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Methods of cooking risotto are put to the test

Reed Robinson
Recipes may differ, but any way you make it, creamy risotto is Italian comfort food.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- To stir or not to stir.

That is the question posed by risotto aficionados.

It's not an age-old question. Italians have been making the creamy peasant dish for centuries, and they always have stirred. In its simplest form, it requires only one pot, a gradual addition of liquid -- and nearly constant stirring.

Some newfangled recipes add almost all the liquid at once, accompanied by only an occasional quick stir.

Most risotto recipes begin with a sauté of chopped onions in butter and oil until they are tender, but not browned or burned.

To the sautéed onions, rice is added and stirred until lightly toasted, about three to four minutes.

Not just any rice goes into the risotto pot. It must be either widely available arborio rice or harder-to-find Camaroli rice, which stays firm even after absorbing liquid or Vialone Nano, which absorbs the most liquid. Arborio produces a soupier texture.

After the rice is toasted, warm and flavorful broth is gradually, a ladleful at a time. A gentle stir accompanies each pour. Under the cook's watchful eye, the rice absorbs the liquid. The process is repeated throughout as many ladles are stirred in until the tender rice sits in creamy comfort.

This is all there is to the dreaded stirring command. Cooks are not anchored to the stove, as is often reported, but rather nearby to give a stir with the addition of broth. This doesn't mean the cook should go downstairs and fold three loads of laundry between pours.

That's the time-honored method of risotto making.

It creates a creamy, comforting dish that can be either a side or entrée. Its accommodating nature accepts a wide variety of enhancements, including vegetables, meats, seafood, wines, cheeses, spices and herbs -- even strawberries and chocolate.

Then there's the audacious "almost no stir" method. Skeptics may scoff at this shortcut method, but I decided to give it a try. At first, the recipe resembles the traditional method, right up to the point at which the wine is absorbed.

The recipe paths diverge at the next step. Instead of gradually adding liquid, nearly all the broth is added at once and simmered on low heat for 16 to 18 minutes, stirring only twice, until almost cooked.

Then the rest of the broth is added and stirred like mad for a few minutes until creamy. Butter, cheese and any other fresh or cooked ingredients are added at this point.

Simple, but would it work? Yes, it did. I made the basic parmesan risotto below based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated and was pleasantly surprised at the creamy results. The recipe took about half an hour.

Several days later, I made risotto with the more traditional method. I watched the pan closely and added broth gradually, stirring each time.

My tasters gave a slight edge to risotto made in the time-honored, stir-intensive manner. Of course, they weren't doing the stirring. Because the results are similar, I'll choose my method for future risottos based on the complexity of whatever else I'm cooking at the same time.

After the taste test and resulting leftovers, we're a little risotto-weary at the moment, but I already have a recipe for my next risotto adventure -- Wild Mushroom Risotto with Pancetta and Sage, from the recipe below. This is not a one-pot, simple recipe. And stirring will be required.

Traditional Parmesan Risotto

Serves 4 to 6.

4 cups chicken broth

3 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 3/4 cups arborio or carnaroli rice

1 cup dry white wine

Salt and freshly milled pepper to taste

1 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped

BRING chicken broth to a boil, then reduce heat to lowest setting, cover and keep warm. Liquid used in risotto must always be warm.

MELT the butter with the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for about 3 minutes until onion is soft and translucent, but not browned, stirring frequently.

STIR the rice in with the onion. Cook, stirring, until toasted and opaque, 3 to 4 minutes. Stirring is essential to break down the starch in the risotto. A wooden spoon works best.

STIR in the wine and 1/2 cup stock and continue to cook, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed. Continue stirring and adding a half-cup to a full cup of broth at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more, until the rice is tender and creamy yet still a little al dente, about 18 minutes.

TURN off the heat and add Parmesan cheese and most of the parsley. Stir gently while the cheese melts. Taste for seasoning and adjust to taste.

GARNISH with remaining parsley and serve with additional Parmesan on the side.

Almost-No-Stir Risotto

Serves 6.

5 1/2 cups chicken broth

2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced

2 cups arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon lemon juice

Salt and pepper

2 tablespoons butter

HEAT the broth in a pot and keep warm.

HEAT butter and oil in a heavy cast-iron pan, and cook the onion over medium heat until it is translucent. Add the rice and stir to coat well, cooking 3 to 4 minutes.

ADD wine, and cook over medium heat until wine is almost absorbed. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add 5 cups of the hot liquid. Cook for about 16 to 18 minutes stirring only 2 times during this period or until the rice is just al dente.

ADD remaining 1/2 cup of broth and stir constantly for 3 minutes until the rice is creamy, adding water if risotto isn't loose enough. Add the finishing ingredients and mix well.

SERVE immediately with additional grated cheese, if desired.

Wild Mushroom Risotto with Pancetta and Sage

Serves 6 as a main course, 8 as a side dish.

2 bay leaves

4 sprigs fresh parsley leaves

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms

4 to 6 cups chicken broth

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/4 pounds cremini mushrooms, stems discarded, and cut into bite-size chunks

2 cups onions, finely chopped (divided use)

1/2 teaspoon table salt

3 medium cloves garlic, minced

2 ounces pancetta, finely chopped

2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice

1 cup dry sherry

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaf

Salt and freshly milled black pepper

TIE together bay leaves and parsley sprigs with kitchen twine. Bring bundled herbs, porcini mushrooms, chicken broth, and 6 cups water to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. When boiling, immediately lower heat to a strong simmer, and cook until dried mushrooms are softened and fully rehydrated, about 15 minutes.

REMOVE and discard herb bundle and strain broth through fine-mesh strainer set over medium bowl. Remove the hydrated porcinis, then return liquid to saucepan and set over very low heat just to keep warm.

FINELY mince porcinis and set aside.

HEAT 2 tablespoons butter in heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add cremini mushrooms, half the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Sauté, stirring, until moisture released by mushrooms evaporates and mushrooms are lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Set aside.

COOK pancetta and 1 tablespoon butter in large saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until pancetta has rendered some fat, about 5 minutes. Add remaining onions, and cook until onions are softened and translucent, but not browned, about 7 minutes.

STIR in rice. Sauté briefly, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring to coat each grain and lightly toast the rice. Add reserved porcini, sherry wine and 3 cups broth. Cook, stirring, until liquid is absorbed.

ADD broth, 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly, until rice is cooked through but grains are still somewhat firm at center, 10 to 12 minutes. All of the broth may not be needed. Risotto should be creamy but not runny with liquid.

ADD remaining 1 tablespoon butter, then stir in mushrooms (with their juices), Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley and sage. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

SERVE immediately in warmed bowls with additional Parmesan on the side.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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