Monday, December 29, 2008

Risotto -- can a lazy method yield better results?

Our instructor at CIA (Culinary Institute of America) told us that risotto was his favorite dish to make for his mother-in-law. "I'd love to continue this lovely conversation," he'd say to her, "but risotto needs my undivided attention." This didn't provide him with the proper distance from his mother-in-law (that would require thousands of miles), but at least it put them into different rooms: her in the dining room, and him safely in the kitchen.

I have good news and bad news for you my friends. The good news is that I found a hands-off method that produces more consistently perfect risotto than the traditional constant stirring method. The bad news is that you might need a different excuse to put a little distance between you and the mother-in-law.*

Any purists, should stop reading this post immediately. Risotto by definition should be cooked in uncovered pot on the stove top, adding liquid gradually, and stirring constantly. The reason I was looking for an alternative cooking method is not because I don't enjoy masochistic kitchen tasks. It's because I was never happy with the results the stirring method produced.

There are two ways to stir a risotto: with a wooden spoon or by tossing the whole sloppy mess by jerking the pan. The first method is easy, but produces less than stellar results. Your spoon inevitably crushes some rice grains making them leak starch and resulting in a gluey risotto. It also doesn't rotate the grains from the bottom of the pot to the top of the pot evenly, so the texture can be a uneven -- either some grains end up too mushy or too crunchy. The jerk of the pan method is what most professionals use, but I've had trouble mastering it. I can toss dry things in a skillet with no problems, but I find soupy things harder to toss.

After a little experimentation, I found that an oven risotto is not a lazy man's compromise, it's better than any risotto I've ever made at home. Perfectly even doneness, intact rice grains, lovely sauce that's starchy, but not gluey. Simply delicious.

Here is the basic idea. You start the usual way. Sweat some very finely diced onion (I prefer to use shallots) in olive oil until translucent. Add rice and stir until the grains are translucent except for the center. Add wine and stir until absorbed. When it's time to add the stock, you have to make some adjustments. Since risotto will cook in the oven covered, the liquid won't have a chance to reduce (evaporate somewhat thus concentrating the flavor) as it does in traditional risotto. To compensate for this, I use slightly reduced stock to begin with. The beet stock is usually so intense there is no need to concentrate it further. If I use reconstituting liquid from dry porcini as stock (my favorite risotto in the world), I make sure to use plenty of mushrooms for the amount of liquid. To tell you the truth, I never bother making risotto with chicken stock, but if you were to do that, you might want to boil the stock uncovered for about 30 minutes before using it in the oven risotto. Don't use store bought stock for risotto no matter which method you use. Commercial stocks get too salty when reduced, and even if you get unsalted stock, its shortcomings will be too obvious in a delicate dish like risotto.

Now that you have that very flavorful liquid, pour it into your rice, season to taste with salt, stir until the liquid comes to a simmer, cover, and pop it in the oven. I let the oven do 90% of the cooking, but save the last few minutes for the stove top. This results in very even doneness, but lets me control exactly how al dente I wan the risotto to be. The last few minutes work just like a normal risotto. If the grains are still a little tough, add more liquid and stir the risotto on the stove top for 1-2 minutes. I prefer my risotto all'onda (on the liquidy side), so I add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of liquid once I reach the desired doneness to loosen it.

The beautiful thing is that now you can make fabulous risotto for company by making your stock and cooking the shallots in advance. When it's time to serve the risotto, it will only need your attention for the first 3-4 minutes in the beginning and the last 1-2 minutes in the end. The rest of the time, you are free to entertain your guests.

Oven Risotto

Note about liquids: this basic recipe lends itself to infinite variations through the use of different stocks and acidic ingredient. Here are some ideas:

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: Slightly reduced vegetable or chicken stock, only if home-made. Water is a fine alternative, but boxed stocks aren't.
Chunky additions: any tasty vegetable -- roasted butternut squash, blanched asparagus, green peas, etc.

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: Reconstituting liquid from dry porcini made by soaking 2 oz of dry porcini (if possible imported) in 3 cups boiling water for at least 30 minutes. Strain through a paper towel lined sieve to catch grit before using
Chunky additions: sautéed or roasted mushrooms (chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, portabellas, etc.)

* * *

Acidic ingredient: orange juice
Stock: beet stock made by boiling scrubbed, whole, unpeeled beets in water until tender (1.5-2 hours for medium beets). When beets are done, remove them from water, cool slightly, and rub the skin off with your hands. Then you can finely dice them to use in the risotto or make something else with them.
Chunky additions: finely diced beets from stock or even better -- roasted beets.
By the way, that's the risotto in the picture.

* * *
Acidic ingredient: Red wine
Stock: beef stock, only if home-made
Chunky additions: this one doesn't really need an addition, but the bone marrow from roasted bones, or seared sweet breads would not be out of place
The wine is the star in this red wine risotto, so you might want to replace some of the stock with additional wine.

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: shrimp or lobster stock
Chunky additions: shrimp, lobster, crab, scallops

* * *

Acidic ingredient: Dry white wine
Stock: corn stock (see corn soup for recipe)
Chunky ingredient: fresh corn kernels cut from the cob
Only make this with outstanding corn in the summer!

* * *

Serves 4 as the first coarse (or 2 as the main coarse)

1/3 cup very finely diced shallot (about 2 medium shallots)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup Arborio, Carnaroli, or Vialone Nano rice (do not substitute other rice!)
1/3 cup acidic ingredient, such as dry white wine (see note above)
2 cups stock, plus another 1/2 cup to finish risotto (see note above)
2 Tbsp butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 Tbsp finely grated parmesan, plus more for garnish (omit if making seafood risotto)
Salt to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F. Bring the stock to a simmer.
  2. Place a heavy medium oven-proof pot that has an oven-proof cover (about 3-qt) on the stove top over medium-low heat. Add the oil, shallots, and a generous pinch of salt. Cook stirring occasionally until shallots are translucent and tender, but no color develops, 8-10 minutes. If they are browning before they have a chance to soften, turn down the heat. While shallots are cooking, season the stock with salt to taste.
  3. Add rice, raise the heat to medium, and cook stirring constantly with a flat wooden spoon (or some other spatula) until the rice grains are coated with oil and are translucent around the edges, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the acidic ingredient and cook stirring constantly until most of it evaporates, 2-3 minutes.
  5. Add the hot stock to rice and stir well. As soon as the liquid simmers, cover the pot, and place in the middle of the oven for 18 minutes.
  6. Remove risotto from the oven, uncover, and taste. If the grains are still too tough to your liking, add more stock (or water if you ran out of stock), and continue cooking on the stove top over medium heat stirring constantly and tasting every minute or two. As soon as the risotto reaches your desired doneness (I like mine to lose all chalky crunch, but not get mushy), take it off the heat.
  7. I prefer my risotto all'onda (on the liquidy side), so I add another 1/4 to 1/2 cup of liquid in the end to loosen it. Stir in your chunky ingredients (mushrooms, vegetables, seafood, etc). Taste and correct the salt. Stir in butter and cheese.
  8. Serve in warm bowls with extra cheese if desired.
* For the record, Jason and I have only the warmest feelings towards our mothers-in-law, which means that we never serve risotto when they come to visit. We want the opportunity to talk to them and don't want to be secluded in the kitchen stirring a pot of rice for 30 minutes. But this recipe does change things.


Anonymous said...

I absolutely love your blog! Everything is perfect, from the tone and quality of the writing to the expert photography and styling, to the well-thought out recipes and ideas!

And as a lover of risotto I will try this method, also.

Thank you for sharing your life!

Tantra Flower said...

Helen I've often wondered if I could bake risotto in the oven instead of stirring, stirring, stirring. My father nearly fainted at the suggestion (haha) but I can't wait to try it. Thank you so much for all of the wonderful recipes and advice I've received from your blog these past several months.

Happy New Year!!!

Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea. The constant stirring is certainly a reason why my risotto making less frequent than I'd prefer.

Is there any reason you couldn't accomplish this on the stovetop by adding all the liquid at once and stirring much less frequently?

Helen said...

the reason it doesn't work well on the stove top is that the rice sticks to the bottom of the pan.

Alex said...

I'll have to remember to give this a try at some point! I also like the way you've come up with some different combinations - one of the things I love about risotto is its flexibility!

I've also tagged you for the 7 random things meme!

Anonymous said...

I love your idea for a summer's corn risotto! Thanks for passing along this technique.

Rachel said...

I'm so happy you posted this. I will definitely try it soon...maybe this week? I agree that the problem with home risotto (at least mine) is the broken grains of rice, which ruin the consistency. I'm excited to see if this will give me the risotto I want at home. :)

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Great site!! How would you make a blush sauce for seafood risotto? Would you incorporate the tomatoes and cream into your recipe and if so, how much of each? Thanks for your time.

Anonymous said...

I found a recipe that uses saffron as would you use it with this technique?
Thanks in advance and I love your blog!

Helen said...

put saffron in the broth and use that broth to make risotto in the oven.