Creamy Risotto Comes of Age

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Leave it to the trendiest chefs to find inspiration in an old-world dish.

Risotto, a classic rice dish from the north of Italy, gives you a level of flavor that all the Rice-a-Roni in San Francisco can't match. And while it is appearing on the tables of New York's top chefs, making it is relatively simple and straightforward, if somewhat time consuming.

In the kitchen of a Piedmontese grandmother, a risotto would be a sideshow to a heavy entre. But contemporary chefs seize on risotto's versatility to let it dominate your dinner plate.

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By adding almost any meat, vegetable, or seafood o the risotto, the dish makes a nutritious and filling main course - as long as you don't tell that Piedmontese grandmother.

So what makes risotto a unique - and uniquely accessible - delicacy? It's all in the preparation and patience.

You'll need a special variety of rice to take advantage of this cooking technique that may date back to the 15th century. Arborio is most commonly available in the United States.

Arborio rice and its cousins, Vialone Nano and Canaroli, have a unique characteristic that makes risotto possible. While being cooked, they release a starch that dissolves to give the dish a creamy texture.

Making it even better, this process of the starch dissolving into the cooking liquid allows the taste of a flavorful broth to adhere to each grain.

Don't bother with those so-called "instant" risottos. One brand tasted like something from the high school cafeteria on a bad day. Made of regular long-grain rice thickened with added starch and flavored with dried bouillon, it resembles risotto about as much as your local Denny's resembles Wolfgang Puck's latest restaurant.

Risotto has many variations but it always follows a basic process:

First, saut onions or leeks, (sometimes garlic is added for extra flavor) in butter or olive oil, or equal parts of both, in a wide, heavy-bottomed pan that will distribute heat evenly.

This is your soffrito, or flavor base. Then, add the Arborio and lightly toast the grains of rice in the hot oil or butter. After about a minute, a nutty smell will come from the rice, telling you it's time to begin adding hot broth or stock.

You will have already prepared a meat or chicken broth, which should be simmering on the stove next to your risotto. (Homemade is best, canned will cut it if there's no other option.)

Add a single ladleful of the broth - about half a cup - and stir constantly.

When the broth has been almost completely absorbed, add another. Continue stirring almost constantly, adding another ladleful of broth only when the liquid is almost gone.

At this stage, your near-constant stirring is releasing the glutinous starch molecules of the rice, which bond the flavors of the broth to each grain.

After about 20 minutes, taste the risotto. It should still be slightly al dente. Depending on preference, cook for another few minutes, stopping the cooking process before the rice has completely lost its bite.

In the final stages, add whatever ingredients you want to make the risotto special. Cooked fresh asparagus is common. Some butter, Parmesan cheese, and even cream can make your risotto particularly rich. Or, omit the butter and cream for a dish that's lower in fat but still quite flavorful.

A pinch of saffron adds wonderful color and flavor. Shrimp, chicken livers, sun-dried tomatoes, and mushrooms are popular additions as well. Fruit, too, such as raspberries or sliced strawberries makes an unusual dessert or first-course risotto. Don't be afraid to experiment.

MUSHROOM RISOTTO

2 .35-ounce packets of dried porcini mushrooms

5 to 6 cups chicken or beef stock

8 sprigs fresh thyme, stripped of leaves, or 1/2 teaspoon dried

1/4 cup virgin olive oil

3 large leeks, (white part only, quartered and washed thoroughly, thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, minced

3/4 pound portabello or cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced, or combination of both

2 anchovies mashed into a paste, or 1 tablespoon anchovy paste (optional)

1-1/4 cups Arborio rice

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese (preferably freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano)

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Soak dried porcini mushrooms in one cup of boiling water for about 30 minutes.

Heat chicken or beef stock to boiling with thyme leaves. Reduce heat and keep stock at a simmer.

In a large, heavy frying or sauce pan, heat the olive oil. Add leeks and garlic and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until leeks are soft. Stir in fresh mushrooms and anchovy paste and cook, stirring for 5 to 6 minutes or until mushrooms are soft. Add Arborio rice and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove porcini mushrooms from water; set aside. Add all but the last teaspoon or so of porcini water to rice. (Avoid the dregs as water may be gritty.) Chop the porcini and add to rice.

Add 1/2 cup of simmering stock to rice. Cook, stirring constantly, until it is almost all absorbed by rice. Continue with all the stock using this method. The entire process will take about 25 to 30 minutes. When all the stock has been absorbed, and the rice is thick and creamy, remove from heat and stir in butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt, and pepper.

Serves 6 as an entre.

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