There's more than one way to cook risotto these days. More than a hundred, actually.
What once was a fairly monolithic recipe — sauté onion and garlic in butter, add Arborio rice, then some white wine and maybe saffron, and once that's absorbed start putting in small amounts of broth at intervals, all the while stirring until your arm is about to fall off before tossing in some Parmigiano-Reggiano — has morphed into countless iterations.
This traditional Italian delight now might include a range of grains, liquids, cheeses and other toppings. Oh, and cooking vessels. All of which can be prepared just as easily at home as in a restaurant, with the added benefit of pervading your home with a lovely fragrance.
Like pesto before it, risotto has lost much of its original identity but gained a legion of new aficionados. To many of them, it's a cooking style rather than a specific dish.
"What defines risotto is not the grain, but the process," said veteran Minneapolis chef Steven Brown (Tilia, St. Genevieve). "When you think about it, if you take a grain and cook it in the same manner so the flavorful liquid absorbs and starch is exuded and to absorb what you put in it, then I think you can say 'I made risotto, didn't I?' "
Thomas Broder is more old-school about the dish.
"The result of cooking vegetables and grains in this similar style to risotto can result in a delicious discovery of applying an old technique once reserved for an exclusive ingredient to be used in new creative ways," said the executive chef and owner for Broders' Restaurants in Minneapolis. "But on my menus [at Terzo and Broders' Pasta Bar], the description of risotto will remain reserved for the traditional Italian preparation of carnaroli rice."
He added, a bit whimsically, "Maybe we need to coin new terms such as 'beetotto' or 'pototto' to classify these other vegetables' preparations, however silly that may sound."
For Broder and many other purists, preparing risotto in a tall pot is the only way to go.
"Always the old-fashioned way," said enthusiast Ross Otto, a home cook from Aitkin, Minn. "Stir, stir and stir again."
Knowing how to make this northern Italian staple that way is important, said Tammy Haas, who teaches classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill. "You should know how to stand in front of a hot pot and stir till your arms go numb," she said.
But at home these days, Haas is a devotee of the pressure cooker for this otherwise fairly laborious dish. "First, it takes seven minutes," she said, "and with farro and even arborio the texture is different, a much more subtle, refined texture.
"And it's more goofproof. 'Al dente' can be hard to get right. It can be perfect or 'I'm going to the dentist.' "
Conventional pressure cookers are an increasingly popular option — Elizabeth Quinn, a retired caterer from Minneapolis, gushed, "Love it! Eight minutes and beautiful risotto."
But the Instant Pot has an almost cultlike following for this preparation.
Earlier this month, Thalina Edwards, a home cook from Brooklyn Center, prepared her first risotto in an Instant Pot. The results: "Fantastic. The sauté feature in the Instant Pot is life-changing. Kai [her son] said it was the best thing I've ever made."
When a dish is that delicious, it's hard to argue about what went into it or how it was cooked.
Ingredient options abound
Rice: The one constant is that it cannot be a long-grained rice like basmati, which lacks the kind of starch that gives risotto its stick-to-it-ness.
Thomas Broder uses carnaroli rice in his family's restaurants, but said others such as arborio and vialone nano work well. On the other hand, home cook Otto goes with the other two options and "never arborio."
Other bases: Chef Brown of Tilia said he has used squash, sweet potatoes, farro, barley and tapioca as the main ingredient. "It's very common to take root vegetables of smaller, similar size and combine with rice," he said. "It's the same idea, but sort of amped up."
Beet risotto has popped up on local menus. (Beets and other veggies should be diced to the approximate size of rice kernels.) Quinoa, which is technically a seed, is an increasingly popular base. And Broder noted that Italians have made pasta in risotto fashion — and called it "pasotto" — since the 1700s.
Liquid: The wine added early on should always be at room temperature, lest it "shock" the base.
Chicken or vegetable stock is a longtime staple here, and while homemade broth is vastly preferable, the store-bought stuff is OK. Brown said he got "a fairly spectacular result with smoked chicken broth," adding, "you can also use different liquids like dashi, smoked tomato, fried potato skin broth, etc." For earthier results, mushroom or ham-hock stocks fit the bill.
One must-do: Keep the stock or other liquid warm in a separate pan before adding to the dish. Oh, and "water doesn't work," said culinary teacher Haas.
Cheese: Broder believes strongly in "Parmigiano or other Grana type cheese" from northern Italy. Added Otto: "real Parmigiano-Reggiano, not pre-grated or the stuff from the green can." TV chefs have taken some interesting turns: Nigella Lawson with Cheddar, Emeril Lagasse and Jamie Oliver with three-cheese, mostly Italian mixes. Other dairy products, including milk or even cream, can add richness and texture. (Risotto that has had cream stirred into it is called "mantecato.")
Other additions: Pretty much anything goes. Risotto is a great blank canvas for all kinds of flavors. Making mushroom risotto, a longtime mainstay at Ciao Bella restaurant in Bloomington, means sautéing the fungi with the aromatics (onion, shallots, etc.) at the outset. Saffron, added before the broth, provides color and flavor but is not essential.
Otherwise the ingredients are added at the end and might include cooked seafood, chicken or meat; veggies (peas!); fresh herbs (maybe with some lemon zest) or greens, pretty much whatever your palate desires. Haas is particularly enamored of her "farroto" with squash and apple. The New York Times ran a recipe last year with pancetta and watermelon. Otto likes to go the locavore route: "It's one of the best dishes to add all sorts of seasonal ingredients."
And Brown recalled a dish he made at Levain restaurant long ago: "That was pretty amazing, finished with butter and Parmesan, topped with beets and green onions."
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.