) are added at the end. A good quality purchased broth, diluted with a cup or so of water, is best unless homemade stock is completely free of “bits.”


Often thought of as a side dish (particularly for osso bucco) or first course, a fine risotto, cooked slow and low, needs no other actors. Allow it to be the star of the stage.

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