In a new series, Stove Notes, Simon Hopkinson goes beyond the received wisdom to give tips on well-loved dishes. First: risotto…
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009
On the island of Burano, in the Veneto, with its candy-coloured canal dwellings and endless lace vendors, there is a long-established trattoria called Da Romano. I’ve eaten there three times and, on each occasion, was served the finest risotto of my life.
Always the same one, fashioned in exactly the same way and made using a fish that swims in the lagoon, known as go. It is an ugly little critter apparently, but makes a wonderfully tasty broth in which to cook the rice. None of the flesh of the fish is ever used; its flavour is merely donated to the cooking liquor, together with simple aromatics—celery, onion, a little garlic, bay and perhaps parsley stalks.
There are several reasons why this risotto is outstanding. It is fabulously white. It tastes delicately of fish, yet the quality of the rice—always the most important component—manages to be paramount.
It is spooned out onto hot plates at the table by a seasoned risotto-server, so that it quietly settles into a perfect circle of glistening grains. And as if to emphasise its bianco whiteness, each serving is speckled through with a few flecks of chopped parsley. About 27 of them, last time.
A risotto such as this, that so naturally coheres and seems so easy, takes time to master. When attempting my first restaurant risotto, in about 1983, I used the wrong type of rice—a pre-fluffed variety—and then cooked it through to a near-tenderness all in one go, in the oven. Then I finished it in an individual pan, adding more stock, butter and, heretically, cream. Twenty-six years on, several high-profile British chefs cooking in the French idiom now often add cream in the same ignorant fashion. Then again, French chefs have never understood risotto.
Yet, here is a paradox. In Paris there is a tiny restaurant in Le Marais called L’Osteria. Parisians adore it. Regulars fight for its 32 tightly arranged seats, so passionate are they about finding some of the finest Italian food in France. I ate there occasionally from the end of the 1990s until about 2006, and can confirm that Toni Vianello, at the time the owner and an astonishingly gifted chef, made a risotto second only to the numero uno of Burano.
Toni’s risotto broke all the rules. He would cook the rice to a certain stage, without ever resorting to the usual constant-stirring-and-adding-the-broth-bit-by-bit. Tony, you see, insisted that it was the mantecare—a vigorous, final beating-in of butter—that was the essential part of risotto-making. The mantecare guaranteed an immaculate, homogenous mass of rice, broth, cheese (if appropriate) and butter. Skipping it, he said, was the reason why many risotti miserably fail, with the rice falling out of suspension and ending up surrounded by a pool of seeping broth.
Using Toni’s controversial method for a risotto ai bianco—finely chopped white onion, rice, white wine, broth, butter, parmesan—to feed two, I would suggest a ratio of about 160-170g of rice to 500ml well-seasoned chicken broth. Both his version and mine involve first frying a chopped onion in a good knob of butter using a straight-sided, solid pot until soft, then adding the rice and stirring it around until well coated and shiny with fat. Then a glass of white wine is added, the heat turned up and the pot stirred constantly until the wine both reduces and is absorbed by the rice.
Then all the broth is added to the rice in one go, brought to a simmer, covered and baked in a moderate oven for 15-20 minutes or until the rice is just tender. Remove the lid and, using a sturdy wooden spoon, stir in two thick slices of softened butter and two heaped tablespoons of grated parmesan. Cover for a couple of minutes before beating everything together like merry hell, until the entire risotto resembles a shining, sloppy mass. Serve on hot plates, not silly, over-sized soup bowls. Hand round extra parmesan at table.
Onions White-skinned onions will disappear into the rice and, generally, also have a sweeter taste. Waitrose often stocks these, particularly in summer.
Rice Riso Gallo carnaroli rice is a good choice—it always behaves well and is widely available.
Fish stock To (almost) replicate the go risotto, try a carefully made fish stock (using sole bones, say) or use mussel juice. Most supermarkets stock bags of mussels, but you should really only buy them when there is an “r” in the month.
Cheese Grana padano is an excellent, simpler and more affordable alternative to parmesan that’s nearly always on offer in good Italian delis
and some supermarkets.
Illustration: Cath Riley