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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, September 4, 2002

Risotto has become a staple in American restaurants

 •  Try this dish for a taste of northern Italy

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor

Chef Sergio Mitrotti features a daily risotto at his restaurant, Cafe Sistina, on King Street.

Photos by Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser

13th Annual Honolulu Wine Festival

Presented by Fukioka's Wine Merchants as a benefit for Hawaii Lupus Foundation Inc.

Grand Tasting: "Italy My Love," with Italian food tasting stations, a risotto "battle," special wine tastings (pre-registration required), wines, cheeses, silent auction and live wine auction; 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sheraton Waikiki, Hawai'i Ballroom.

Gala Dinner: "Pranzo di Stagione," with preparations by Hawaii Island Chefs, 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday, Hawaii Prince Hotel.

Tickets: Italian tasting and auction — $65 per person ($85 at the door); Wine tastings — Amarone and Recioto, $145 per person or Super Barbera, $100 per person; Gala dinner, $175 per person.

Call: Hawaii Lupus Foundation, 538-1522, or visit Fukioka's Wine Merchants.

Sergio Mitrotti remembers sitting at the kitchen table as a child with his nonna, his grandmother, carefully picking the small stones and husks out of a bag of Arborio rice spilled out onto the flat surface — a good first job for a boy who would grow up to be a chef and restaurateur as well as an artist.

He brings an artist's soulful appreciation to the memory: "That was a beautiful meditation over the rice." And that is how particular good cooks are about risotto.

The Mitrottis lived in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, where there's more butter than olive oil, more rice than pasta. The rice came from the Po Valley in Piedmont and in neighboring Lombardy, and it was the fat, short, starchy variety called Arborio, the essential ingredient in the northern Italian favorite that has become a restaurant staple in America, too: risotto.

Like most Piedmontese, the family enjoyed risotto as a first course at least once a week. Now, Mitrotti's menu at Honolulu's Cafe Sistina is divided into his grandmother's specialties, his mother's and his own, and features a daily risotto preparation.

This weekend, Mitrotti is one of a handful of chefs who will vie to see who makes the most luxurious, the most satisfying, the most authentic risotto. Among the chefs will be Eugenio Martignano of Nick's Fish Market, Mark Anthony of Sarento's Top-of-the-I and Daniel Delbrel of the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel. These dishes will be paired with Piedmontese wines at the "Italy Mio Amore" tasting event, part of the 13th Annual Honolulu Wine Festival Saturday and Sunday.

Mitrotti will take a risk by making the simplest risotto possible: straightforward cheese (mascarpone, an Italian cream cheese, and heady gorgonzola) with just a scattering of toasted walnuts.

Over a glass of Tommasi Valpolicella — which he laments will be among the last he will be able to get, since the vineyards recently suffered storm damage and the price is likely to go up precipitously — Mitrotti skips briefly over the much-argued history of risotto. The rice came from Asia, obviously, but was a staple in Italy by the eighth century. Scholars disagree as to whether the dish we know as risotto was invented in the Piedmont/Lombardy area, or in Venice to the east.

The reasons for the Venice theory are twofold: Some think risotto is related to eastern pilafs, and Venice is a city that did a lot of business with the Near East. The other is the famous story set in the 1500s, when risotto ala milanese was invented by a maker of stained glass who put saffron into rice to create a festive golden dish for a wedding.

This, says Mitrotti with a dismissive shrug, is a theory "we obviously oppose."

In any case, risotto is closely identified with northern Italy and has become a menu favorite in the United States in the past couple of decades, as more authentic Italian cooking has spread here and such ingredients as Arborio rice and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and good olive oil became widely available.

The question of risotto technique is almost as controversial as the issue of its origins. Italians invariably describe it as the most straightforward of dishes; American home cooks often fear its complexity. They're both right: This is a dish that's so simple that it's difficult.

The solution, as the Italians would say, is go piano, piano: softly, gently, patiently, lightly. Don't try to rush it, don't add too much of anything, don't overdo the cooking.

All risottos follow a predictable pattern: Saute onions, briefly toast and glaze rice, stir in hot broth, cook and continue stirring in broth until the dish has a creamy "gravy" and the rice is just cooked — which tends to occur magically right at the 18-minute mark because of the chemistry of the rice used. (Starch in the rice is released to absorb the liquids and fats in the dish.) Finally, add the flavoring ingredients, which might be just a bit of cheese and some butter or can be as elaborate as you like, with quail or clams or even caviar.

Most cookbooks tell you to have the broth simmering in a pot on the next burner over from the risotto pot, to add a half-cup of broth every time the liquid is fully absorbed, and to stir continuously.

Mitrotti's technique, which is that of his mother, is sacrilegious by these standards: Her practice was to cook the risotto over medium heat in a rather wide, shallow pan. She would add enough simmering liquid just to glaze the top of the rice. She did not stir at all, but kept a watchful eye on the dish and added broth as soon as it had been mostly absorbed.

The tricks in making risotto are these: to know what it's supposed to look like, and to know its limits.

First, the limits. Risotto is not paella. It's not a casserole. It's a rice dish with a very delicate balance; don't overload it with butter, cheeses or other ingredients.

As to what it should look like: Finished risotto glistens with a thickened, starchy "gravy" between the grains. Mitrotti's test is to draw a spoon through the risotto; it should be liquid enough that the grains fall gently back into the path of the spoon. The effect you're going for is somewhere between soup and what the Italians disdainfully call pappa, or baby food, meaning it's too gummy and overcooked.

Risotto must be served immediately when it's done. Give everyone a glass of wine and make them sit down before you start stirring.

So how do restaurants do it? Well, here's a trick you can use at home. Prepare the risotto as you normally would, but about 7 to 10 minutes into the broth-and-stir part — say, two ladles of broth into the process — stop and spread the hot risotto onto a cold, rimmed cookie sheet or in a baking pan. Chill the risotto and cover it with plastic wrap. The chilled risotto can be reheated and finished with hot broth anytime in the next day or so.

Predictably, risotto underwent a transformation as it made its way onto American tables, moving, as pasta did before it, from a first course to a main course, with heavier accompaniments and larger portions than are usual in Italy. "Risotto will fill you up," said Mitrotti. "You eat a big dish of risotto, you don't want anything else.' "

In Italy even today, meals are eaten at a more leisurely pace, with more and smaller courses than in America. Dinner, eaten later in the evening, begins with soup, pasta or risotto, goes on to fish and/or meat, proceeds to salad and/or cheese, and ends with desserts often based on fruit and rather spare of sugar.

Like most restaurateurs, Mitrotti has had to move the risotto to the entree side of the menu, to pump up the portion size, and to add heartier ingredients — such as his trademark veal barolo, or seafood with squid ink or, at the very least, a few stems of asparagus.

A weekday kind of risotto would be made with cheese and mushrooms or vegetables, garnished perhaps with pine or walnuts, Mitrotti said. Richer seafood risottos or those made with meats and red wine are more likely to be served on special occasions.

Mitrotti scorned the idea that risotto might be made with leftovers, but, in fact, bits of roasted meat or steamed vegetables could well be folded into a risotto for a flavorful second life.

Risotto leftovers are another matter: In Italy, little pan-fried cakes, suppli or aroncini, or deep-fried croquettes, risotto al salto, are made from leftover risotto (or risotto cooked in advance on purpose) and make delightful first courses. Mitrotti is excited about grilled risotto, a dish he experienced in Italy just recently, and plans to experiment with for his restaurant. The risotto is patted into flat, plate-size cakes and grilled lightly, and the result had him smacking his lips.

• • •

Ways to ensure your risotto works

Risotto, garnished with pine nuts and accompanied by a glass of wine, is a favorite at Cafe Sistina. Italians invariably describe the dish as straightforward, but American home cooks often fear its complexity.
The materials
  • Rice: Use short-grain Italian rice (Arborio, Carnaroli, Padano or Vialone Nano) because of their high proportion of soluble starch. This ingredient is released by the grain to absorb and combine with liquids and fats, producing the characteristic creaminess of risotto. In a pinch, short-grain domestic rice can be used, but it won't have the right texture.
  • Fats: Extra-virgin olive oil, unsalted butter or a blend of both
  • Soffrito: The "base" of the risotto — onions or shallots sauteed until limp and translucent
  • Wine: White or red wines; quality is important, especially in reds. Use a wine you'd like to drink. One cup generally is called for.
  • Broth: Clear, light-flavored chicken, beef, fish or vegetable broth; cut canned broth by one-third with water to avoid salty or metallic flavors. Keep the broth just below simmering on a nearby burner.The rule of thumb is three parts broth to one of rice.
  • Cheese: Freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano is traditional except in seafood risotti.
  • Flavoring ingredients: Meats, seafood, cheeses, vegetables, fresh herbs or spices; have ingredients prepped and ready. It's preferable to warm ingredients at least to room temperature, or even to saute temperature before adding them, so as not to stop the cooking.

The tools

  • Pot: A wide, heavy, high-sided non-reactive skillet; something roomy that holds heat evenly, such as a Le Crueset dutch oven.
  • Stirring tool: A long-handled wooden spoon is preferred; wood is less likely to cut or crush the grains.
  • Presentation: A wide, shallow bowl or even a plate is traditional.

The technique

  • Prep: Wash and chop, measure and otherwise prepare all flavoring ingredients and rice. Grate cheese. Place broth in pot and broil to simmering. If ingredients need to be pre-cooked, do that and keep them warm.
  • Soffrito: Heat the fat and saute the onions and/or shallots until limp and translucent.
  • Toasting the rice: Add the rice and toast it lightly, turning constantly, until well-coated.
  • The wine: Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until it evaporates. The pot should be hot enough that the wine hisses when it's poured in.
  • Cook the risotto: Add 1 cup of simmering stock and cook 18 to 20 minutes, stirring, adding stock in half-cup batches as each batch is absorbed. At about 18 minutes, the rice should be surrounded by a creamy textured "sauce." Grains should be cooked through but not mushy. The mixture should glisten a bit with liquid, not appear homogenous. Draw a spoon through; the grains should fall back in to fill in the path; if the spoon makes a clean path, the risotti is overcooked.
  • The finish: For a plain risotto, fl to 1 cup of grated cheese is stirred in at the end, along with a walnut-sized knob of unsalted butter.
  • Serve: Immediately!

Sources: "La Cucina di Lidia," by Lida Bastianich and Jay Jacobs; "Risotto," by Judith Barrett and Norma Wasserman