There has been so much written about risotto requiring constant attention, loving care and a certain understanding. Well, up to a point, it's all true. Risotto does need continual stirring, but the rest is really quite simple, and a joy to make. If you have the ingredients to hand and a couple of able helpers (eg, children), you'll have a complete meal in 25 minutes with very little difficulty.
I thought that the best way to tackle this would be to set out the guidelines for a basic risotto. This can then be adapted to taste.
Equipment: two pans, one for the cooking liquid and the other for the rice itself. A wooden spoon or heat resistant spatula, preferably flat-bottomed.
The rice: basically, there's long- and short-grain rice. The difference between the two is the quantity of arnylopectin starch granules. This is the starch that swells and bursts during cooking, thickening the dish. Long-grain rice has less arnylopectin and is suitable for pilaffs, whereas short-grain is ideal for sticky rice dishes. The breakdown of arnylopectin is maximised by adding cooking liquid in small quantities and continuous stirring. The three main varieties for risotto are Arborio, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, all medium grain rices. Whichever rice you use, however, never wash it, because that process will remove the very thing that makes the dish work in the first place - namely, the starch.
Cooking oil: it really is up to you, although traditionally, depending on the region, butter or olive oil are used to fry the rice, onion and garlic. Personally, I use marrowbone as I think it gives the risotto a wonderful richness.
Cooking liquid: do not let the thought of having to make a stock put you off, because it may not be necessary. Purists advocate a broth so that it does not mask the flavour of the rice, but you can use water, adding whatever chopped veg you happen to have lying around. There are many other possibilities: some leftover roasting juices that could be watered down, tomato juice, or even tinned consommé could work well.
You can always add trimmings of the main ingredient into the cooking liquid to re-enforce the flavour. Whatever liquid you use, just remember that it must be simmering, and add a little at a time.
Timing: many recipes will say that the risotto will take 18 minutes to cook. This should be taken as a rough guideline. The cooking time will depend on many factors, for example, how long has the rice been toasted for, the type of rice itself, the quantity being cooked, and the rate of stirring. It also depends on how much of a bite you want the finished rice to have.
The liquid itself should be simmering but not boiling. Good risottos are made by cooking the rice so that it goes through a combination of absorbing the liquid and the gradual breakdown or dissolving of the starch. You do not want the liquid to evaporate too quickly. On the other hand, if the liquid is too cool, the starch will not become sufficiently dissolved.
It is very important to leave the risotto a little wetter than you intend serving it and leave it to rest for a couple of minutes after beating in the butter. This will allow the rice to take up the excess liquid as it cools a bit.
Finishing the risotto: this is traditionally called mantecare, where butter and Parmesan are beaten in and the rice is left to stand. It is important at this point to stir vigorously. This will help release more starch and create that creamy finish. Lightly whipped cream or mascarpone can also be added along with olive oil, lemon juice and seasoning. Finally, make sure that you have all of the ingredients to hand. This way you can concentrate on the risotto itself.
This is probably the most simple in terms of taste. However, it is the best one to begin with. Serves four.
400g risotto rice
150ml white wine
100ml vermouth (preferably Noilly Prat)
2 onions, finely chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed and puréed
1 litre stock/water/liquid of your choice
75ml olive oil
50g unsalted butter
1 dsp lightly whipped double cream (or mascarpone, if available)
Salt and pepper
Put the cooking liquid into a pan and bring to a very gentle simmer. Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil until hot and add the grains of rice.
Stir continuously. The rice will begin to crackle and take on a delicate nutty aroma. When this happens, add the onions, garlic and 25g butter. Turning the heat down to low, continue cooking for about five minutes. Continue to stir to make sure that all of the grains of rice are coated in the oil.
Add the white wine and cook until reduced, still stirring. Add the vermouth and reduce again. Now begin adding the stock, a ladle at a time. As soon as the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, add the next ladle, always stirring to ensure that the rice does not stick to the sides or bottom of the pan. After about 18 minutes, taste the rice to see if it is cooked. If there is still too much of a bite to it, add more liquid. If you think that you may be running out of cooking liquid, bring some more to a simmer so that you can use it immediately. When the risotto is ready, vigorously beat in the grated Parmesan and the rest of the butter. Finish by carefully folding in the cream, if using, and season. Leave the risotto to stand for a few minutes before serving.
This is delicious served with raw cauliflower grated over the top just before serving. Also, a dusting of chocolate powder works quite brilliantly - honest.
For the velouté of cauliflower (enough for six portions of risotto)
450g cauliflower florets
200g raw cauliflower (to grate over the risotto at the end)
1 pinch curry powder
90ml chicken stock (or water)
90ml whipping cream
90ml semi-skimmed milk
2 big tablespoons finely chopped chives
Blanch the florets in lightly salted water for three minutes, drain and refresh. Bring the chicken stock to the boil, add the cauliflower and the curry powder and cook until the cauliflower is soft enough to purée.
Tip into a liquidiser and leave to cool for five minutes. Then purée, adding the cream and milk, a little at a time. Pass the purée through a fine sieve and put into a casserole on the heat. Cook gently for five minutes until the raw cream flavour disappears.
Make the risotto as per the basic recipe and stir in the cauliflower velouté two to three minutes before the end. Add the Parmesan and butter as per the basic recipe but no cream. Stir in the chives and season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. At the table, grate raw cauliflower over the dish and dust with chocolate powder.
If you are lucky enough to find peas that have been picked within the last day, then they will be fantastic here. Unfortunately, most of us have to rely on the supermarket for our fresh peas, in which case they'll have little taste left - by the time they've hit the shelves, they'll be a few days old. But all is not lost - Birds Eye freezes its peas within hours of picking, thereby preserving their inherent sweetness. Don't feel ashamed - many chefs use them regularly. Stir in a generous tablespoon of pea purée (see recipe below) per person into the basic risotto a couple of minutes before it's done, then finish with Parmesan, a big knob of butter, some lightly whipped cream, salt and pepper. Some fried, chopped bacon and shallots would work really well with this, as would chopped fresh mint.
For the pea purée (enough for four servings of risotto)
400g Birds Eye frozen peas (not petits pois, as they have too much skin to flesh, so will make the purée granular)
75g unsalted butter
Salt and pepper
Defrost the peas. Take care not to cook them. Reduce them to a purée in the liquidiser, making sure that you leave it running for five minutes on full. Alternatively, an old-fashioned vegetable mill works even better as it tends to pass the flesh of the pea through, leaving the skins behind.
Please note that a food processor will not do this job well - if you use one, you will need to pass the peas through the finest meshed sieve you have available.
Put the purée into a small pan and gently heat it, adding the butter. Season to taste (personally, I think it needs lots of salt and pepper). It is important that you don't heat the purée too much or for too long, otherwise it will go lumpy and lose its wonderful colour. Let it cool. If not using right away, cover with clingfilm, making sure that the film is in contact with the surface of the purée to prevent air circulating around the mixture, which will cause it to lose colour. The purée will keep in the fridge for a couple of days in its raw state. When you need it, re-heat gently, and stir into the basic risotto, along with a little more butter and seasoning, just before serving