Saturday, November 14, 2009

Funny Word Stories, and Risotto

Grains of all sorts have a special place in Italian food culture, particularly wheat, corn and rice. Italy is a major rice-growing country, with several notable varietals (of which more below). Wheat mostly comes from Canada to make pasta or flour perfectly ground for specific uses. Corn is used for polenta, a staple in the northern Italian diet.

But there are strange names attached to some of these products, just as in north America. At home in Canada every October we celebrate the festival of Thanksgiving and eat a ... turkey. This strange bird was named by the Brits for the strangest place they knew ... the bird looked so exotic! (The French did exactly the same thing, but knew of a slightly different world. They named the bird for India ... hence ‘dinde’.)

Here, to advertise a popular flour, the name is ‘Manitoba’, and it is advertised as ‘American Flour’ (i.e., from the Americas). I guess we’re pretty exotic! (And Canada, which is an American country) produces the best wheat anywhere for making pasta.

Another product I’ve found using a geographical quirk for advertising purposes is a type of polenta flour (corn flour), “La Bresciana’, which suggests at the top of the bag that it is “Farina Di Grano Turco”. My fellow cooks here have explained that this means the corn kernels are so plump, firm and healthy they are shaped like big turbans!

My favourite Italian grain is rice. Two kinds I have become familiar with here are Arborio and Carnaroli. The national rice dish is risotto ... using rice, old wine, hot water, a bit of butter and some grated cheese. You can toss on some mushrooms (porcini, preferably!), or dress it up to the absolute height of modern Italian cuisine and serve it on the finest china available and decorate it with real gold foil.

Why not try an Italian rice dish? It is different from most rice dishes we are familiar with in north America, but absolutely worth the effort to learn to make. Please don’t try to ‘cheat’ the dish by making it with Basmati rice just because you have it around, or long grain rice, or pearl rice. Get the right rice ... it really is worth it! You can find all sorts of good Italian rice in Toronto at Fiesta Farms on Christie just south of Dupont or at Loblaws (if you can’t find it, just ask. Remember to ask, specifically, for Arborio or Carnaroli rice.

To start, look at the enclosed photos. If you want to serve your risotto on a plate decorated with a green salsa painted on, you need to make the salsa first, at least 4 hours before the meal so it has time to rest. (See the end of this blog entry for a simple and fabulous green salsa recipe that you only need a blender for.) If you want to have mushrooms sautéed in butter to pop on the top, prepare them while you are making the risotto.

For the risotto, I will lead you through making a classic risotto al funghi (risotto with mushrooms). If you want to leave the mushroom step out, you can ... they are added just at the end. At least one of the photos shows a plate decorated with green salsa prior to serving the risotto.

To make a wonderful risotto, you will need the following at hand on the counter or in an oven warming before you start ... the number of plates you will serve onto (you will serve this onto individual plates, not to a family platter), about 100 gm of butter softening, about 60 gm of rice per person (for an appetiser course) or 100 gm per person (for a main course), yesterday’s old bottle of white wine (or a bottle of inexpensive, but not terrible, white wine), salt, white pepper (not black) in a grinder or pre-ground, and a pot of hot water on your stove, at a gentle bubble (not a heavy boil). You will need to have a wooden spoon handy, and a soup ladle. You will make the risotto in a medium-to-large skillet or sauté pan. And you will need to have grated cheese handy and at ambient room temperature ... here we use either Parmegiano Reggiano or a delicious cheese called ‘Bagoss’ (which I have not had a chance to look for in Toronto, but I will be doing so!) ... about 200 gm.

Start by weighing out your rice and put it into a prep bowl. The get the skillet hot, and while it is completely dry, toss in the rice and let it toast for a while (maybe three or four minutes, gently stirring a few times). Don’t burn the rice, but don’t go easy on it either ... it should change colour a bit!

When the rice is toasted pour on old wine to start the rice cooking process. Gently cover the rice with the wine. I have to admit that I am pretty generous with the fruit of the vine when making risotto ... but let it boil and hiss until it is ALMOST all gone. The rice should not be sticking to the bottom of the pot, but it should not be floating around either. Just stirable ... so start adding the hot water with the ladle. Cover the rice with water and just a tiny bit more. Start sauteeing your muchrooms, if you are going to add them. Stir gently all the time with the spoon, making sure to get into the corners of the pot where the side meets the bottom. As the water is both absorbed and evaporated, just add more hot water with the ladle to keep the rice covered. Do this for about 14-16 minutes OR until the rice is almost done ‘al dente’ (meaning that when you bite a grain it is cooked but not mushy, and you can still feel the centre of the grain, called the ‘anima’). Jerry Meneses, one of my great teachers at George Brown Chef School used to tell us that the rice was ready to be removed from the heat as soon as, when you bit into it with your molars, nothing stuck. It is a very accurate test! As soon as you get to this point, remove the rice from the heat (don’t just turn off the heat, move the pot off the hot part of the stove). Immediately add 3 – 5 dollops of soft butter and stir in. As soon as the butter is mostly disappeared, stir in the cheese you have ready on the counter, warmed to room temperature. Stir a lot to make a smooth and sploopy liquid. Let the risotto sit for a minute or so to relax and finish cooking in its own heat.

Remove the warmed plates and put on counter. Decorate with green salsa if you desire ... use a kitchen brush ... then gently use the ladle to put risotto exactly in the middle of each plate. After the plating is done, pick up each plate and give it a good bump or two on the bottom to ensure that the risotto is spread evenly and is settled with no air bubbles. Serve with mushrooms on top if you choose.


Green Salsa recipe (from Marina, our antipasto chef).

Blend together the following:

100 gm parsley leaves (no stems)
50 gm EVO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
15 gm cucumber (not the centre)
10 gm bread crumbs
10 gm pine nuts
7 gm white vinegar
5 gm capers
5 gm celery leaves
2 tsp soya sauce
1 anchovy fillet
½ tsp Dijon mustard
1/6 of a clove of garlic, with the bitter centre removed
Salt and pepper
A couple of ice cubes

Chill thoroughly and re-stir

Use as a plate decoration or as a side taste sensation for a beef dish or for a strong fish presentation.