Few recipes are as simple to execute and as difficult to explain as risotto. Yet nothing will give your culinary confidence a shot in the arm like learning to make one well. With a little Arborio or Carnaroli rice, an onion and some stock you can set off in a hundred different directions. If you’re pressed for time, you can even enlist the assistance of a pressure cooker, but that comes later, after you’ve first learned how to make it the old-fashioned way. You can cut your teeth with this week’s recipe, Risotto with Sweet Potato, Pancetta and Aged Provolone. It tastes incredibly good even if–dare I say this?–you blow it.
What separates risotto from, say, pilaf, is the texture. Each grain of rice retains its shape and structural integrity, offering a bit of chewiness. Secondly, a creamy emulsion of starch and cooking liquid wraps all of the grains together. The result is at once sensuous and satisfying.
Theoretically you can make risotto using any rice (note I didn’t say “great risotto”), but why would you when Arborio or Carnaroli do such a fine job? Arborio, a short-grain variety, and Carnaroli, medium grain, both contain high amounts of amylopectin and amylose, components of the starch necessary for risotto’s essential creaminess. For the record, Italians use a half-dozen different varieties of rice to make risotto, graded according to the size and shape of the grain and starch content, but the only two you are ever likely to see in an American store are Arborio, with the rare sighting of Carnaroli. All things being equal, Carnaroli produces a chewier risotto than Arborio although both do a fine job.
The basic risotto technique involves sauteing a few savory ingredients (e.g. onion, mushrooms) in butter or olive oil, followed by rice. Next, liquid–perhaps a little wine at first, then warm stock of some kind–is added to the mixture a ladle at a time. As each dose of stock is absorbed a new one is added. All the while the cook–that would be you–keeps stirring. The important thing is to get a feel for keeping things bubbling merrily along without cooking the mixture too slowly or too quickly. If the heat is too high the rice will stick to the bottom of the pan. It will also cook too fast, so that the exterior of the grains finish before the interior is done–squishy outside, hard inside. If the heat is too low, the whole thing turns into rice porridge. I’ve included a few photographs to give you an idea of how dry the mixture should get before you add additional liquid.
Are you scared yet?
Everyone makes a bad risotto at least once. But even a bad risotto tastes good–as long as it’s not burned. There are worse culinary sins in life. So screw your courage to the sticking post and give it a try. Too mushy? Cook it a little faster next time. Are the grains too firm? Cook it a little longer, and maybe lower the heat a bit. Is the whole thing a little too solid? Add more liquid. With risotto, soupy is acceptable.
For a MUCH fuller discussion of risotto technique, along with an entertaining exploration of its many possibilities, check out Judith Barrett’s RISOTTO RISOTTI, my favorite book on the topic.
Disclosure note: If you look closely in the ingredients photographs you’ll see that we used a funny looking piece of pancetta. Actually it’s not pancetta–it’s guanciale, cured pork jowl. We’ll get into a discussion of guanciale when we do a post on bucatini carbonara. We just happened to have some on hand, we like it, and it works well in this recipe. But it’s also a bit hard to come by. If you have access to a great Italian butcher or deli, go ahead, use it, but pancetta makes a more than acceptable substitute.
Risotto with Sweet Potato, Pancetta and Aged Provolone
- 3 ounces pancetta, cut into ¼-inch dice
- 1 sweet potato, about 12 ounces, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch dice
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 medium red onion, chopped into ¼-inch dice
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1½ cups risotto rice, Arborio or Carnaroli
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 cup freshly grated aged Provolone, Pecorino or Parmesan cheese + additional for passing
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
- ½ cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- Aged balsamic vinegar for drizzling, optional
- Heat the pancetta in a risotto pan or a large, deep-sided saucepan over medium heat. It’s important to use a pan with a heavy bottom that conducts heat evenly, otherwise the rice will burn when you’re cooking the risotto. Cook 2 minutes to render some of fat the pancetta. Increase the heat to medium high, add the sweet potato and cook 5 minutes or until it starts to sear. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a plate.
- Heat the stock to simmer and keep warm while making the risotto.
- Add the butter to the pan and return the heat to medium. When the butter has melted, add the onion and cook 5-6 minutes, or until tender. Add the garlic and cook a minute. Add the rice and cook 2-3 minutes, stirring so the fat coats all the rice and the rice becomes translucent. Season with salt and pepper.
- Add the wine and cook, stirring frequently, until it has been absorbed. It will happen very quickly. Add the stock – ½ cup at a time – stirring frequently, making sure that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. If you find that the stock is absorbed instantly, or you have to stir violently to prevent the rice from sticking and burning, then lower the heat. Wait until most of the stock has been absorbed before adding the next half-cup. Continue adding the stock ½ cup at a time. Stop adding stock when the mixture is creamy and the rice tender, but there’s still a slight amount of resistance as you bite into it. Don’t worry if there’s still chicken stock left—you may not have to use it all. The total cooking time for the rice is about 30 minutes.
- As soon as the rice is finished stir in the sweet potato, cheese and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. The texture should be creamy and slightly runny. Add ¼ cup stock (or water, if you’ve run out of stock) just before serving. Spoon into warmed large shallow bowls or use warmed plates. Serve immediately, offering cheese and aged balsamic vinegar,, if using on the side.
Typically I get a jump on my notes early in the week, but this week Ken got ahead of me and took all the good stuff to write about so I’m going to keep it short and sweet.
Focus on texture.
The trick to a great risotto is simplicity. Let the rice take center stage. Don’t use too many different ingredients–two or three at the most in addition to the requisite onion, wine, cheese and herbs. You should feel the “toothsomeness” of the al dente rice grains buoyed in a creamy bath. (Real food writers love that word “toothsome”.) Too often Americans overwhelm the rice with too much stuff. The additions should accent the rice rather than the rice being a vehicle for the additions. To that end I like to cut things small and cook them until they’re tender.
Another mistake made by American chefs, who understand that risotto should be creamy but haven’t been taught how to make it properly or are using the wrong rice, is to cheat and add cream. Bad. Cream doesn’t belong in a risotto. Cream mutes flavors whereas creaminess gleaned from starch, butter and cheese produces a risotto with enough flavor that I often stop right there with what the Italians call a risotto bianco.
By now we all know that the main actor of a pasta dish is the pasta itself; the sauce should just play a supporting role. In other words, there shouldn’t be a pool of sauce at the bottom of the bowl once the pasta is gone. Apply the same respect to risotto rice and take the time to perfect your technique. Practice practice practice. I tell new cooks to make a simple risotto every day for a week. You can do the same. It doesn’t have to be for dinner at the end of a harried day. Get up a half hour early or make it after everyone is settled for the night. You’ll look forward to the quiet ritual of stirring slowly and coaxing the creamy coating out of the rice. After 7 days, you’ll be a master and your family and neighbors, who will be eating all that risotto, will love you.