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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

From my own region : Risotto!!

Cari amici,
Come state?
Well you probably know by now that I was born and raised near Venice Italy. 
But having had the luck to have a dad from the region of Lazio, I have had the privilege and the luck to get to know very well the culture and the traditions of the north and as well of the south of Italy.
Even if Italy is one country, there are for sure many differences between North and South, like different Holidays traditions and most of all in their dishes! It has to do with the fact that we Italian like to eat fresh ingredients and, as you can imagine the food, especially fruits and vegetables that you can find on the colder north of Italy are different of the one that you can find in the much warmer and sunnier south! Even if nowadays you can find the same ingredients everywhere, still the traditional way to eat has some differences from south to north and even from one region to another.
One of the dishes that for sure belong to the northern side of Italy is the Risotto.
Risotto is a traditional Italian rice dish cooked with broth and flavored with Parmesan cheese and other ingredients, which can include meat, fish or vegetables. The name means literally "little rice" and it is one of the most common ways of cooking rice in Italy. 
Its origins are in northern Italy, specifically Eastern Piedmont, Western Lombardy , and the Veneto, where rice paddies are abundant. Risottos are made using short-grain rice, with the stock being added gradually while the rice is stirred constantly. The cooking technique leads the rice to release its starch giving the finished dish a creamy texture.

The high-starch round medium- or short- grain rice that is usually used to make risotto have the ability to absorb liquids and to release starch and so they are stickier than the long grain varieties. The principal varieties used in Italy are Carnaroli and Vialone Nano and to a lesser degree Arborio.
Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are considered to be the best (and most expensive) varieties, with different users preferring one over the other. They have slightly different properties: for example Carnaroli is less likely to get overcooked than Vialone Nano, but the latter being smaller cooks faster and absorbs condiments better. To be even more specific, Carnaroli is a medium-grained rice native to the Novara and Vercelli, in the regions of Piedmont. Carnaroli is traditionally used for making risotto, differing from the more common Arborio rice due to its higher starch content and firmer texture, as well as having a longer grain. Carnaroli rice keeps its shape better than other forms of rice during the slow cooking required for making risotto due to higher quantities of amylose present within. It is often described as being a "superfino" rice or as "the king of rices".
Arborio rice is named after the town of Arborio in the Po Valley, where it is grown. Cooked, the rounded grains are firm, creamy, and chewy, due to the higher amylopectin starch content of this rice variety, thus they have a starchy taste of their own, yet blend well with other flavors. Arborio rice is also used for rice pudding.

Other varieties like Roma, Baldo, Ribe and Originario may be used but will not have the creaminess of the traditional dish. These varieties are considered better for soups and other non-risotto rice dishes and for making sweet rice desserts. Rice designations of Superfino, Semifino and Fino refer to the size and shape (specifically the length and the narrowness of the grain) of the grains and not the quality.

There are many different risotto recipes with different ingredients, but they are all based on rice of an appropriate variety cooked in a standard procedure.
The rice is first cooked briefly in butter or olive oil to coat each grain in a film of fat, this is called tostatura; white wine is added and has to be absorbed by the grains. When it has evaporated, the heat is raised to medium high and very hot stock is gradually added in small amounts while stirring gently, almost constantly: stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid. Tasting helps to indicate when the risotto is ready. At that point it is taken off the heat for the mantecatura when diced cold butter and finely grated Parmigiano –Reggiano or Grana Padano cheese are vigorously stirred in to make the texture as creamy and smooth as possible. It may be removed from the heat a few minutes earlier, and left to cook with its residual heat but this requires fine judgment as to how much liquid will be absorbed by the rice while it waits. The cheese is usually omitted if the risotto contains fish or other seafood, and I will add that you will make an Italian chef very mad if you ask to add cheese to risotto with seafood!!
Properly cooked risotto is rich and creamy but still with some resistance or bite: al dente, and with separate grains. The traditional texture is fairly fluid, or all'onda ("wavy"). It should be served on flat dishes and it should easily spread out but not have excess watery liquid around the plate. It must be eaten at once as it continues to cook in its own heat and can become too dry with the grains too soft.

As I said risotto can be made using many kinds of vegetable, meat, fish, seafood and legumes, and different types of wine and cheese may be used. 
There is even, exceptionally, an Italian strawberry risotto. Risotto is normally a Primo, served on its own before the main course but Risotto alla Milanese, for instance is made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard, (instead of butter) and cheese, flavored and colored with saffron and may be served with Osso buco (braised veal shanks) and can be a primo and secondo in one. Same also for Piedmont's risotto al Barolo that is made with red wine and may include sausage meat and/or Borlotti beans.
Specialty of my own Veneto region are Black risotto or risotto al nero di seppia made with cuttlefish cooked with their ink sacs intact, and Risi e Bisi or "rice and peas". This one is a Veneto spring dish that is correctly served with a spoon not a fork; it is a soup so thick it seems like a risotto. It is made with green peas using the stock from the fresh young pods, flavored with Pancetta. And it ha also been one of the first dishes I’ve learn to make!!
Risotto is a delicious dish, no mater with what you decide to make it with it you need to have patience. It takes about 20 minutes of careful watching and every few minutes adding a half-cup of hot stock to the rice, as the rice slowly absorbs the liquid it's in. I actually don't mind watching over risotto, it's easy enough to do, and you can prepare other things while keeping the corner of your eye on the risotto. The result is so worth the effort.
Here for you the recipe for Risotto With Peas “Risi e Bisi” like my grandma used to make:
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes

1½ cups Arborio rice
1 qt chicken stock
(I do prefer to warm up water with a vegetable bouillon cube in)
½ cup white wine
1 medium shallot or ½ small onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
3 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 thin slices of prosciutto or Pacetta diced (optional)
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
Salt, to taste

Bring broth to a simmer in a saucepan and keep at a bare simmer, covered.
Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peas and the pancetta stirring, for a few minutes add the rice and cook, Add wine and simmer, stirring, until absorbed.
Stir in 1 cup simmering broth and cook at a strong simmer, stirring constantly, until broth is absorbed. Continue simmering risotto and adding broth, about 1/2 cup at a time, stirring constantly and letting each addition become absorbed before adding next, until rice is just tender and creamy but still al dente, 18 to 20 minutes (there will be leftover broth).
Stir 2/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese, parsley, remaining 2 tablespoons butter, and salt and pepper to taste.
If necessary, thin risotto with some of remaining broth. Serve immediately, with remaining 1/3 cup cheese.

And if you got Risotto leftovers?
This recipe for risotto cakes is a great way to use leftover risotto.

Risotto Cakes Recipe
Risotto cakes are a great way to use leftover risotto. In fact, they're so good that you might make a batch of risotto just for the leftovers. Or at least, intentionally make way more than you need, and refrigerate the rest for tomorrow's risotto cakes.

Risotto cakes turn out best when made from day-old risotto that's been chilled. When cooked risotto is held too long, the starchy Arborio rice turns glutinous, which is bad when you're serving the actual risotto, but makes for heavenly risotto cakes.

My favorite risotto for making risotto cakes is mushroom risotto, but any cooked risotto will do.
Cook Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
1 cup or more cooked risotto, chilled
Heat a tablespoon or so of butter or oil over low to medium heat in a nonstick saut√© pan. Depending on how much cooked risotto you have, you can either form it into a ball and then flatten it into a patty, or if you have quite a bit, you can press the cooked risotto into the pan and flatten it into one large, pan-shaped cake which you can then cut into wedges.
Cook for 10-15 minutes, or until a crispy, golden-brown crust forms on the bottom. Flip and do the same the other side. Serve hot.
Fan note: great  Italian actress Silvana Mangano, starred in a movie in 1949 called “Riso Amaro” ,an earthy drama of human passions among women rice workers, “le mondine”.  in the Po Valley. Here is a photo of the beautiful actress in this must see movie!! Silvana married movie producer Dino De Laurentis…does this name ring a bell? Well Silvana Mangano was the grandmother of the great Italian chef Giada De Laurentis!!

Buon appetito and stay tuned for my next week blog about a wonderful dinner with the Accademia Italiana della Cucina at Falai Restaurant in New York City cooked by the great chef from Firenze Jacopo Falai and to hear more about modern Italian food and some great recipe!

Love Always,

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