Consternation, even outrage rippled through the masterclass on rice when Gabriele Ferron, the celebrated Italian rice supremo, first presented his 'no-stir' method of cooking risotto many years ago. How could anyone call a dish a risotto if you haven't slaved over the pot, stirring constantly as you add stock? Never mind the fact that his 'revolutionary' method freed the cook from the stove and produced an exemplary rendition of this frequently mangled dish.
A properly made risotto is a glory of al dente rice, each perfectly cooked grain still whole, distinct and separate, yet all of them united in a creamy mass that is texturally alla forchetta - capable of being eating with a fork, which is the correct way to eat this dish.
Types of Rice for Risotto
Risotto's special creaminess is born of the natural starch of the rice, not from the addition of dairy products such as butter, cream or cheese. Thus rice varieties with a high starch content such as Arborio, Vialone Nano and Carnaroli are needed for risotto. Of the three, Arborio has the lowest starch content (19.8g per 100g), with Vialone Nano (23.9g per 100g) coming in marginally lower than Carnaroli (24.1g per 100g).
It should be noted that the true Arborio variety has long been lost, and most Arborio rice sold today is of different strains and varying quality. Fortunately, Vialone Nano will not suffer the same fate as it was granted IGP (Indicazione Geographica Protteta) status in 1996 by the European Union Commission: only rice grown in specific areas of the province of Verona in accordance with stringent production methods and which meet quality specifications of consistency and stickiness can be labelled Vialone Nano.
The purpose of stirring the rice when making risotto is to release its starch. Because of its low starch content, Arborio needs continual stirring to develop the requisite creaminess, whereas Vialone Nano and Carnaroli can be cooked by the absorption method - with a single big stir at the end of cooking producing incredible creaminess. These varieties are also more receptive to absorption of flavour and liquid than Arborio. Carnaroli is particularly valued for seafood risotto as creaminess can be achieved without the addition of dairy products. Seafood and dairy products rarely sit well together.
The culinary potential of Vialone Nano and Carnaroli extends beyond risotto. The former is used in soups and any rice dishes where cream is called for, and the latter produces excellent moulded rice dishes (sformato), rice salads and pilafs.
Guidelines for Making No Stir Risotto
Chef Simon Humble, who won silver in an international rice competition in Italy (beaten by three points by a Sicilian!) employs the 'no stir" method at his Melbourne restaurant Tutto Bene, which is also Australia's first 'risotteria'.
The basic principles of the 'no stir' method are summarised as follows:
- use minimal oil,
- never allow the onion to brown as bitterness will pervade the rice,
- "toast" (toss in oil and heat) the rice over moderate heat so it is not but not so hot that it cannot be held in your hand, and
- ensure all liquid used is hot
(Note: In terms of liquid and rice proportions, Humble works on roughly twice the volume of liquid as of Ferron Carnaroli rice. However be aware that grain sizes does vary between different producers and brands so you may need to make some adjustments).
Most importantly, DO NOT STIR the risotto again after an initial stir when adding the liquid - if you start stirring at the beginning, then you must stir right through to the end. After adding the liquid, the dish is cooked over low heat.
RISOTTO MANTECATO DEL PRESIDENTE
Simon Humble created this dish (The President's Creamy Risotto) in 1998 for the then president of Italy, Oscar Luisi Scalfaro, on the occasion of the latter's visit to Australia; and the dish continues to feature on the menu at Tutto Bene.
This seemingly simple dish is in fact an exquisite palate symphony of quality ingredients: Carnaroli rice; true Parmigiano-Reggiano not plastic substitutes; artisanal, not industrial, balsamic vinegar. Industrial balsamic vinegar is an insult to the true artisanal product and to your palate. Unfortunately the true artisanal balsamic vinegar does cost an arm and a leg for a tiny bottle of unctuous dark liquid although a tiny amount does go a very long way.
However, there are some excellent mid-range balsamic vinegars which provide a highly satisfactory compromise between price and quality. Just stay away from the industrial watery acidic stuff. Note: if someone tries to convince you to buy an expensive balsamic vinegar on the basis of vintage, they are either lying or don't know what they are talking about. Balsamic vinegar is made by the solera system (more on this in a future hub!) and therefore does not have a vintage. The only date that can be assigned is the year of the "mother must" of that particular batch.
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced finely
400 g Carnaroli rice
1 litre chicken stock, kept at a simmer
200 g Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
80 g unsalted butter
30 ml best quality balsamic vinegar
Fine sea salt, to taste
Heat oil in a heavy-based saucepan and gently sauté the onion and garlic for a few minutes without allowing them to colour. Add the rice and toss continuously for about 2 minutes until the grains are hot and evenly 'toasted' and coated with oil.
Add the hot broth, gently stir and cover the pan. Lower heat and cook for about 12 - 14 minutes until the rice is cooked but still al dente. Remove from the heat, add the cheese and butter and stir for about 2 minutes until the rice is mantecato (creamy).
Season with sea salt and spoon onto plates. Shake each plate so the risotto lies flat. Drizzle a spiral of balsamic vinegar over - if using traditional artisanal balsamic vinegar, a few dots will do. Serve immediately.