"He turned the rice in the hot oil. It made a noise like pebbles on a sea shore, which became sharper against the metal pan."by Wendell Steavenson / April 23, 2015 / Leave a comment
A good risotto comes once in a decade. Not the rice wodge that people make at dinner parties, but the creamy soft unctuous moreish blanketty comforty yum. This incarnation, wave-like, lapping plate and palate, I have found to be as mythical as souffléd potatoes, pressed duck or fraises du bois (all of these—once encountered, never forgotten, never found again).As I mentioned in my Prospect column last month, I was lucky enough to find a perfect risotto in Venice recently, at the Cantina Do Spade. I was staying on Giudecca with my friend Alessandro, who diligent readers will remember from a Tuscan pasta lesson the summer before last. Alessandro is a private chef. He had two bottles of very fine turbot fish stock and some shrimps in the fridge.“How do you make risotto?” I begged him to show me. I love cookery books, but recipes cannot really teach you how to cook. Ingredients have secrets, proclivities and personalities. Cooking is tactile; it needs to be experienced to be understood. It is sensitive in every sense: taste, smell, sight, touch—and yes, sound. “You have to listen to the voice of the risotto,” Alessandro told me sternly. We began: “First the prosecco. Open the bottle and pour yourself a glass. Then the pan. It should be heavy. One onion thinly sliced, olive oil. We wait for the onion to become transparent. Yes, hottish heat.” I watched very carefully. So often at home we make supper, meat and two veg, pasta and a salad, fish with a sauce—juggling two or three or four pots, something boiling on the stove, something else warming in the oven, something else that needs to be whisked. The home cook (especially if you are like me and a little too enthusiastic) is always on the knife edge of stress, of burn and char and boil and trouble. Risotto is very simple. It is rice and water. It is one pot. I focused: every stage and step was another revelation. “Two handfuls of rice per person.” Alessandro used Arborio; he is from Puglia. Venetians told me they prefer carnaroli or vialone nano. “Now it has to be toasted. Think of each grain of rice. It is absorbing everything in turn, first the oil—this will be in the heart of the grain—then the stock, and the last flavour you put in, the shrimp or the herb, will be on the outside.” He turned the rice in the hot oil. It made a noise like pebbles on a sea shore, which became sharper against the metal pan. “Do you hear? Now it sounds like popcorn, the oil is inside the grain, the rice is dry in the pan. The onions are beginning to turn a little brown—” Alessandro poured in a glass of prosecco and the pan went sizzling whoosh with steam and relief. Then the stock, a ladle or two at a time. “At the beginning it is as if you are torturing the rice, dry and hot. Now we are giving him a little comfort.” He turned the heat down to middling low. “We give him a drink of stock and stir him gently.” The stock bubbled at the edges of the pan, steam rose dreamily. I took over stirring the puddles of stock into the rice slowly, rhythmically. “When the starch comes out of the rice it makes a special sound.” Alessandro was right: after a while the sound grew softer, the liquid thickened slightly, the rice swelled. I kept stirring, sweeping the spoon through the growing mass. “Molto gentilmente.” We tumbled in the shrimps. “The last thing to add is the salt and pepper. Sometimes I like to use a little lemon with fish. And then some parsley at the end.” Some chefs add butter for a finale. Alessandro dismissed this as heresy with shrimp, but said it was possible for meat or vegetables. I sometimes forget the great pleasure of cooking; to pay attention to the minutiae of the technical mysteries of the transformation you create. How do you make such a happy liaison between rice and water? With care and attention. When I made risotto at home, I put on Radio 4 and puttered very happily for 45 minutes over a single pan with two ingredients. The world fell away and was reduced to the bustle of fry and the murmur of grains rubbing against each other. “Risotto is like music,” Alessandro’s wife Stefania told me as we sat down to a plate of pinkish rice and shrimp. “It is like a symphony, noisy and dramatic at the beginning, and then quieter as it builds to crescendo.” I made my risotto with chicken stock. It was delicious. It needed nothing else, not even the parmesan I sprinkled on top or the parsley. I had a little left over. It was almost better the next day as arancini.