I cook risotto a lot. It’s an ideal meal for one but will easily multiply to feed more – I used to make them a lot for a family meal – 3 to 4 of us. However, I wouldn’t cook one for lots of people. There’s nothing difficult about making a risotto, but timing is crucial and serving it straight away. It’s not something to be made for a party or a large number of guests; not if you want to enjoy it at its best. In fact, writing this as I am, on Shrove Tuesday, when I decided against pancakes for the blog, I realise there is a similarity. You ideally serve pancakes immediately they are ready; you ideally serve a risotto immediately it’s ready. In a good restaurant you will be told that a risotto takes about 20 minutes to serve, because a good restaurant will make it to order. If it comes straight away – be suspicious! It is not the real thing. I cook risotto so much I’m pretty fussy about it and rarely order it when I’m out. About the only place where I don’t hesitate to order it is at A Cena – one of my favourite restaurants … and Italian, of course! I also love to eat it in Venice where they specialise in wonderful seafood risottos.
I was quite surprised to find I hadn’t yet done a mushroom risotto on the blog as I make it so often – and with a two-thirds full punnet of lovely nutty Portabellini mushrooms in my fridge and a piece of one of my favourite cheeses – Taleggio – I decided to put them together into a rich, creamy risotto.
Risottos should be simple. As much as I’d be suspicious of a risotto landing on my table in a restaurant within a couple of minutes, I’d be suspicious of one that comes with lots of ingredients. For me, a good risotto has just one or two main ingredients. The beauty of a risotto is its simplicity and purity of flavour. It’s essential to use a good rice – arborio is the chefs’ favourite and is grown in the Po Valley in northern Italy. No rice other than a proper risotto rice will do. Arborio rice has a high starch content and as you stir the risotto while it cooks, the starch breaks down and produces the wonderful creamy effect that’s a signature of a good risotto.
Taleggio has been one of my favourite cheeses for most of my adult life! I was buying it from a small Italian deli in Islington when I was first married in the late 1970s. It is said to have existed since the 11th century and originates in the Taleggio valley in Lombardy, in north Italy (and is thus an excellent choice to go with northern Italian risotto rice, I think!). It has a high fat content with a strong aroma and slightly fruity flavour. I just love it and knew it would melt beautifully when added to the risotto at the last minute.
First of all though, the risotto needed to be prepared. I took some homemade chicken stock from the freezer and put it in a small saucepan to thaw and come to the boil. You need hot stock for a risotto. I sliced the mushrooms and cooked separately in a frying pan with some butter and olive oil. The northern Italians use butter more than oil and thus butter is used a lot in risotto, but I like to combine it with some oil. Then I finely chopped a small onion and gently softened it in a little olive oil and butter.
When the onion is soft, add about half a cup of risotto rice for one person. Turn it in the pan to coat each grain of rice in the butter and oil – this is called the soffrito. And when your rice is nicely coated, this is the tostatura.
Now add a good glug of white wine or dry vermouth and allow the rice to soak it up before adding stock. The hot stock should be added a ladleful at a time. You then stir almost continually between each addition, only adding more when the previous ladleful has been absorbed by the rice. I’ve heard people complain about the effort involved but for me this is the essence of good cooking – taking time and care and adding a good helping of love. And it slows you down and can become like a calming meditation as you watch your risotto come together. Do not even dream of pouring all the stock in in one go and putting it in the oven or a slow cooker – that is not a risotto!
Once most of the liquid is absorbed (you’ll need roughly 2-3 times the volume of liquid to rice), and the rice has reached the al dente stage – cooked but retaining a small bite – then turn off the heat. Check seasoning. My stock was well seasoned so I didn’t need extra. Now tip in the cooked mushrooms, scraping all the lovely juices in the pan with a spatula. Mix all together.
Now add some diced Taleggio. I cut a couple of thick slices from my small slab of cheese and then diced. Push down slightly into the hot rice then pop a lid on the pan and leave for about 5 minutes. Then gently turn over to incorporate the melting cheese into the rice. Spoon onto a plate.
Grate over a little Parmesan, drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil and your risotto is ready to eat. Eccovi! There you are! A perfect risotto. I served it on one of my lovely Italian plates. I was waxing lyrical about the lovely tableware at Orso last night, but I also have some gorgeous Italian plates and dishes. Some bought in Italy; most bought in UK in Divertimenti, the only place I’ve found here that stocks them. I served an Italian style salad at the side with lovely bitter radicchio, rocket and other baby leaves and some finely chopped fennel – the first time I tasted raw fennel was in Venice where it was served at the beginning of a meal with other raw crudites. I love it so much I frequently chop it into salads.
If you’ll excuse my lack of modesty here, I have to say it was without doubt one of the most delicious and wonderful risottos I’ve ever made – or had. The gorgeous gooey Taleggio melted perfectly into the risotto, complimenting the nutty mushrooms; the homemade chicken stock gave depth to the whole dish. I ate slowly. Sometimes when I’ve been cooking and I’m eating alone, I tend to rush, but today, each mouthful was so fantastic I took time to really enjoy each one. Mmm. I’m definitely making this again!