Risotto: A Coming of Age Dish

 Risotto is one of those dishes that you remember making for the first time.

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I remember the first time I made risotto. 

I was a newlywed, and a new resident of Rome, Italy. I still couldn't speak the language—not well, anyway. It's lonely going when you're in a new country without family, friends, or common points of reference. You find yourself with a lot of time on your hands. 

One of the few things I could do alone was shop for food. At outdoor markets around the city, where solemn-looking vendors presided over the day's produce and smoked cigarettes while trimming artichokes. At Norcinerie and alimentari, small delis selling salumi, cheeses, dry and fresh pasta and legumes from all over Italy. At pastry shops and bakeries and butcher shops and coffee shops. Even at narrow-aisled supermarkets which made me nostalgic for the United States. 

Another thing I could do was cook. Not only did cooking keep me occupied, but it also made me feel connected to a still-foreign culture. And, let's face it: there are worse places in the world to learn to learn about food. 

It might be kind of a cliché, but to my 23-year-old mind risotto represented a level of cooking above what I had been doing up until that point. It was an intermediary step between college food and adult food. Anyone could boil some water for pasta, or throw a potato in the oven or make a salad or whatever. Risotto required a little technique. It needed patience and time and an ability to follow directions, all of which I had little of up until that point. 

After scouring blogs and cookbooks, the recipe I finally settled on was risotto with saffron: incredibly simple, but elegant. The deciding factor was the gorgeous golden-yellow color of the finished rice, with a cloud of grated parmesan on top. I printed the recipe, spent hours agonizing which kind of rice was best, and  

I measured out the rice and broth, chopped up an onion and butter in a saute pan. In went the onion, followed by the rice, which I turned over with a wooden spoon until it was shiny and translucent.  I poured a heated ladleful of broth over the rice and stirred patiently until the liquid was nearly absorbed. Then I added another and another, stirring anxiously, until to my amazement the rice began to reach a creamy consistency. After a quick taste test, I ladled the risotto into warmed bowls, lit a candle and sat down. 

I could not have been more pleased with myself. I watched expectantly as my husband took his first bite. He chewed, thoughtfully, looked up at me and said: 

“It’s delicious. Where’s the saffron?”

Since then, I’ve probably made every mistake a human can make cooking risotto at home. Once, after spending hours pureeing roasted pumpkin and chopping onions and slaving over the stove, my dinner party guests were late, and the entire pan of risotto turned into an orange, sludgy mass with the consistency of wallpaper glue.

These days, I try to make life easier for myself. I don't serve risotto at dinner parties. And I’ve learned that the recipe is more forgiving than it seems, provided a few essential rules are followed:

  • The stock or broth used can make or break your risotto dish. Even boiling lightly salted water with a few vegetables makes for a tastier final product.

  • Your stock should be kept on a low simmer throughout the process to ensure that the rice cooks evenly. The temperature of your sauté pan also matters—keep the heat at medium for best results.

  • You don’t need to stir risotto constantly. But you do need to pay attention, especially in the beginning. Once you’ve toasted the rice, pour one ladleful of stock over the rice and stir to prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. Once most of the liquid has been absorbed, add another ladleful (or two) and stir again. At this point, you can (kind of) relax and do other stuff in the kitchen. But you still need to keep an eye on the pan, add liquid as necessary and occasionally stir to prevent burning.

  • Adding a generous pat of butter at the end will improve taste and texture.

  • When done, risotto should slowly run down the back of a spoon or spread out on a plate. The only way to check if it's done is to taste it: there should be a bit of bite, but it should not be hard in the middle.

  • Remember that it will continue cooking once you turn the pan off, and even after it's plated, so plan to eat it immediately. Take it from me: if left to sit even a few minutes, your beautiful risotto will turn to mush.

  • One thing I wish I'd had back when I was learning was a pre-seasoned mix, like the ones sold here. There's something for everyone, and the flavors are delicious. The Spinach Florentine flavor is my favorite because it reminds me of Italy, but I also love Butternut Squash. It's the perfect meal for a chilly autumn evening.

  • Any leftovers? Make arancini!