In the Veneto, a bowl of risotto for lunch is more common than a plate of pasta. I learned how to make it inadvertently, sitting at the kitchen table reading books as a teenager, while my mother and her best friend Melia prepared Sunday “pranzo”. The preparation of a good risotto is intuitive in this part of Italy. It comes with the territory, like Palladian villas and purple mountains framing the northern horizon.
Homemade risotto is simple and fresh, based upon seasonal vegetables. It is neither complicated nor time-consuming, rich or heavy. Moreover it is a dish that can be brought to the table in less than an hour after stepping into the kitchen. The following recipe is the starting point for many variations on rice with vegetables “alla Veneta”.
- 300 grams of organic round-grained rice for risotto such as Baldo, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli
- one small shallot
- one stalk of celery
- one small carrot equal in weight to the celery
- sea salt
- one liter of water
- two bay leaves
- 20 grams of dried porcini mushrooms or 75 grams shiitake
- 30 grams of organic butter or the same amount of extra virgin olive oil
- 50 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Bring the water to a boil adding a pinch of sea salt and a few bright green bay leaves. Steep the dried porcini mushrooms in 250 ml of the boiled water. The dried mushrooms will soften in ten minutes. Meanwhile peel the shallot and cut it into a fine mince. Put the shallot peels in a colander. Wash and peel the carrot and add the carrot peels to the colander as well. Wash the celery stalk, removing the strings on the rounded side, by pulling them gently towards the root end with a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler. Add the celery peels to the other ingredients in the colander and rinse everything well. Mince the carrot, shallot and celery with a sharp knife.
Place the peels in the pan and continue to simmer the ingredients at low heat. Remove the porcini from the soaking liquid. A dark brown and aromatic liquid will remain. Check them for sand or wood debris before chopping them coarsely. Filter the mushroom steeping liquid through a sieve and add it to the simmering broth. The addition of the porcini juices will add flavor to the risotto.
Melt the butter, or if using, warm the olive oil in a nice shallow pan. Add the minced shallot, celery and carrot, cooking them at low heat a few minutes without stirring. When the shallots have turned transparent, add the rice, stirring well until it is evenly distributed through the sautéed vegetables. The rice should be coated with the oil in such a way that the grains glisten. The coating of the rice is an important part of making good risotto. If needed add the smallest amount of extra butter or oil.
Add the chopped porcini mushrooms, a good pinch of salt and three large soup ladles of warm vegetable broth.
Stir the rice constantly for two to four minutes until the broth is almost absorbed. This will make for a creamy risotto later on. Add three more ladles of broth and stir occasionally. Make sure that the heat is regulated in such a manner that the rice cannot burn on the bottom. When the second amount of broth has been absorbed, taste the rice. If it is soft on the outside with a hard center in the middle, it is almost done. This should be the case after twenty minutes.
At this point add two more soup ladles to the rice along with the grated Parmesan cheese, stirring well. Turn off the heat. Put a lid on the pan and shake it gently back and forth several times. Let it rest five minutes. Taste the risotto. Add a bit of salt and pepper if so desired. Blend in some fresh thyme leaves and add one last ladle of warm broth. Stir and serve in nicely warmed bowls.
♦ Suggested combinations
Risotto is a meal in itself. Steamed wild spinach or grilled red radicchio are nice additions to the porcini mushroom risotto.
Most cookbook recipes for risotto call for chicken broth. I prefer using fresh vegetable broth or even water flavored, with a few bay leaves and some sea salt.
I have also noticed that most published risotto recipes add wine to the initial cooking process. In my experience, wine is not used when preparing homemade risotto. Cream and garlic are equally scarce in the traditional method I learned from Melia, her daughter Luisa and of course my Mom.
When spooned into a bowl with a ladle the risotto does not resemble porridge. This is a sign that the risotto has been overcooked or stirred too vigorously. A perfect risotto has recognizable individual rice grains, kept together with a slightly thickened and flavorful broth.
A fine dust of grated Parmesan is essential to a creamy risotto.