Plain risotto with onion

Plain risotto with onion

Several weeks ago the restaurant was closed and we taught a series of cooking classes instead. At each of the cooking classes we made risotto with sausage and cranberry beans, which we also served at the restaurant back in October.

In a traditional Italian meal, there are two principal courses (primo piatto, and secondo piatto), often preceded by an appetizer (antipasto) and followed by a dessert (dolce). The primo piatto is invariably a soup, pasta, or risotto. Risotto is the creamy rice dish of certain Northern Italian regions, made with one of several special rice varieties and a unique cooking method in which one adds liquid only gradually while stirring almost constantly.

The most common rice for making risotto is arborio. It is pretty widely available these days in most supermarkets, though just like with pasta, I find imported arborio superior to domestic if you have a choice. Although arborio is the most common risotto rice both here and in Italy, it is not the finest. In the Veneto, Italians prefer vialone nano. Elsewhere, carnaroli is the considered the finest rice for risotto. What all three have in common is a high percentage of amylopectin, the same sticky starch which makes yukon gold the perfect potato for gnocchi. But some arborio can become almost too creamy and begin to dissolve. It also tends to have a narrow window between undercooked and overcooked (like pasta, risotto should be serve al dente). Vialone nano and carnaroli (which is a cross between vialone nano and a Japanese variety) produce creamy risotto with more distinct kernels and a larger window between under and overcooked.

Certainly, making risotto with arborio is better than not making risotto, but the extra trouble to acquire vialone nano or canaroli is well worth it, and does a lot to explain why the risotto we made recently at the restaurant and in classes was so well regarded. The rice we use is a very special carnaroli from Piedmont called acquerello, which we mail order from Amazon. 

Acquerello is actually aged and enriched with the the nutritious germ of the rice kernel. Although it takes longer to cook than other types (25 to 27 minutes), the result is well worth the wait.

Often, recipes indicate that the rice needs to be stirred constantly, but this is not true. As long as you don’t step away for too long and as long as the rice doesn’t dry out and burn, you’ll be fine. I usually stir for a minute or so and step away for a minute or so. This is one reason risotto in restaurants is often so dreadful. Unless the kitchen has someone dedicated to stirring for 25 minutes (which few do), the risotto will be partially pre-made and reheated (yuck!).

Some cooks add a little white wine before adding broth. We never do, but it is certainly worth experimenting with. Of course, in addition to the quality of your rice, the character of your risotto will be determined largely by what type of broth you use. If the only way you’ll ever make risotto is to use store-bought broth, by all means do, but your results will be far superior with homemade broth. Homemade broth is really quite easy. Simply add some a few pieces of chicken or a chicken carcass in a large pot with an onion or two and several carrots and stalks of celery. If you have some meaty bones of beef, all the better. Bring to a near boil (about 180 degrees) and keep at that temperature for a few hours before cooling, straining, and refrigerating or freezing. You can let it boil, but the broth will be less clear and more cloudy. We don’t salt our broth, preferring to more aggressively season whatever we’re adding the broth to. With frozen broth on hand, you can make risotto or soup at a moment’s notice. If you’re vegetarian, simply omit the meat and double the quantity of vegetables. Really couldn’t be easier.

Like pasta sauces, there is an infinite number of possible risotto dishes to make. The most basic risotto is simply given a flavor base of gently sauteed onion. We tend to prefer slightly heartier risotti with meat and/or beans, such as the recipe you’ll find below, which we first learned from Marcella Hazan’s beautiful cookbook Marcella Cucina.

If you can make your own sausage, all the better. If not, try to find a minimally seasoned one without fennel or just use heavily seasoned ground pork. Cranberry beans are similar to borlotti beans in Italy. They’re a bit hard to find, but they can be mail ordered, or you can use a canned version which Goya markets as “Roman Beans”. It’s best to buy dried beans and soak/cook them yourself, but the canned beans wouldn’t be too great a sacrifice in this dish.

Risotto with Sausage and Cranberry Beans

  1. Bring about 5 or 6 cups of broth to a lazy simmer.
  2. Brown about ½ cup sausage in a pot with some olive oil, and then add about ½ cup onion and cook until just softened.
  3. Add about a cup of cooked or canned cranberry beans along with a knob or two of butter.
  4. Add 250 grams rice (about 1 ½ cups) and about ½ to 1 teaspoon salt (assuming no salt in your broth), and stir for a minute or two to coat the kernels.
  5. Begin adding broth a ladleful or two at a time, keeping the heat on medium. After each addition, the pot should look soupy. When most of the liquid is absorbed in a few minutes, add another ladleful or two until the rice is done (20 to 25 minutes depending on the type). If you run short on broth, continue with water.
  6. The risotto is done when al dente, tender but firm. When it is just about finished, add another knob of butter and about ½ cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano. If necessary, add a little broth to obtain a nice, creamy consistency. In some places, risotto is more soupy than others, though it should never really look like a soup. On the other hand, if it is too dry and sticky, it can be quite wearying. Garnish with a thin sliver of butter, more parmigiano, and possibly some chopped parsley.