Zen and the art of Risotto

Some dishes are as enjoyable in the preparation as in the eating. I once knew a man  who bought an apartment near the fish market in Barcelona solely in order to indulge his obsession with preparing sashimi. We would arrive at his place at four in the afternoon as he walked through the door with a large basket of fish. The next four hours would be spent in the kitchen filleting these fish, extracting bones with tweezers, making sticky rice and rolling out seaweed to prepare a mountain of sashimi and sushi, which would be eaten in half that time. That’s where I learnt to take pleasure in the conviviality of the kitchen party, as opposed to the dullness of the dinner party.

Although  risotto is best prepared by one, alone in a kitchen, with rice and pan and boiling stock,  the patience of a monk, the eye of an artist, and an understanding of the special qualities of Italian rice, it’s another of those dishes as enjoyable to prepare as to eat. But there’s more to it than that.

The literature of Zen abounds in stories of monks achieving enlightenment while sweeping courtyards, an act of mindfulness and mindlessness. The Zen poet Han Shan is usually portrayed (especially in the wonderful 13th Century painting by Yen Hui in the Tokyo national Museum) with the huge grin of the enlightened holding a broom. Stirring the rice for risotto you will discover, is the main activity in its preparation.

This stirring, stirring, stirring has always seemed to me to have the same qualities of mindlessness and mindfulness – complete awareness of the state of the rice, complete obliviousness to the outside world –  as sweeping the yard had for those monks. It is at once important to the quality of the finished dish to keep stirring, and to the quality of  the cook’s head to keep it empty. Cooking risotto is like meditation – except there’s something delicious to show for it at the end.

Rice came from the east with the Moors, who first planted it in Spain, and then Italy, which is today the largest producer of rice in Europe. In both those places, it changed its nature. Spanish and Italian rices have larger, softer, and starchier grains than Asian rices. And so, as is always the case, a method of cooking was  invented to suit the produce.

And although when you order risotto in Gualtiere Marchese’s ritzy restaurant l’Albereta outside of Turin, it comes with gold leaf on it, it’s origins are humble, a filling peasant dish (rice was as cheap in the north as pasta in the south). “It’s risen above its station” says Sydney chef Steve Manfredi, “it has a pride of place in restaurants now because we tend to value simplicity. That’s the attraction of Mediterranean food. So essentially simple you can eat it every day, so difficult to do very well.” That’s also the attraction for the keen cook.

Let’s go through the elements of making a basic risotto before looking at the list of ingredients,  because there’s a narrative to this recipe, and the most important ingredient you’ll need to make a proper risotto is 100% absorption in your task.

You’ll also need Italian rice, either Arborio, Carnoroli or Vialone. Don’t try to make it with Jasmin or Basmati or any other. You can find Arborio rice just about anywhere, the best grade is designated Superfino.

You need a good sized pan. If you haven’t got one, go to a chef’s supply shop (in and get a forged black steel Lyonnaise pan, the European wok. De Beyer is a good brand, made in France of course. They’re heavy, they’re expensive, but they’re magnificent – thumped out of a sheet of heavy gauge steel. You’ll leave it to your children.

You’ll need butter and extra virgin olive oil – I’ll use a mixture, although in Milan, they use only butter, which is also good, unless you have some sort of prejudice against butter, which you shouldn’t. Don’t forget that the French, who eat buckets of it, have the second lowest rate of heart disease – after the Japanese – on the planet. (Under no circumstances should you ever use margarine. For anything. Anywhere. It is not food.)

You’ll need chicken stock. Now you really ought to make your own, but if you can’t, either buy frozen stock or use a packet liquid (although I’ve stopped using these since reading the ingredients). But it must be hot, sitting on a low flame, gently boiling. And you’ll need a fruity white wine. I reckon you should always cook with a wine good enough to drink. The rest of the bottle will come in handy for all the stirring, stirring, stirring you have to do.

Put the half  butter and oil mixture in the pan over a medium to high flame (don’t even think about cooking risotto unless you’ve got gas). When it melts, throw in the onion and cook it until it goes transparent.  Now pour in the dry rice. This is where the Zen kicks in.

Take a close look at a single grain of Arborio rice. At its centre there’s a chalky white dot. This dot is your mandala. When you begin to stir the dry rice in the butter and onion – always with a  wooden spoon, don’t ask, it’s just the way it’s done – what you’re waiting for is for those little dots to go transparent. That’s the sign that the starch of the rice is beginning to be released. And that’s important, as you’ll see.

As soon as most of the dots in the centre of the rice grains have become transparent – by this stage the rice wants to stick to the pan – pour in the wine. Not into the centre of the pan, but around its edges, because the wine is cold (although it should be at room temperature and not straight from the refrigerator), and it would shock the rice into locking up its starch. It should sizzle and give off steam. Stir the wine through the rice until it evaporates.

Turn the heat to moderate, and start adding the stock, a cupful at a time. This is where you will need that attention. If you cook the rice too much, it’ll end up gluggy. Too little, and each grain will be have a hard little stone in the centre. Perfect risotto lies somewhere in the middle, the rice must be al dente, each grain must resist the teeth, but it must surrender its starch to the liquid, so that the resulting dish is creamy. If it ain’t creamy, it ain’t risotto.

As the stock is absorbed, little steam  holes will appear in the rice. Add more stock. Keep stirring, stirring, stirring. Watch the mixture for signs of that starch leaving the rice. Take a grain in the mouth and bite.

At this stage,  you will reach a point where you are tempted to finish the process, race it. Don’t. And don’t pour in too much stock and leave it – that’s not risotto, that’s paella. Italian men have devised dishes that would keep their women at the stove, stirring, stirring, stirring. Paella, on the other hand, is a dish cooked by blokes in the open air – the Spanish version of a barbie. So in typical bloke fashion, you splash in all the stock, give it a stir, and leave it to absorb.

Do not panic if your stock is getting low and your rice is still hard. At this stage, you can add boiling water. And you will get to know when you have added enough. As a chef friend once said “after the first 500 risottos, it’s easy.” The rest of us are still putting in the hard yards.

When it is ready, creamy, al dente, each grain still separate, turn the heat down low, and stir in the Parmesan and, if you want, some more butter (go on). Let it rest for 5 minutes in the pan, then eat.

What should it look like? well, it depends where you learnt risotto. If you learnt from somebody from the Veneto (around Venice) it’ll probably be wetter, what they call al’onda, literally, wavy.  If you’ve learnt as I have from a northern Italian from Lombardy, it will be juicy rather than wet. On no account should a risotto be dry.

Once you get the basics down, then you can start adding to it. The classic risotto is ala Milanese, with beef marrow and saffron. Or you can make risotto al porcini, either with Italian dried porcini mushrooms or a mixture of fresh mushrooms (Shiitake, saffron or delicious milk caps, Swiss or Roman browns also known as cremini); or a seafood risotto with prawns, mussels and scallops (for the mushroom you’d add a bit of mushroom stock to the chicken stock, for the seafood, make a stock with the prawn heads).

Very soon, you will be a Risotto Master, one who can’t wait to be alone in the kitchen,  with a couple of cups of rice, a pot of boiling stock, and a frypan. Enlightenment, for me, is the perfect risotto. I’ve got close, but I’m still stirring, stirring, stirring.

Rice and stock are in the pan

My mind has gone to sleep

Soon we will have a risotto

So good as to make you weep.

INGREDIENTS FOR A BASIC RISOTTO:

(for 4 people as a first course, or two as a main meal)

350gms Arborio rice

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 clove of garlic, minced

60gms butter and 2tblspns extra virgin olive oil

100gms grated Parmesan

2 litres chicken stock

salt and pepper to taste

For wine, a really good Pinot Grigio,  or a crisp Australian Riesling.

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