Risotto. Even the word sounds voluptuous as it rolls off the tongue.
If cheese is milk's leap to immortality, then risotto surely is rice's descent into sin. It tastes so rich and silken and creamy that it almost seems naughty to eat it.
For those who have not tried the Northern Italian rice dish, it is an amalgam of short-grain rice swollen with broth and bound with -- usually -- butter and Parmesan cheese.
In Italy, risotto is served, as pasta is, as a first course before the meat or fish entree. But just as Americans have made pasta a main course, they have moved risotto from the wings to center stage.
Chic restaurants are adding all kinds of ingredients to risotto and offering it as a hearty entree. Even non-Italian restaurants are getting into the act, throwing decidedly non-Italian ingredients into the pot.
These inventions illustrate what noted Italian cooking teacher Marcella Hazan meant when she wrote, "There are so many things you can do with risotto that it is almost a cuisine all by itself."
But while the add-ins may vary, the rice doesn't. Plump, short-grain arborio is the rice of choice for risotto. It is increasingly available in supermarkets, where it sometimes is labeled "risotto rice."
Arborio rice is especially suitable because it plumps up and becomes creamy when liquid is absorbed. Because the liquid must be added slowly to the rice, traditional risotto is not a quick fix. The liquid -- chicken broth, fish stock, water or even wine -- is added a little at a time. The mixture is stirred over heat until the liquid is absorbed, then more liquid is added.
The process is repeated until the grains are swollen and bound together in a creamy mass. For centuries, it took 20 to 30 minutes to make a proper risotto. Then heretics discovered the microwave.
Nuked risotto isn't quite as creamy as the real thing, but it's close. And it's a whole lot quicker and easier to make.
For the microwave version, arborio rice is combined with all of the liquid and seasonings, and cooked on high power for about eight minutes. On a rushed weeknight, the slight difference in texture and flavor is made bearable by the convenience.
Although risotto tastes a lot richer than it actually is (it doesn't contain that much butter and cheese), it can be made in a low-fat version.
We're offering a slimmed-down recipe from "High-Flavor Low-Fat Cooking" by Steven Raichlen, along with a recipe for risotto with Parmesan cheese from the "Classic Italian Cookbook" by Marcella Hazan; and a recipe for new-wave Asian risotto with shrimp and chicken from "Fusion Food Cookbook" by Hugh Carpenter and Teri Sandison.
Use Ms. Hazan's recipe as a basis for your own inventions, adding vegetables, meats and herbs.
One final note: Don't even think of making risotto with margarine and Parmesan cheese from a shaker can. Use real butter and Parmesan cheese that you've grated yourself or that is sold as fresh-grated in the dairy case. Your taste buds will thank you.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 to 6 cups chicken broth, heated to simmering
1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs such as basil, chives and parsley
1/4 cup fresh-grated Parmesan
salt, fresh-ground black pepper
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook onion and garlic 3 to 4 minutes, until softened. Stir in rice and cook 1 minute. Add wine and bring to a boil, stirring until most of the wine is absorbed.
Add 1/2 cup broth and cook, stirring, at a gentle simmer. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth. Continue until 5 cups are used up. If rice is still hard, add 1/2 to 1 cup more broth. Add herbs during last 3 minutes of cooking. The process should take 18 to 20 minutes.
Remove pan from heat and stir in cheese, salt and pepper. Serve
Risotto with Parmesan cheese
Serves 4 as a first course or 2 as an entree
1 cup canned chicken broth mixed with 4 cups water
2 tablespoons minced shallot or yellow onion
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups arborio rice
1/2 heaping cup fresh-grated Parmesan
salt, if desired
Bring the broth to a slow, steady simmer. In a heavy saucepan, saute shallots or onion in 2 tablespoons of the butter and all of the oil over medium-high heat until translucent.
Add rice and saute for 2 minutes, stirring to coat rice. Add 1/2 cup of the simmering broth. Cook and stir until the rice absorbs the liquid and wipes the sides of the pot as you stir. When the rice dries out, add another 1/2 cup of the broth and continue to cook and stir. Do not allow rice to stick to the bottom of the pan.
Regulate the heat -- neither too high nor too low -- so that the rice will cook in about 30 minutes. If it cooks too slowly, the rice becomes gluey. If it cooks too fast, the rice will be chalky.
When the rice is about 5 minutes from being done, add Parmesan and remaining tablespoon of butter. Mix well and add salt, if necessary. Serve immediately.
Asian risotto with shrimp and chicken
Serves 4 as a main course
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms
1 red bell pepper, stemmed and seeded
1/2 cup pine nuts
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh-grated Parmesan cheese
half of a roast chicken
3/4 pound medium-sized raw shrimp
3 1/4 cups chicken broth
1/4 cup dry sherry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon Asian chili sauce (optional)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 cup coarse-chopped fresh cilantro
Cut off and discard mushroom stems. Cut into 1/4 -inch strips. Cut bell pepper into 1/4 -inch cubes. Toast the pine nuts on a baking sheet at 325 degrees until golden, about 8 minutes. Combine ginger and garlic. Set aside Parmesan.
Separate the chicken meat from bones and cut meat into bite-sized pieces. Shell shrimp, then split in half along the back.
In a small bowl, combine broth, sherry, soy and chili sauces.
Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in a 2 1/2 -quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Saute mushrooms until they begin to wilt, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside.
Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter to pan and saute garlic and ginger a few seconds. Add rice and stir slowly for 3 minutes.
Reduce heat to low and add broth, 1/3 at a time. Stir slowly until rice has absorbed nearly all the broth before adding the next 1/3 of broth. When rice has absorbed almost all the broth and the grains are firm but no longer raw-tasting (about 20 minutes in all), stir in the mushrooms, red pepper, pine nuts, chicken and shrimp. Simmer 4 minutes longer to cook shrimp.
Remove from heat and stir in cheese and cilantro.