Risotto alla Milanese is perhaps the most famous risotto in Italy. In the recent BBC TV series Italy Unpacked Giorgio Locatelli and Andrew Graham-Dixon watched an acclaimed chef and master of the dish make it and then top it with a sheet of gold leaf. Though it would be wonderful to try that, for a midweek supper the Single Gourmet Traveller decided that was definitely going quite a few steps too far! I did, however, look out some recipes from the best of cookery writers – Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David and Claudia Roden – to see how they cooked their Risotto alla Milanese. Though one might say, Well it’s just arborio rice cooked with butter, stock, Parmesan and – of course! – saffron, classic dishes I find are never quite so straightforward when it comes to trying to get it right.
I also consulted Giorgio Locatelli’s guru, Artusi, in his book La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene.
Locatelli cites him as the master of Italian gastronomy when he makes a classic Bolognese ragu in the series and tells us that Artusi (his book was first published in 1891) was the first person to write about Italian cooking, as opposed to the regions. The unification of Italy took place over a number of years in the 19th century and it’s generally agreed that the country was unified in 1870. It is, relatively, a very new country and perhaps this explains many of the deep divides that are still encountered and evident today. One can see that Artusi’s book, bringing all the country’s culinary history together, was an important publication. I have to say though, that in giving me three alternative Risotto alla Milanese recipes, and with the need to translate the Italian, I decided to stick with my former Italian ‘gurus’.
The addition of some bone marrow is generally recommended – this would increase the thick creamy texture of the final risotto as well as deepening the flavour. But I was pleased to see it was also listed as optional given that I didn’t really have time to go searching local butchers for bone marrow.
All writers recommend using the classic risotto arborio rice from Lombardy to achieve the right consistency. Also important is the use of butter rather than oil. Butter is more commonly used in northern Italy while in the south you’ll find olive oil used more. Let’s leave the health aspects aside – we’re only talking one risotto dish here – and agree that butter will not only give a more authentic flavour but a richer and quite different one. Having said that, I did follow Marcella Hazan in adding both butter and some oil to my pan.
My friend Jane bought me some wonderful saffron from Brindisa at Christmas time.
I thought the best vehicle to appreciate its wonderful flavour would be Risotto alla Milanese. Although it’s great in paella too (most likely what Brindisa sell it for, being Spanish), in the risotto the flavour of the saffron is most definitely star of the show. I learnt from my reading that the later you put it in the dish, the stronger the flavour, and the general consensus seemed to be to add it about halfway through. Artusi tells us that saffron ‘ha un’azione eccitante, stimola l’appetito e promuove la digestione’. Which roughly translates as ‘it has the action of exciting and stimulating the appetite and promoting digestion’. I remember being told in Marrakech when I did a cookery course there that too much will cause diarrhoea – so I can see it’s wise to not overdo it.
Risotto is usually served on its own as a primo dish, after the antipasti and before the secondo – main course – usually meat or fish. In Italy it’s quite common in a formal meal to have a starter, pasta or risotto, followed by a main course and then dessert. The Italians have big appetites!
Tonight I just wanted to serve my Risotto alla Milanese as the main attraction with a salad on the side. First of all I got some home-made chicken stock warming as it’s important to add hot stock to the rice. Then I finely chopped half a small onion and put it in a pan with a tablespoon of butter and tablespoon of olive oil. Once the onion was nicely softening I added half a small mug of arborio rice (I was making just one portion). It’s very important to use proper risotto rice; no other rice will do for the starch won’t break down and give you the creamy consistency typical of risotto.
Turn the rice in the pan to coat each grain well with the butter and oil – called tostatura. Now add about half a small glass of white wine (I used dry vermouth as I didn’t have white wine open). Stir frequently as the rice takes up the flavour of the wine. Once it is absorbed start adding the hot stock ladleful by ladleful.
You’ll need at last twice as much stock in quantity to rice … in practice I find I need quite a bit more. Stir almost constantly to achieve the creamy consistency and only add another ladleful of stock as the previous one is absorbed completely. When you’ve added about half of the stock and the rice is starting to soften, add a good pinch of saffron. Sometimes people like to soak this in warm water or stock before using, but in the Italy Unpacked programme they didn’t, they just threw it in, and I’ve been taught it’s not really necessary. You want to end up with a creamy and still quite wet rice dish – it shouldn’t be dry. Risottos are quite sloppy, almost soup like, unlike the drier paella in Spain or Indian pilau rice. Remember to check seasoning but if your stock is salted you may not need extra. When the risotto is done, turn off the heat and add a good nut of butter and some Parmesan. Stir it all together well and then serve with extra Parmesan on the side.
The risotto should be a lovely yellow colour but beware of too deep a colour in cheap restaurants, which have most likely used cheaper colourings. Saffron has its own unique flavour. It’s incredibly expensive but you only need the tiniest amount of it to bring its wonderful flavour to a dish.
Risotto alla Milanese is a gorgeous dish: very rich with the butter and Parmesan and saffron. It’s traditionally served with Osso Bucco – a veal dish – but other than that would always be served on its own and meat or fish served after, separately.