Many years ago I invited a friend to dinner and decided to cook a risotto. I knew that this friend had spent a lot of time in Italy and I was confident that she would be impressed with my culinary prowess.
As I was to learn, this lady was pretty uncompromising in her views. She scowled through the meal and eventually announced that if I was ever to cook a risotto for her again then I had better find out how to make one properly.
Briefly offended, I listened and soon realised that what she said made sense. I was trying to go full speed in the kitchen without having understood the basic controls. Like… well when I was about 14, I taught myself to play the opening 10 bars or so of a Beethoven piano sonata. Nothing more than that. I could play it passably well too, but the 11th bar forever remained a mystery, as did just about every other piece of piano music…. Because at the end of the day I never did learn the basics of piano playing.
I hunted around and found a good Italian recipe for a Risotto Milanese….. and invited her around again.
In fact I learned a lot from that experience. On the Risotto front, it had never occurred to me that the base recipe was so simple, that the type of rice was so important, that you put all that cheese in at the end of the cooking.
But once I had mastered that I was able to expand my vision and build my own variations…. But this time from a solid foundation. I’ve repeated the same exercise many times since with other dishes, learning traditional recipes and methods and literally working from the ground up.
Don’t just open that jar of sauce or ready mixed powder. Find out how the basic traditional recipe works. You’ll probably be surprised at how simple and easy it is.
Here’s one variation on those basic Risotto principles….
Spetses Wild Asparagus and Mushroom Risotto
This is a good meal for two or perhaps a starter for four people.
250gr. Arborio Rice (Arborio Rice is traditionally used in Italy; but not in my local super market. I use a medium grain Greek variety called Karolina which is very similar).
Vegetable Stock/Dried Mushrooms.
1 medium sized onion
Salt & Pepper to taste.
I use a commercial vegetable stock cube and add several dried forest mushrooms broken up into small pieces before adding 500ml of boiling water and leaving it all to soak for at least fifteen minutes before adding it to the pan.
Heat a little oil in a good sized saucepan, finely chop the onion and fry for a few minutes in the oil.
Once the onion starts to soften, add the rice (it’s about one coffee mug full if you don’t want to weigh it) and stir it until it gets a good covering of the hot oil. Now start to add the stock along with half a teaspoon of salt and some fresh ground black pepper. Most books will tell you to add the stock bit by bit, stirring as it gets absorbed by the rice. Okay, I shortcut that bit and tend to throw in most of the stock in one go! It works, but do keep an eye on progress and don’t let the mix get too dry. Once all the stock is in the pan, if you do need to add more liquid then fresh water will do just fine. Cover and cook on medium heat.
Wash and chop the mushrooms and asparagus. Now I realise that you may not be lucky enough to find either in the wild in which case substitute at the market. The stems of Wild Asparagus I find around my home are very small by comparison to those that are commercially grown but they are full of flavour.
Quantities? A couple of medium sized mushrooms and a good handful of chopped Asparagus should suffice for this amount of rice.
Seasoning. During cooking, it is best to under salt a risotto. You will be adding a lot of cheese at the end of the cooking and this will add it’s own saltiness to the flavour.
If you are using shop bought mushrooms or harder textured wild ones, add them to the pan after rice has been cooking for about 5 minutes. Otherwise add the asparagus and mushrooms together after about 15 minutes.
Test the rice every few minutes after the first 15 minutes of cooking. Take it off the heat when it is just at that ‘al dente’ point; probably after about 20 minutes. Make sure the mix is not too dry and if necessary add water. Now add the cheese.
I use Greek Graviera hard white cheese from the island of Crete. In Italy they usually use Parmesan or Pecorino. They all work well; adjust according to taste or availability. You need a good handful of cheese, coarsely grated, whatever variety you opt for. Stir it into the risotto, cover and leave to stand for another 5 minutes or so. The whole lot will go on cooking steadily during that time, which is why you don’t want the rice too soft when you add the cheese. Stir in a little more water before serving if the risotto is now too dry.
Serve and enjoy!