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Friday, February 27, 2015

Baked Risotto--Is It Possible?

Baked Risotto--Is It Possible?
by Victoria Challancin

Baked risotto?  Is it possible to make this normally labor-intensive Italian rice dish in the oven?  Is it even worth the time?  Is it desirable?  Is it sacrilege?  Are my northern Italian relatives quaking in their boots at the mere thought of it?  The answers to these burning questions are: yes, yes, yes, yes, I hope not, and probably.

Having spent many a long hour at the stove stirring a pot of creamy, unctuous, glossy risotto, I was intrigued when I encountered this easy baked version by Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa of the US Food Network.  Perhaps being skeptical by nature, I seriously doubted that it would yield anything even close to the classic version of this recipe, which calls for adding liquid bit by bit (often stock and wine) to a pot of short- or medium-grain rice which has been lightly sautéed in butter or olive oil, stirring constantly, until the requisite five or six liters have been completely absorbed.  You can see why I might question the efficacy of this modern technique.  You can also probably see why I was intrigued.  Think of the savings in time, much less in effort.  And a good pot of risotto does require real effort!

Did it produce an acceptable result?  Indeed it did--and one that I will use again and again.

First of all, let's learn a bit of history of this classic Italian rice preparation.

Risotto--A Bit of History and Background
Because of the universal popularity of Italian pasta dishes, it is easy to overlook the immensely popular rice dishes of the north of the country.  But the rices of Italy are not only popular, they are singular.  En route to Spain  in the 10th century, Arab traders introduced rice to Sicily.  By the 13th and 14th centuries, rice had made its way north where it found a happy home in the rich Po Valley and beyond.  And even today, Italy is the largest rice producer in Europe with the main production still concentrated along the Po Valley.

Risotto is probably the most famous of the Italian rice dishes, but exactly what is it?  Although there are countless versions using vegetables, seafood, meat, squid ink, and more, a basic risotto is made by lightly sautéing a high-starch, medium- or short-grain white rice (and wine) and adding broth slowly, stirring constantly, until it is absorbed, at which time grated Parmesan or a similar cheese is added plus a bit of butter to round it out.  A properly prepared risotto is cooked "al dente," with each grain of rice retaining its distinct shape and texture.  Never is it mushy, gluey, or overly creamy.  Needless to say, this can be a somewhat challenging and time-consuming dish to prepare, but I am happy to report that this baked version is good.  Would it pass muster with Italian gourmets?  Maybe not.  Is it something I would serve in my own home?  Yes.

Rice Varieties
Can just any rice be used for risotto?  The answer is a resounding "no."  While there are many varieties that can be used, the chosen rice must contain the right kind of starch.  Rice contains two types of starches called amylose and amylopectin, though the ratio differs in different varieties. Without getting to technical, the necessary rice appropriate for making risotto must have low amylose levels, so that when cooked, the rice will remain soft and sticky.  It should also have a higher concentration of amylopectin in its soft outer layer, which when released during cooking creates the desirable creamy texture.  Here are a few of the Italian rices typically used for risotto:

  • Carnaroli--considered to be the "King of Rice" in Italy with its delicate nutty flavor
  • Vialone Nano--Less grainy than Carnaroli, but appreciated for its softness; it blends well with vegetables such as pumpkin, mushrooms, and asparagus, as well as with meats
  • Arborio--readily available and considerably cheaper than the two previously mentioned rices, it is commonly used in risotto dishes, but with the caveat that it can lose the texture of the individual grains when cooked and become somewhat gummy

  • Other types of rice used for making risotto are:  Sant'Andrea, Balilla, Baldo, Roma, Ribe Padano, Maratelli, and Originario
Basic Preparation
I am taking this directly from Wikipedia, so please excuse:  "The rice is first cooked briefly in a soffritto of onion and butter or olive oil to coat each grain in a film of fat, called tostatura; white or red wine is added and has to be absorbed by the grains.  When it has evaporated, the heat is raised to medium high and very hot stock is gradually added in small amounts while stirring gently, almost constantly; stirring loosens the starch molecules from the outside of the rice grains into the surrounding liquid, creating a smooth creamy-textured liquid.  At that point it is taken off the heat for the mantecatura when diced cold butter is vigorously stirred in to make the texture as creamy and smooth as possible.  It may be removed from the heat a few minutes earlier, and left to cook with its residual heat."  [Thank you WikiPedia, I couldn't have said it better if I tried].

Classic Risotto Preparations
[from WikiPedia yet again]

  • Risotto alla milanese--a specialty of Milan, made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard (instead of butter) and cheese, flavored and colored with saffron
  • Risotto al Barolo--a specialty of Piedmont, made with red wine and may include sausage meat and/or Borlotti beans
  • Risotto al nero de seppia--A specialty of the Veneto region, made with cuttlefish cooked with their ink-sacs intact leaving the risotto black
  • Risi e Bisi--A Veneto spring dish that is correctly served with a spoon, not a fork; it is a soup so thick it looks like a risotto.  It is made with green peas using the stock from fresh young pea pods and pancetta
  • Risotto alla zucca--made with pumpkin, nutmeg, and grated cheese
  • Risotto all pilota--a specialty of Mantua, made with sausage, pork, and Parmesan cheese

And here is the simplified version I made in a recent cooking class with Mexican students:

Recipe:  Easy Oven Parmesan "Risotto"

Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 cups Arborio rice 
5 cups simmering chicken stock, preferably homemade, divided
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, diced
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup frozen peas

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the rice and 4 cups of the chicken stock in a Dutch oven, such as Le Creuset. Cover and bake for 45 minutes, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is al dente. Remove from the oven, add the remaining cup of chicken stock, the Parmesan, wine, butter, salt, and pepper, and stir vigorously for 2 to 3 minutes, until the rice is thick and creamy. Add the peas and stir until heated through. Serve hot.

An Easy, Fast Italian Appetizer
OK.  I realize this photo isn't going to win any prizes, nor does it look like anything you might want to serve.  But please consider that I just threw this together at the end of a cooking class on Italian Cuisine for Mexican Cooks, simply because I had the basic ingredients on hand and we had enough remaining time in which to make it. This recipe from Italian-American Chef and television personality Michael Chiarello, has long been a staple in my home for a quick hors d'oeuvre that never fails to deliver. In fact, I have never served it that I didn't receive requests for the recipe.  Yes, a touch of chopped parsley on top wouldn't have gone amiss.  Or a sprinkle of capers...perhaps some cornichon.  This was a rush job just so the cooks could taste it and take home an easy recipe.

Cook's Notes:I usually sharpen the flavvor with a touch more lemon juice and/or vinegar.  This is one of those dishes you can easily play with until you get the results that work best for your palate.

Recipe:  Spuma di Tonno - Italian Tuna Mousse 
(Recipe by Michael Chiarello from either Food Network or Food and Wine Magazine)   

1 can (7 ounce or 200 gram) imported oil-packed tuna, drained
 2 teaspoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
 2 teaspoon soy sauce
 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
 1 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter, room temperature
 Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
 1 tablespoons heavy cream
Put the tuna in a food processor and pulse to break up the fish. With the machine running, add the butter, cream, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce and blend until smooth. Then stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the processor bowl. Add the lemon juice and pulse again. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper and blend again. Check the seasoning, then add the heavy cream and pulse to blend. NOTE: Be careful not to over blend once the cream is added or the mixture may break.

Serve at room temperature, or cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days. If refrigerated, return the spuma to room temperature before serving. Serve with breadstick, crostini, or crackers to spread it on. Also excellent served with champagne.

Parting Shots:  The Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech
As I prepare to lead my tenth small group to Morocco in April, I am revisiting photos from past trips, and basking in happy memories.  Here are a few shots of cacti from the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, which was purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980 and completely restored.  The grounds also houses the truly incredible Berber Museum, which is dedicated to the Berber Culture of Morocco.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Please ask permission before using text or photos.

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun Cooking School and Travel
San Miguel de Allende,


Hotly Spiced said...

That's a lovely risotto, Vicky and I agree that making risotto with homemade stock really does make a difference. I made stock last night with the turkey carcass so you've inspired me to use it to make risotto. I have made oven-baked risotto before and it's turned out quite well and good enough given it doesn't get that usual stirring. I did enjoy hearing about the women in your very old town walking about in stilettos in cobblestoned streets. Like you, I do wonder who they do it! xx

Eha said...

Was not aware that winter in SMA was severe enough for you to be in hibernation 'that' long ;) !! Must admit that I love making risotto and making it 'the long way', daydreaming staring into the park whilst I stir the blessed thing :) ! But shall honestly make it baked next time around and give you a 'critique'!! Do not have your choice of rices and have to be content with vialone nano and arborio!! The appetizer naturally suits me down to the ground . . . and DO hope we shall hear about your forthcoming trip to Morocco - my yearly excursion to a place still to be visited!!

Maureen said...

Baked risotto? Be still my heart. I agree on good homemade stock that's not full of salt and other things I can't spell. I loved this post!

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Wow! It doesn't get much easier than that…I'll have to give the technique a try. Love your parting photos, they are wonderful.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Hehe you're so right on all counts. It does horrify a lot of Italians at the idea but it does work to produce an easy meal. Love the idea of a home made stock in it and I've made a baked one too and it was good. Yours looks great! :D

laura ann loveland said...

So very, very happy to see this posting. I was afraid that you had disappeared into your beloved Morocco and that we were not going to have the pleasure of your amazing recipes and blog to enjoy. And, as always, your photographs are beautiful. Gracias!

Lin | Timeshare attorney said...

this seems pretty legit! tnx for share

Tania | My Kitchen Stories said...

OMG those cactuses! They are wonderful. Risotto is such a great dish. you can eat it in any flavour. I am not necessarily a stickler for tradition just cooked from scratch and this looks delicious Victoria

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

I can't wait to try the risotto as there are times when you don't have time for all the stirring. Love your photos, they are great.

Nagi@RecipeTinEats said...

There's no doubt in that. You made it possible and it looks absolutely delicious!