|Homemade Asparagus & Green Pea Risotto with Prosciutto-Wrapped Asparagus Garnish|
It was only October of 2013 that I was nervously preparing for my evening class at George Brown Chef College, my stomach in knots over the thought of making risotto from scratch for the first time ever. I remember feeling sick with worry over making the notoriously difficult-to-prepare dish. I had heard how difficult it was to achieve the loose, yet not soupy, creamy, yet not mushy texture of the starchy rice, as well as the dedication involved to the preparation, leaving the cook handcuffed to the stove for the duration of the cooking process. Now look at me! Just over a year later, I feel like a risotto-making pro! It turns out that risottos reputation as being a difficult-to-prepare dish is actually nothing more than a myth! In fact, I even find making risotto relaxing, and simple enough to whip up mid-week when I feel like I have a fridge full of nothing!
The trick to making risotto is patience and practice. Yes, it's true, you do need to man the stove for the duration of the cooking process, but that doesn't mean that you can't step away to begin setting the table, or prepare an accompanying dish. The trick is to allow yourself to control the product, as opposed to the product controlling you, which comes with practice. It takes practice to know when to add another ladle of broth and when to season, and when you start to trust your instincts and understand how your product and your equipment (pan, stove, etc.) works, everything becomes second nature. Of course much of what you learn about making risotto will come from physically making risotto, but I do have some helpful tips to offer you before you dive into your first successful risotto-making experience.
Make Extra - First off before you even begin, ask yourself what you're having for dinner tomorrow. If you don't know the answer to that, or don't have a side dish, make extra risotto! Trust me, you will be thanking yourself the next day when you are turning that leftover gummy risotto into beautiful crispy on the outside, and creamy and cheesy on the inside arancini (AKA fried rice balls).
Mince Your Onions - Whether you use onions or shallots, make sure that you mince your onion as finely as humanly possible. This will take a little extra time and effort, but the results will be worth it. Think of it this way, you want the pieces of onion to simply flavour the dish, but otherwise go unnoticed. You want them to melt right into the dish. This means cutting a very fine julienne, and then cutting a just-as-fine cross-section of that.
Cook But Don't Colour - When cooking your onions you just want to soften them, and get them translucent. You do not want to colour your onions in any way.
Season From Start To Finish - Just like any dish, risotto wants to be seasoned throughout the cooking process, allowing the flavours to marry and develop. I tend to season my risotto with salt and white pepper at every addition of broth. Every time I stir a new ladle of broth in, I immediately follow with a pinch of both salt and pepper.
You Can Add But You Can't Take Away - As much as you want a well-seasoned dish, you must remember the golden rule "you can always add, but you can never take away." I find at the beginning of the cooking process I begin with very generous pinches of salt and white pepper. Because I've made risotto before and know how bland it is to start, I feel confident with a bit of a heavy hand at the start, knowing that I will not over-season. About ten or so minutes into the cooking process, begin tasting for seasoning. This will allow you to know if you should continue with generous pinches of salt and pepper, or whether you should transition to more delicate pinches. Continue tasting and seasoning, going lighter on the seasoning as the rice begins to soften.
It's near the end of the cooking process that you need to be careful. This is where you must remind yourself of that golden rule. It's always better to err on the side of caution and add too little salt and pepper (you can always add more!) than too much. You can look up every trick in the book for how to fix an over-salted or over-peppered dish, but you're pretty much stuck. Also remember that you will be adding grated parmigiano reggiano to your risotto as the final step, meaning that the natural saltiness of the parm will season your risotto as well. I like to leave my risotto slightly under-salted before adding the parm to ensure I don't over salt once the cheese is added.
The Wooden Spoon Trick - One of the best tricks for knowing when to add another ladle of broth is the wooden spoon trick. The trick is to drag your wooden spoon (I use a flat-ended wooden spatula) down the centre of the pan and watch how the product reacts. If the spoon left an empty trail behind it and the risotto mixture isn't swimming to cover it, you are ready for another ladle. If the risotto mixture quickly pools to cover the trail, you may wait before adding the next ladle. The more you practice making risotto, the less you have to rely on this.
Soupy Is Better Than Gluey - This is one of the most vital steps to making risotto. When you are removing your risotto from the stove to serve, you want it to be loose, but not soupy, BUT soupy is better than gluey. Am I confusing you yet? The optimal texture for risotto should be loose enough so that when you put your mound of risotto on a plate, and shake the plate side to side, the risotto should expand to the sides of the plate. If the risotto stays in the mound on the plate and doesn't expand, it needs another ladle of broth to become looser. I say that soupy is better than gluey because even soupy risotto will begin to congeal as it cools, which means that a soupy risotto may reach that perfect texture a few minutes after it is removed from the stove. An even slightly gluey risotto will begin to congeal as it cools as well, meaning that your initial gluey risotto, will become even gluier in a matter of minutes. Again, finding that optimal texture will take practice.
Serve Immediately - As I stated above, risotto begins to congeal and become gluey the moment it is taken off the heat (this doesn't mean you can just leave the pan of risotto on the heat either, when it's done it's done!), so the moment that risotto hits the plate, it must be served immediately if you want all that patience while cooking to be worth it.
I hope all those tips haven't scared you away from making risotto, and instead have you amped up to try your hand at making it yourself! Please give risotto a try in your own kitchen and let me know how it goes! If you should find yourself the middle of making your risotto and scared that you're doing something wrong, shoot me a tweet @thisgingerrose and I may be able to jump in and give your my two cents!