Risotto is a dish I love to cook. I don’t have it that often, but when I do, I get lost in the simple act of cooking it. I get cravings for risotto. They come once a month or so, and when they do, I have to give in. Sunday was the day, so to begin with I bought some fresh chicken wings, put them in a large stock pot with an onion, carrot, a few sticks of celery and covered the whole lot with cold water, brought it to the boil and then lowered the heat to a steady roll and left it alone for a few hours. Once I had the stock on the go I could relax a little, as a good risotto really is a question of good stock. If you don’t put the love into the stock, you might as well forget about it.
I think the main reason why risotto has such a place in my culinary heart, is because it was the first really ‘cheffy’ dish I learnt to cook while I was a cheesemonger in Galway. I was surrounded by very passionate people when it came to food and risotto was a dish that you were judged by. If you could cook a good risotto, it was a mark of your standard as a cook. There were many conversations around what type of rice to use, Arborio, Carnaroli? How long to cook the rice, 18 mins? 20 mins? When to add the garlic? How much stock to add? How loose to have it? So many questions around such a simple dish, but through these discussions risotto became something special, a dish to aspire to.
My first risotto was a watershed moment in my love affair with food. Obsessing over the different stages of the dish, getting the stock right, gently frying the vegetables to the optimum point, coating the rice in the butter, adding a splash of wine, then the stock, and the stirring and building of the dish. With an end to producing something that tasted luxurious and sexy. I think that’s it…risotto was the first dish I ever cooked where I had the revelation that food could be sexy.
As I’ve got older, my risottos have improved, purely through experience and practice. I have learnt how to refine my risotto with subtle touches and techniques that seem to make all the difference. I’m not going to bother with a list of ingredients or a step by step methodology, I’m just going to tell you how I like to cook my risotto and hopefully it will inspire you to create you’re own risotto how you like it.
I’ve already mentioned the stock, but I’ll say it again, if you start with good stock, you’re half way there. I didn’t have a left over roast chicken carcass so chicken wings were the next best thing. I cooked that down for a few hours, then strained out all the used wings and veg so I was left with a deep light golden brown stock. Next in a large deep sided pan, I fried off a few strips of pancetta, and I had some goose fat left over from Christmas so I added a spoonful of that for extra flavour and richness. Once the pancetta was golden brown, I added in some finely chopped shallot and celery, cooking until soft. The I added a small knob of butter, and added about five handfuls of Arborio rice, enough for two with seconds, stirring the rice so all the grains were coated in the fat.
Now was the time to start adding the stock. At the start I like to add a couple of large ladles, give the rice a stir and let it bubble away for a few minutes, waiting until the stock has been absorbed to add some more, another stir, then let it bubble gently. With risotto I don’t stand there stirring continuously for 20 minutes, I think taking a more relaxed approach to the stirring produces a lighter, silkier finish, too much stirring often produces a heavy stodgy risotto.
After about ten minutes I added a couple of courgettes, diced into small cubes and one small clove of garlic finely diced. By adding the courgette as this stage it will still have a nice bite to it. I like to add the garlic a bit later because this way I feel it provides more of a gentle hum of garlic in the background, whereas if you were to fry it in the fat earlier, the garlic flavour can be more pronounced. I season at this stage, with a little salt and black pepper. I kept adding the stock until the rice was ‘al dente’. At this point I added a large handful of freshly grated Parmesan and chopped flat leaf parsley, stirring to combine the cheese.
These days I like my risotto to have quite a loose texture, not like soup, but I like it to flow easily across the plate. I checked the consistency, added a little more stock if necessary, then turned the heat off, placed a few small knobs of butter sparingly into the rice, covered with a tea towel and left the butter to melt for a a minute.
To serve I placed one large ladle of risotto on the plate, some parsley, a dusting of Parmesan and a tiny squeeze of lemon just to give it a freshness. I use the lemon as the final seasoning and it is a revelation, as it just seems to bring all the flavours together.
That’s it, that’s how I make my risotto. It gives me a lot of pleasure to cook this dish, and I always feel very proud when I’ve made it. All at once it feels comforting, luxurious and sexy as hell.