Luscious risotto delights the palate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Risotto is a rich and luscious dish that can be served either as an appetizer or an entree. At Trattoria La Piccolo Roma in Annapolis, chef and owner Gino Giolitti serves risottos as "primi piatti," or first courses, after antipasti and before entrees.

Patrons' two favorites have been those flavored with wild mushrooms and smoked salmon.

Mr. Giolitti noted that simple risottos of smoked salmon or shrimp should get very little cream ( 1/4 cup rather than the 1/2 cup for mushroom risotto) and only a pinch of cheese. In more complex seafood risottos -- those with shrimp, mussels, squid -- he uses several tablespoons of marinara sauce, fish broth ("You can use bottled clam juice," he says), and no cream or cheese.

Like most chefs, Mr. Giolitti cooks by eye and by weight, and not with the cups and tablespoons familiar to home cooks. After watching him prepare risotto, I made it twice at home; once simply following his instructions, and once stopping to measure everything. Risotto is a somewhat forgiving dish, and as the chef points out, it can be flavored and seasoned to suit you. Once you've mastered the basic technique, you can devise your own combinations.

The first recipe is my adaptation of Mr. Giolitti's. I found I had to use more stock, but mine was made with beef marrow bones and was not as thick as his veal stock.

Risotto with wild mushrooms

Serves two to three as a main course, four to six as an appetizer.

FOR THE MUSHROOMS:

8 ounces of mushrooms, chopped (domestic, or cremini, or rehydrated porcini, or a mixture) (See note)

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 small clove of garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon basil

-- of sage

tiny pinch of oregano

2 tablespoons white wine

FOR THE STOCK:

2 tablespoons butter

1 medium onion, chopped

5 stalks celery, chopped

5 medium carrots, chopped

5-6 slices of beef marrow bones

6 cups water

FOR THE RISOTTO:

2 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons brandy

1 cup arborio or short-grained rice (See note)

1/8 teaspoon basil

1/8 teaspoon parsley

1/2 to 3/8 cup of heavy cream

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil; add garlic, basil, sage, oregano, and white wine and saute a few more minutes. Remove mushrooms to a small dish with a slotted spoon and reserve.

Saute onions in butter. Add marrow bones and saute 5 to 10 minutes, turning marrow bones to brown both sides. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add vegetables and return to boil. Add half a teaspoon of basil and a pinch of salt and pepper. (Not too much salt; making your own stock is one way to control the amount of salt in it.) Reduce heat to simmer and cook stock until it has reduced by about a quarter. Strain it twice, using cheesecloth to line a strainer. If you are using immediately, return to heat and keep warm.

(Both the mushrooms and the stock can be made ahead to save time. Store in the refrigerator. If you wish, you can remove congealed fat from the stock before reheating.)

To make the risotto, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy skillet. Add the mushrooms and saute for a few minutes, just long enough for the mushrooms to flavor the butter.

bTC Add the 2 tablespoons of brandy and -- very carefully -- touch a flame to the liquid. (If you're nervous about this step, just flavor with a few drops of brandy. Or you can skip the brandy, and the risotto will still be very good.) Let the flame die down as the alcohol cooks off.

Add the rice and cook, stirring, until rice is absorbing the butter and just becoming transparent. Add 1 cup of stock and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Add another cup and repeat until rice is round and creamy and al dente. (You will probably use about 3 cups, but could use more or less depending on the type of rice and how done you want it to be.) When rice has absorbed all liquid and just about reached desired consistency, add the cream and stir to blend. Add the cheese and stir again.

Take risotto off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes.

Note: Cremini mushrooms are fairly easy to find, as some large grocery chains now carry them. Porcini are a little more elusive, but can be found in dried form at specialty shops, such as Sutton Place Gourmet in Reisterstown and Fresh Fields organic supermarket in Rockville. They're very expensive -- about $5.99 an ounce -- so you may want to use them sparingly, or not at all.

Next to "The Talisman of Happiness" author Ada Boni, whom Mr. Giolitti said is the Julia Child of Italian cooking, the most famous Italian cook, he says, is probably Lorenza de'Medeci, a cookbook author and teacher who holds classes in her family villa near Florence. This is one of the risotto recipes in her "Italy the Beautiful Cookbook," (The Knapp Press, 1988, $39.95). She says in the book that this version is from the region of Veneto.

Risotto al finocchi (Rissoto with fennel)

Serves six.

3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced

6 ounces of butter

1 small onion, chopped

2 cups arborio rice

1/2 cup dry white wine

4 cups of chicken broth (or stock)

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

7 sprigs fennel greens, chopped

freshly ground pepper

Place fennel in a saucepan with 1 tablespoon butter. Add salt, cover and cook for about 30 minutes over very low heat. Add another tablespoon butter.

Saute the onion in the remaining butter until translucent. Add the rice and stir for a couple of minutes over low heat.

Add half the wine and cook over high heat, stirring constantly and adding the rest of the wine and the broth. The rice should always be covered by a "veil" of broth.

After 14 minutes, remove the rice from the heat and add the Parmesan, sliced fennel, chopped fennel greens, salt and pepper. Cover and let rest for 2 minutes before serving.

This recipe is from "The Best of Gourmet, Volume V," published by Gourmet magazine, 1990, $24.95.

Risotto with asparagus, morels and peppers

Serves four as a main course, or six to eight as a first course or side dish.

1 1/2 ounces of dried morels

5 cups chicken broth or chicken stock

1/2 pound asparagas, cut diagonally into 1/4 inch slices, reserving the tips separately

2/3 cup chopped red bell pepper

2/3 cup yellow bell pepper

1 onion, chopped

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups arborio rice

2/3 cup dry white wine

1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

In a small bowl, let the morels soak in 1 1/2 cups of hot water for 30 minutes, or until they are softened. Drain the morels in a fine sieve set over a bowl, reserving the liquid and chop any large coarse ones.

In a large saucepan, combine the broth, the reserved mushroom liquid, and 1 cup water, and bring the liquid to a boil. Add the sliced asparagas and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the reserved asparagas tips and the peppers, simmer the vegetables for 2 minutes, transfer them with a slotted spoon to a bowl.

Keep the liquid at a bare simmer. In a large, heavy saucepan, cook the onion with the butter over moderately low heat, stirring, until it is soft. Add the rice and cook the mixture over moderate heat, stirring with a wooden spatula, for 2 minutes, or until rice is well coated with butter. Add the wine and cook the mixture over moderately high heat, stirring, for 1 to 3 minutes, or until the wine is absorbed.

Add 2/3 cup of the broth mixture and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed. Add more of the broth mixture, 2/3 cup at a time, stirring and cooking the mixture for 3 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed, after each addition, until the rice begins to soften. (By now, about 4 1/2 cups of the broth mixture will have been absorbed.)

Add more of the broth, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring and simmering the mixture for 3 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed, after each addition, until the rice is barely al dente. (About 5 1/2 cups of the broth will have been absorbed.) Stir in the asparagas and peppers, the morels and 1/2 cup of the broth mixture and simmer, stirring, for 3 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed. (The mixture should be creamy, but the rice should be al dente. If necessary, add more broth and cook the mixture in the same manner until the rice is al dente.)

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the Parmesan and pepper to taste, and transfer the risotto to a heated serving bowl.

NB Note: Dried morels are also available at specialty food shops.

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