Milan is in the middle of the Po valley, a not very exciting plain in the north of Italy. The climate is not the most desirable, very hot (and humid) summers with pretty grey (and humid) winters, but the flat land and the abundance of water make for an ideal place to grow rice. Risotto is in fact a typical dish from all the regions in the Po valley — Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto. Risotto is quite a versatile dish, and once you have learned the basic you can really customize it to your taste. It’s not difficult at all; it just requires a bit of patience and the right ingredients!
The one below is a recipe for saffron risotto, which is probably “the” most Milanese dish you can find. You can add soaked dried mushrooms to it to make it even more tasty and colourful. You can make risotto also with courgette, asparagus, spinach, pumpkin, radicchio or even sausage. The important thing is to cook these secondary ingredients on the side so that you can add them to the rice without letting the temperature drop too much.
Here’s the recipe for 4 people….
- 400gr of risotto rice (best are carnaroli or vialone nano, but arborio will do)
- 1/4 onion
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 15-20 gr of butter
- 3 tbsp of grated parmesan
- beef stock or stock cubes
- 1/2 glass of white wine
- 1 or 2 envelopes of Italian saffron
Put the beef stock in a pan and bring to a boil, or alternatively if you are using stock cubes you can put the kettle on. Slice the onion very thinly and place it in a thick bottom pot or casserole, add the oil and cook until transparent. Raise the heat, add the rice and with a wooden spoon stir the rice for about a minute. This is called the “toasting” phase and it will ensure the rice will cook properly. Add the wine, it will sizzle and evaporate immediately. Keep stirring and start adding some of the boiling stock or some of the boiling water. You should add about a soup ladle of liquid each time, stir until it’s nearly absorbed then add some more. The fire under the pan should be about medium, the rice and its liquids have to keep simmering. If you are using stock cubes you can put them directly in with the rice at the beginning of this liquid adding process. Start maybe with 1 and 1/2 then as you go along you can add a bit more if you need more flavour. Once the rice is nearly cooked, and it’s still a tiny bit hard on the inside (or very “al dente”) turn the heat off. Add the saffron, the butter and the parmesan. Stir with the wooden spoon until all the ingredients have melted and blended-in properly. Cover with a lid for a couple of minutes, then serve it. You may add a bit more of parmesan and some freshly ground black pepper if you wish. The right consistency of risotto is a matter of taste, I prefer it a bit soft and it will also look better on the plate (so do not wait for all the liquid to be gone before switching the heat off, otherwise by the time you eat it it will have become too solid).
Risotto is typically a first course in Italy but it works very well as a side to a stew or a slow cooked roast.