One evening while stirring arborio rice, I thought of an old friend who is married to an Italian. While the rice simmered, I fired off an email to her: "Molly, I'm cooking risotto. Any special insider tips from your Italian relatives?"
No such luck. She wrote back that she didn't do risotto. "Too much time, too tricky."
That's not the first time I've heard risotto dismissed as complicated, laborious and time-consuming. And don't even think about all that starch.
I can't argue with the starch. But plenty of other delectable dishes that people cook are starchy. And those plump, pillowy hills of arborio are worth every spoonful. I feel a bit faint just thinking about it.
As for "tricky," the key to simple, no-fail risotto is not to run out and buy all those fancy extra ingredients but to make do with whatever's around. Much like a frittata, risotto can be a handy way to use up leftovers. I can usually find everything I include in my risotto already in the kitchen, otherwise I'll substitute another ingredient (like a leek instead of an onion) or just skip it. My risottos are flexible, kind and forgiving — like we all aim to be.
The recipe below includes olive oil, garlic, onion, zucchini, mushrooms, frozen or fresh spinach, frozen peas, cilantro, arborio rice and some Parmesan (um, powder — I suppose this exposes my lack of sophistication, but I can't tell the difference once it's melted in with the rice). These ingredients just so happen to be my household staples anyway. But you could just as successfully substitute arugula, chard, leeks, shallots, chopped or sun-dried tomatoes, parsley, and feta or goat cheese.
The only essential is the arborio. Really. Even the Parmesan can be replaced.
As for my results, well, put it this way: A few years ago, my husband Barry and I had dinner at an all-risotto restaurant in Cefalu, Sicily after passing it all day, salivating at the thought of real risotto instead of my humble outpost version. We ordered and waited ... and waited. Long past bedtime, our dishes finally arrived. I looked down at the tiny, forlorn island of risotto in a vast ocean of plate, without even a sprig of parsley on the side, and swallowed. "Oh well," I said cheerily. "We're in Italy, not the States. It's about quality, right?" But after one mouthful, I bit my lip like a 5-year-old. That autentico Italian risotto was in no way as succulent as mine, especially not for 14 euros.
And that, my friends, is the last time I paid for risotto in a restaurant. So here, for free, I offer you my down-home, forgiving risotto.
Allow 30 minutes
Ingredients and method:
4 cups vegetable broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped (or leek)
1 cup arborio rice
1 small zucchini, chopped
½ cup white or crimini mushrooms, sliced
1 cup frozen peas
½ cup frozen spinach or 1 cup fresh spinach
1 handful of cilantro, chopped
¼ cup grated Parmesan (powder or the real thing)
1 dash of oregano, basil, thyme or fennel — whichever you fancy
salt, pepper to taste
In a medium pot, bring 4 cups of broth to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the olive oil. Sauté the garlic and onion, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and stir for about 5 minutes until the rice starts to turn golden.
Add the chopped zucchini, mushrooms, frozen peas, spinach and cilantro.
Add 1 cup of the hot broth into the rice mixture, stirring constantly. Stir until the liquid is absorbed.
Add another 2 cups of broth, ½ cup at a time, every 2-3 minutes, continuing to stir frequently.
Remove the pot from heat. Stir in the Parmesan and herbs. Serve immediately.
Louisa Rogers is a management trainer and a bunch of other things that sound impressive, but mainly she likes to cook.