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Risotto is a hearty, warming rice dish, rich in flavor, of which any of a hundred different ingredients can be added to it. Risotto is not only versatile, but easy to make.

Rice was first introduced into Italy and Spain by the Arabs during the Middle Ages. The humidity of the Mediterranean was found to be perfect for growing shorter-grained rice. The popularity of rice grew throughout Italy and then the outside world discovered it.

It was in Milan where the rice met its future destiny. Milan had been under Spanish rule for almost two centuries where rice was a staple. The technique for making risotto probably evolved from trying to cook the rice as porridge—boiling it in milk, water or broth until soft. A fourteenth-century manuscript known as the “Libro per cuoco” by an anonymous Venetian contains the recipe, “rixo in bona manera” or rice cooked in sweet milk.

Antonio Nebbia in “Cuoco Maceratese” introduces a revolutionary method where he suggests letting the rice soak in cold water for two hours, then frying the rice in a little butter and adding cabbage broth.

A more complete preparation appears in the early 19th century, in the anonymous “Cuoco Moderno”, printed in Milan in 1809, where the recipe “Yellow Rice in a Pan” says to cook the rice in a sauté of butter, cervellata (an Italian pork sausage), marrow, onion and gradually adding hot broth in whicj saffron had been dissolved.

And finally” the” classic recipe as described by Felice Luraschi, a celebrated chef from Milan, in his “Nuovo cuoco milanese economico” manuscript of 1829, a recipe titled “Risotto alla Milanese”.

Today the dish is served extensively, almost unchanged, in the kitchens and restaurants of the world. Ingredients as varied as scallops, lobster, truffles, veal, mushrooms, squid ink, snails, asparagus, duck, sausage, pumpkin and almost anything else you can think of are paired with this classic dish.

risotto rice

All rice is a member of the grass family. What makes Risotto special is it’s high amount of starch. This starch is what makes Risotto “creamy” without any cream. Risotto rice is a round medium- or short- grain white rice with the ability to absorb liquids and to release starch, so they are stickier than the long grain varieties. The principal varieties used in Italy are Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma and Vialone Nano. They all have slightly different properties. For example, Carnaroli is less likely than Vialone Nano to get overcooked, but the latter, being smaller, cooks faster and absorbs condiments better. Other varieties like Roma, Baldo, Ribe and Originario may be used but will not have the creaminess of the traditional dish. These varieties are considered better for soups and other non-risotto rice dishes and for making sweet rice desserts. Rice designations of Superfino, Semifino and Fino refer to the size and shape (specifically the length and the narrowness) of the grains, and not the quality.

Basic Technique for Making Risotto

Risotto recipes recommended not washing the rice prior to cooking as that will make it lose its starch which is an essential ingredient of the dish. The rice and vegetables are toasted lightly in butter. Herbs, spices and a little wine are added. The rice is cooked gradually over a low flame and broth is added to the rice and stirred until absorbed. More broth is added in several steps until the rice is tender.

Popular Italian Risottos

• Risotto alla Milanese – is cooked in beef stock and beef bone marrow with lard in Italy. Cheese and saffron are added. This dish is popularly served with osso buco (a dish consisting of braised veal shanks).

• Risotto al barolo – is made with borlotti beans and sausage meat and is cooked with red wine.

• Risotto al nero de seppia (black risotto) – is a specialty from Veneto and is made with cuttlefish.

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This is probably the best tasting risotto I have ever made, with much of the credit going to the Meyer lemons from my tree. You may recall that we planted the tree last April and it has rewarded us with about 20 large lemons in its first year.

Meyer Lemon Risotto with Basil and Grilled Shrimp

6 servings

Ingredients

Risotto

  • 6 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium broth
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 celery rib, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 1/2 cups arborio rice (10 ounces)
  • 1/2 cup white vermouth or dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated Meyer lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup julienned basil leaves

Grilled Shrimp

  • 18 large shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • A pinch of kosher salt or to taste
  • 2 tablespoons julienned basil leaves

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Directions

For the risotto:

Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan, cover and keep hot. Melt the butter in a second large saucepan. Add the onion and celery. Season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat, stirring, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add the rice and cook, stirring until glossy, about 1 minute.

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Add the wine to the rice and simmer over moderate heat until almost absorbed, about 3 minutes. Add the hot stock, 1 cup at a time, and cook, stirring constantly between additions, until most of the stock has been absorbed before adding more. The rice is done when it’s tender and most of the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes total. The best way to see if the rice is cooked, is to taste it.  Risotto should be creamy and thick. It’s best al dente, which means it should be fully cooked, yet still retain some firmness when you chew it. If it is mushy, it has cooked too long.

Stir in the Parmesan cheese, the lemon zest and juice, the salt and pepper and the basil. Mix well but gently.

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For the grilled shrimp:

Mix the shrimp with the remaining ingredients in a mixing bowl. Refrigerate until cooking time.

Heat a stovetop grill until very hot. Place the shrimp on the grill and cook for about 3 minutes on each side.

Spoon the risotto into individual bowls, top each with grilled shrimp and serve, passing additional Parmesan at the table.

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