Once upon a time, the Italian rice dish, risotto - the default version was, and, for all I know, still is, risotta alla Milanese - was unknown on this side of the Atlantic. At some point in the Eighties, or perhaps by the very advanced in the late Seventies, it was taken up by ambitious chefs and home cooks. It became a craze. Now it has subsided into the backwater of the familiar but neglected. It's neglected because it's thought to be very difficult to make, or at least very tedious. I've read very few recipes that didn't stress the importance of stirring constantly for forty-five minutes or more. What piffle people do write.
Risotto is best thought of as a cousin of the soufflé, with which it has nothing in common so far as basic ingredients or techniques go. What it does have in common is elasticity. Master a certain basic, and really rather simple, technique, the key to which is not fussing, and a great door swings open on an interesting range of variations. Risotto alla milanese, it is true, stands somewhat to the side of these possibilities in its purity, in its refusal to distract from the subtle delights of saffron. The closest soufflé would be one made with nothing but eggs, béchamel, and a dash of gruyère. Both dishes are perfect accompaniments to the austere moods that settle upon us every now and then. The rest of the time, however, they are best forgotten. If I'm going to be simple about a soufflé or a risotto, I'm still going to include sautéed mushrooms. A tablespoon or two of minced ham will anchor the airiest soufflé and the creamiest risotto to the vernacular American palate. I am sure that a truly talented cook might concoct delicious peanut-butter and jelly variations.
There is a name for the things that you add to the basic ingredients of a risotto, but I'm not sure what it is and my delicate health prevents me from hauling out the cookery books. The only essential is something called arborio rice. This is probably not as easy to find everywhere as it is in Manhattan, but it's readily available on the Internet, and you mustn't think of substitutions. The things that I like to add to risotto - my default version - are shrimps and bell peppers, provided that the latter are yellow, orange, or red. The "secret" ingredient is the broth, which is made up of three cups of water, a bottle of clam juice, and the shells of three-quarters of a pound of shrimp.
While there is no need to stand over the stove for forty-five minutes, risotto does take a while to cook. Happily, it will hold over very low heat for fifteen or twenty minutes after its done, with the addition of a bit of liquid as needed. Count on using this extra time and you'll be sure to have the dish on the table long before anyone starts fainting from the hunger induced by delicious smells emanating from the kitchen.
In honor of the tiny port where we used to buy shrimp in bulk when I lived Houston, I have named this dish
Shell and devein three-quarters of a pound of raw shrimp. Cut each shrimp into three smaller pieces and set aside, preferably in the refrigerator. Combine the shells with three cups of water and a bottle of clam juice in a small saucepan. Bring this to a gentle, constant simmer. You may add as much as a further cup of water to the saucepan as needed during the cooking of the risotto.
Melt a tablespoon of butter and a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Toss in a minced bell pepper and cook, gently, until the vegetable has softened and, if you like, faintly burned. Remove the pepper from the pan and set aside.
Soften two minced shallots in the pan and then add three-quarters of a cup of arborio rice. Stir constantly, but only until the outer part of the kernels become translucent, revealing solid white centers. At this point, strain an ordinary ladle-full of simmering broth into the sauté pan. (You don't want bits of shrimp shell drifting among the kernels of rice.) Stir well, from time to time. When the broth has nearly evaporated, strain in another ladle-full of broth. Stir well again. Keep this up until all of the broth has been stirred into the sauté pan. The kernels of rice will have at least doubled in size and become soft but not pasty. Instead of standing over the stove, you can use the cooking time to set the table, fill a pitcher with ice water, and watch an episode of Absolutely Fabulous - if you've got a television in the kitchen, the only room that really needs one.
Add the softened pepper and the raw shrimp and cook, stirring, until the shrimp is uniformly pink. At this point, you may stir in a few tablespoons of cream and a tablespoon or two of grated parmesan cheese. Turn the heat down to the lowest possible setting and give the risotto a few moments to set. As you spoon the risotto into individual dishes, it ought to have the consistency of a creamy rice pudding, neither dry nor sauced. You may sprinkle the risotto with chopped parsley if you like. There is really no need to serve anything else if this is your main course, not even a salad. A good white wine, however, is essential. By "good white wine," I mean one that you like.
This recipe feeds three hungry people as a complete dinner. It might also serve up to six people as a first course, as long as it is followed by nothing more complicated than a chicken paillard or a veal piccata, along with a few bits of something piquant, such as pickled asparagus. Finish the larger dinner with a boffo dessert, preferably purchased from a pâtisserie that goes easy on the sugar, and people will look forward to dining at your house. (October 2007)
Copyright (c) 2007 Pourover Press