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Risotto is a time-honored Italian recipe, steeped in antiquity. It shows up in gourmet restaurants and people talk about a good risotto being very near to heaven. However, many cooks hardly know what risotto is, and are leery of making it. Nevertheless, making this dish is not difficult and the results are rewarding.
Risotto, essentially, is a rice dish that makes its own sauce. People speak of it as being creamy or milky, but a cook doesn't have to use any cream or milk to achieve this effect. It's all in the rice.
Most people are accustomed to the standard, long-grained rice served at Chinese buffets and in home kitchens everywhere. But using long-grained rice will not make a creamy risotto. The rich, creamy effect is achieved with medium or short-grained arborio rice. This rice has short, fat grains that are filled with starch. The starch combined with a small amount of fat and water makes the velvety sauce risotto is famous for.
Although not difficult, risotto is somewhat labor-intensive. It takes fairly constant stirring for about 25-30 minutes. This is what releases the rice's starch and creates the sauce.
A cook should start with about 1 cup of uncooked arborio rice. The rice is put into a dry saucepan and coated with about a tablespoon of either olive oil or butter. Olive oil has a much higher smoke point, so the chances of burning the rice are reduced, but some traditional cooks sneer at anything but butter for risotto.
The cook should also have at least four cups of broth or water in a kettle on the stove, or kept hot in the microwave. The amount of water used for risotto varies. It depends on the type of rice, amount of heat, humidity and personal preference.
The stirring starts as cook toasts the dry rice for several minutes in the oil over medium-high heat until it is golden, but not burnt. This also helps the rice release the starch later on, and creates a nice nutty flavor. A wooden spoon is the best utensil for this job. Once the rice is toasted, the cook should add about a cup of the hot liquid to the rice and reduce the heat to medium. It generally takes about five minutes for the rice to absorb a cup of liquid, but this is a judgment call.
Once the rice has absorbed the liquid and is thickening, the cook can add another half-cup or so of water and keep stirring. The risotto -- and the cook's arm! -- can rest for a minute or so at a time, but the stirring must be kept up. Adding about a half-cup of liquid at a time, and stirring until it is absorbed, the cook will want to time the risotto at about 25 minutes. A traditional risotto is done when the grains are soft on the outside and slightly crunchy on the inside, but some people prefer the rice to be soft all the way through. Again, this is a matter of personal preference.
The above method is for a very basic risotto, but the beauty of this dish is that it lends itself to nearly endless variations. A cook can add mushrooms, vegetables, cheese, milk or cream, chopped leftover chicken or steak, sun-dried tomatoes, a can of tomatoes and the juice as part of the broth, or anything else he can think of. As long as the basic rules are followed, the risotto will be perfect every time. Risotto may taste like a gourmet dish, but it is traditional Italian home-cooking comfort food, and any cook willing to take a spoon in hand can make it.