Eastside Road, December 8, 2014—YEARS AGO, YOU may not believe it, I used to do nearly all the cooking in this family. I was retired; Cook was not. She was still working as a professional pastry chef, and the last thing either of us thought fair was for her to have to cook dinner after a long day at the stoves.
One of the things I always enjoyed cooking was risotto. Cook and I have few disagreements, and it's surprising, perhaps, that so many of them center on this harmless entertainment, this classic dish that is at once so simple and so dubtly demanding. So, while I very much enjoyed tonight's risotto, to the point of having a second helping; and though the not very complimentary photo you're looking at is of Cook's risotto as we had it tonight, I'll tell you how I make risotto — or rather how I made it, in those long-ago days before Cook too reached a well-deserved retirement, freeing her to cook nearly every day at home, for no wages and, I'm afraid, nowhere near the gratitude she (and her cooking) deserves…
Well: you begin with a skillet, we use stainless steel, on that we agree; and you put olive oil in it, Cook adds a little butter I believe, and you soften in that oil some minced onion. Well: I soften minced onion; Cook browns chopped onion, even letting some of the bits get really quite dark. In my opinion the onion should be no darker than the rice that follows, but that's just my opinion.
Next you add the rice, which must be Arborio or perhaps some other short-grained fat Po Valley rice, on that we agree. You cook the rice in the oil (and possibly butter), with the onions, until…
Well, difficult to explain exactly when. I like the outside half, let's say, of each grain become rather transparent, while the central half of the grain is still opaque white. Another way to tell is to take a grain of rice between the teeth, and feel the way you can bite through part of the grain, then meet the interior, which will feel crumbly, not soft, between your teeth.
At this point I begin adding the stock, which has been simmering in a pot on an adjacent burner. You add the stock, we both agree, slowly, a ladleful at a time; and after each addition you stir the rice, moving it about, with a wooden paddle, we agree on that too. You let each ladleful cook down to nothing: it's being absorbed by the rice, though a little of it is evaporating and making the house smell good. When it's all soaked in, you add the next ladleful, and stir, and so on.
When the rice has absorbed all the stock it can, and any more will simply make a soup instead of a risotto, you stop adding stock and instead add a glass or so of white wine. THIS IS A MAJOR POINT OF CONTENTION. Cook adds the wine before the stock; I add it after. My theory is that the wine, which is usually cold, will shock the rice and make it resistant to the addition of the stock. The rice has got nice and hot with its onions in the olive oil, and the stock is also simmering hot: if you add the wine before the stock, even if the wine is at room temperature and not out of the refrigerator, the rice will have to do a little U-turn on its way to perfection. None of us wants a bucket of room-temperature water thrown on us while relaxing in a hot bath; why do that to the risotto?
In any case: The risotto is finished. Now you may stir in some cooked peas, even some frozen peas which come in handy for this purpose and no other. You may add some chopped browned (not too brown!) bits of prosciutto. You will certainly add some grated Parmesan cheese.
Serve it in heated bowls, of course, and grate more cheese on top, but not too much. Risotto should taste first of rice, then of poultry stock, then of onion and olive oil; the cheese simply glues all these flavors together.
One more point of discussion: how to pronounce the name of this classic dish, surely one of the Hundred Plates? With an open "o," say I: ree-zought-tow, don't slide too much into that final (nonexistant, in Italian) "w."
We had a green salad afterward, with a sherry-vinegar vinaigrette, and then a slice of marvelous pumpkin pie from a delicious, subtly chthonic pumpkin brought home a week or so ago from Ojai. Thanks, Jim and Lisa.
Cheap Pinot grigio