With risotto and me, it wasn’t love at first bite. Of the three ‘great’ staples of Italian cuisine – pizza, pasta and risotto (yes I know there’s antipasti, prosciutto, panini, lasagna and whatnot, but you know what I mean), risotto was the last one that I was introduced to. Growing up in Delhi, pizza was the first – chewy, cheesy pizzas from Nirula’s with friends after exams were a special treat. Pasta was next – cheesy, overdone delicious stuff with friends and beer on a student’s budget, when I studied in newly globalising Bangalore at the turn of the century. Pizza and pasta were easy to love, given the circumstances in which I initially had them, and later I was more easily able to appreciate the finer points of a thin-crust pizza from a wood-fired oven or an ‘al dente’ penne in a roasted garlic alfredo sauce.
On to risotto then. I had been working for a few years when I first had it. What led to an underwhelming experience was a mixture of not being entirely sure of what to expect, and what I think is a peculiarity of the Indian palate. You see, the texture and consistency of risotto is approximated in a number of Indian cuisines in ‘khichdi’, ‘pongal’ and the like. But ‘khichdi’ and ‘pongal’ are well-loved as comfort foods rather than gourmet specialities of any cuisine (largely). I’m not sure if risotto occupies a similar place in Italian cuisine, but the availability, pricing and general vibe around it in India certainly accords it a ‘gourmet’ aura. And when you have it for the first time, to pay as much as you do for something that is reminiscent of ‘khichdi’, can feel a little bit like having wool pulled over your eyes. Anyway, I resolved to approach future encounters with risotto with a more open mind and I was fortunate to come across some excellent and varied preparations over time. I feel much better about risotto now, indeed I love it – though not unconditionally (as this earlier post suggests), and I’m willing to try it widely and often. Which has led me to try cooking it a couple of times as well!
And so I made risotto a second time. The first time had turned out edible enough, as Appa will testify, hence this encouraged second attempt. I used this basic risotto recipe from Jamie Oliver as a starting point.
I should add at this point that most of my cooking tends to be by approximations (as they say in Bengali, ‘aandaaj’) – both in terms of ingredient proportions as well as cooking times. Here’s howIdunit:
What you need:
1. Arborio rice (it’s the stubby starchy rice that risotto needs. Most fancy supermarkets would have this. I’m not sure if Indian starchy varieties would do as well, might be worth trying) – 1.5 cups
2. Olive oil (I used extra virgin but I guess it’s not essential) – 3-4 tbsp
3. Butter (good ol’ Amul!) – 1 tbsp
4. Grated cheese (Parmesan is recommended and I used it the first time – this time it was regular Amul processed cubed cheese) – 50 gm
5. White wine (I used an Indian Chenin Blanc and it works well. Not sure if cooking wine is as effective) – 250 ml. Drink up the rest while you cook!
6. Stock (I used vegetable stock with a bit of chicken thrown in) – 1 litre, for this you will need:
– Water (a little more than a litre, but you can keep adding as it boils)
– A couple of bony pieces of chicken
– 1 onion, half a carrot, half a bell pepper – cut into big pieces
– 2-3 cloves of garlic, freshly crushed pepper, a pinch of thyme, salt
7. Smoked chicken (I just bought it, someone else had smoked it – how does one do this at home?) – 250 gm
8. Onions – 2 medium sized, chopped coarsely
9. Garlic – 5-6 cloves, chopped fine
10. Bell peppers (or ‘laal-peela’ / red-yellows, as my vegetable seller calls it) – 1 red and yellow bell pepper each, diced
11. Broccoli – one medium-sized head, chopped small
12. Mushrooms – I used 10-12 button mushrooms, sliced thin – although Jamie Oliver (and every other risotto recipe I’ve seen) forbids button mushrooms and recommends porcini, shiitake or some other flavourful sort. I grilled these in a microwave for 5 minutes to release some flavour.
13. Carrots (healthy!) – 1 medium-sized, diced small
15. Herbs – I used rosemary, thyme and basil
For the stock:
Pour 1 litre water into a big saucepan and add everything in. Heat the water to nearly a boil, and then simmer. Keep the saucepan partly covered, and add a little water after 15 minutes. After simmering for 30 minutes, strain out the liquid into a bowl and check for mild salt levels.
For the main thing:
1. Take a wide heavy-bottomed pan, and heat the olive oil and half the butter.
2. As the butter melts, add the onion and garlic. Fry the onions and garlic gently, without letting them brown.
3. As the onions turn translucent, add the rice and fry lightly for a minute.
4. Once the rice begins turning translucent around the edges, add the wine. This will sizzle and exude a nice tart aroma. (The wine isn’t essential, it adds a slightly tart taste to the final risotto, you can choose not to use wine if you do not wish the risotto to taste so. But there’s no alcohol left in the final dish – so no worries on that count!)
5. Once the wine is cooked in, add a cup of the stock and gently massage it into the rice, onions and garlic.
6. As you pour in the stock and massage everything in, the rice will release starch and begin to look a little gooey and sticky. As the first cup of stock gets cooked in, pour in a second cup and add the broccoli and carrots. Massaging the rice right through the cooking is most critical, to keep releasing the starch and cooking everything in it.
7. Keep adding a little bit of stock and mix it in, coaxing the starch out of the rice and add more stock when the previous pour is cooked in.
8. After about 15 minutes, the rice should be about half done. Now add the rest of the ingredients – the chicken, bell peppers and mushrooms and stir them in.
9. Add stock one more time and cook it in before adding the herbs, grinding pepper and adding salt to taste. Add the rest of the butter at this stage as well.
10. Keep the heat on low, and keep adding stock (if you run out, add boiling water) and massaging it into the rice with all the ingredients until the rice is done. Check for salt and add some if required.
11. Once done, the rice should be cooked but a little firm to bite, and the overall consistency should be creamy and gooey.
12. Sprinkle the grated cheese all over and serve hot with a glass of wine!
Jamie Oliver calls risotto a labour of love. I now know why! 🙂