Over the winter months I tend to make a lot of risotto. The creamy and sometimes earthy flavours are just the ticket for combatting the cold. Other benefits are that it is pretty fast food and also a useful use-up recipe with plenty of scope for variation depending on the stock levels in your storage cupboard. It’s pretty challenging to make a sensational risotto – I wouldn’t ordinarily order it in a restaurant – but by the same token it’s generally satisfying wholesome food. By definition it can look fairly gloopy too. Unless you are going for squid ink or excessive saffron it is always going to appear quite like rice pudding and there is a greater importance in adding some visual impact through the ingredients or the garnish if you are entertaining or want to impress the family.
My favourite ingredients are actually a lighter, more summery dish – anything with roast courgette, lemon and clams in particular come to mind. I’d also look for something with wild mushrooms. The point is that risotto is a vehicle for the main event rather than the highlight in itself.
My final point on risotto is the debate about consistency. In Britain at least the consensus seems to be for a moist ‘soft peak’ and for the rice to just have a bit of bite in it. Wherever you are I think the preference is for wetter rather than drier rice. A rule of thumb is that when you draw a wooden spoon across the pan it leaves a clean trail. When I cook it wetter it is nice to have some plain white bread to soak up the juices.
I do tend to time a risotto from the moment I am starting to simmer the rice and I think for arborio rice 12-13 minutes is just about right. I also think letting it stand, covered, for a couple of minutes is worthwhile too. Bizarrely I also quite like cooking it in a wok. When I was younger, admittedly in a cooking-shy environment, risotto was a thing to be feared because of the need to constantly stir it. There is no doubt that to get the consistency you need to keep the rice within a narrow range of wetness so that the creaminess cooks out of the rice but it can be relatively low maintenance and a wok works well for getting in the corners to /get keep the rice moving. You do need to get in the corners.
Given the pace of the recipe I think you need the stock hot and ready in a jug. I tend to start with stock cube/jelly content in the initial batch and then I can use just boiling water to get the consistency right later. I always start with onion cooked in olive oil just soft not browned. Colour is a challenge as I mentioned earlier and there is nothing worse than undefined sources – mushrooms can be bad for this as they can turn it into an unattractive grey sludge. If I am looking for something quite rich and heavy I will also use bacon. I then add the rice and fry it dry with the other ingredients for a minute or so. This is quite an important stage because the rice needs to start providing the texture and not just boiling in the liquid. I then add a little white wine. This needs to be just enough to give a taste but not so that it is a dominant flavour at the end of the dish. It will disappear very quickly into the rice. I then start adding the liquid with saffron (pre-soaked in boiling water) and then just enough stock to start the rice cooking. This is the point I set the timer. When I think about it the feel of the rice being stored doesn’t change too much throughout the way I cook it. I just focus on the rice and the amount of stock for the first five minutes of cooking.
Typically after that point I will add the other ingredients. Italians favour a quite spartan risotto with not many ingredients but you really can go to town. For a simple risotto I quite like just peas or beans and this is also good with leftover scraps of roast chicken. Ideally whatever I add will just cook through in the risotto mix without adding colour or significant flavour to the broth. This is very important if you are using mushrooms which need to have some texture and be discernible to work well. With three minutes to go I will add plenty of Parmesan or even cheddar cheese. The texture should already be there at this point and shouldn’t be reliant on the cheese to make it creamy. This stage stiffens up the mix quite a bit and so you need to be ready to gently add more stock to restore the level of soupiness you are looking for through to the ping on the timer!
Seasoning is very important and dependent on the cheese and stock you have added. My own preference is for plenty of pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice and quite a lot of salt.