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The perfect risotto

Vir Sanghvi

Somehow the food you cook at home never tastes anything like the food you eat in restaurants. Even when you buy a famous chef’s cookbook and make his or her signature dishes, they taste very different at home.

Chefs have an answer. First of all, they say, the ingredients we use at home are never as good as the ones they use. Secondly, our kitchens lack that professional touch. Our ovens never hit the right temperatures. Our pans are too thin. And then, they throw modesty aside and say that the secret of a great dish is the hand of the chef. A recipe is not enough. You must be a really good cook. And few of us at home are good enough.

I don’t have a problem with any of this. But I have discovered that there is another reason. Chefs don’t always cook (even the most traditional) dishes according to the standard recipe – no matter what it says in the cookbooks. Once you start digging, you discover that nearly every great dish has so many different ways of making it that the traditional/standard recipe is only a rough guide.

Let’s take the one dish that I know a little about cooking: risotto. (On a good day, when the gods are smiling I can sometimes turn out an acceptable risotto.)

In Italy a risotto will be made fresh, a process that takes twenty minutes or so. This is too much work for non-Italian chefs so many use short cuts. I remember reading a Gordon Ramsay recipe where he recommended partially cooking the risotto in advance and then finishing it to order. Ramsay already had three Michelin stars when he wrote this but every Italian chef I mentioned this method to, swore, looked away and then spat.

In India, by the 1990s, when risotto finally reached our menus, most chefs also cheated. As far as the average punter is concerned, a risotto is simply cheesy rice. So chefs would add cheese and cream to ready-made rice and pass it off as a risotto. I remember going (over a decade ago) to a well known Defence Colony restaurant and being appalled by the ‘risotto’ which was a simply a cheese pulao made with very nasty cheese.

But there is, in fact, a standard recipe for a risotto.

It goes as follows. You bring a pot of stock to the boil. In another pan, you sauté onions. As this mixture cooks, you add raw rice and let it toast. When the rice starts making crackling noises, you add a glug of white wine. Once the rice absorbs the wine, you ladle in some hot stock and begin to stir. Once that stock is absorbed, you add more and resume stirring. And on and on you go till the rice is tender enough to eat. Then you grate some cheese on top.

It is a foolproof recipe. It works.

But no chef I know follows it.

Let’s start with the stock. You and I are at a disadvantage because we don’t operate out of professional kitchens and don’t have access to fresh stock. Stock cubes will not give the risotto the edge that fresh stock will. So even if chefs tell you to use cubes in their recipes, be aware that you are not going to end up with a risotto that tastes like theirs’.

Then, there is the rice. In most of the world, risottos are made with plump Arborio rice, which cooks quickly and gives your risotto the right look.

But no chef of consequence that I know uses Arborio. The really fancy ones use Acquerello, a very expensive and hard to find variety of rice, which is a version of Carnaroli rice but is to Carnaroli what a Rolls Royce is to an Audi. Different chefs use Acquerello differently. At Lake Como’s Villa d’Este hotel, the old chef, who was called the king of risotto, did not use Acquerello. His successor abandoned the recipe that had made the Villa d’Este famous and switched to Acquerello.

But here’s the thing: he did not stir the Acquerello. As the basic principle of risotto is stir-stir-stir-stir, this struck me as odd but his risotto, I had to concede, was perfect.

There are other rice you use for risotto: basic Carnaroli, Vialone, Nano, Baldo, etc. And obviously the rice you use makes a huge difference but chefs never tell you that. (You can also make a risotto from brown rice though it takes longer to cook. Legend has it that the actor Terence Stamp seduced Princess Diana after feeding her his brown rice risotto.)

Then there is the matter of the meat, vegetables, etc, what the Italian call the soffritto. If you put everything in at the beginning (before the stock goes in) as many chefs claim they do, the ingredients have a soggy, ‘boiled-food’ texture to them. So no Italian chef that I have met ever puts everything in at the same time.

Almost everyone cooks the ingredients separately and adds them at different stages. The fresh porcini in a mushroom risotto will go in at the end with a minimum of cooking. Even other, less glamorous, mushrooms will often be fried separately and added towards the end of the cooking process. If it is a sausage risotto, then they may fry the sausage (or pancetta) at the start, render the oil to cook the soffritto in and then remove the sausage from the pan and perhaps cook it again separately. It will go back in again at the end.

So don’t believe all that nonsense in the recipes about putting everything in at the same time to let the ingredients flavour the rice.

Then, there is the problem of the onions. In Indian cooking we like frying onions at the start of every dish so that the oil gets infused. European cooking does not operate on the same principle. Chefs sometimes like using finely chopped onions for texture in a risotto but that is an entirely differently usage.

I have met great risotto chefs who refuse to use any onions in a soffritto saying that the onions burn or that even if they don’t, they spoil the purity of the risotto’s taste.

Even the stirring process is controversial. The science is easy. The rice used for risotto must never be washed before it goes into the pot because you want to preserve the starch content. When you stir, you encourage the rice to give up its starch. And the starch gives the risotto in characteristic creamy taste texture, binding the grains together.

But, chefs have found that the rice gives up its starch in the first few minutes of the cooking process. So why do you need to keep stirring? No matter what the recipe says, most professionals don’t bother to stir apart from a little at the beginning.

The wine is also a controversial part of the recipe. The theory is that a little white wine at the beginning adds a layer of acidity to the taste. But do you want acidity? If you are making something delicate like a white truffle risotto or a risotto Milanese (with saffron), the acidity may actually interfere with the taste.

Many chefs don’t bother with the wine. Some add a dash of prosecco at the end. Other add a little vermouth. Needless to say, they don’t always include this in the recipes they publish.

Ask Italian chefs if risotto should have butter and cream, they look at you with horror and say things like “We are not French! Butter! Never!”

This disdain for dairy is a ploy used by Italians chefs to distinguish themselves from the French. In fact, the cow is as important to Italians as it is to the French. They even use the water buffalo (an animal Indians are familiar with) for their mozzarella. Their Parmigiano, possibly the greatest Italian artisanal product ever, is milk-based.

The refined Italian position is that while they are okay with cheese, they abhor cream and butter. They only use olive oil. In the South of Italy. This may be true but most Italian chefs will use butter, no matter what their public position is.

The classic Italian recipes for risotto say that during the mantecatura, the final stage, when the risotto is off the heat, you should stir in olive oil and grate Parmesan. In reality, many chefs do add butter which helps balance the flavours. But you won’t always find it in the recipe.

Cream is a different matter. If a chef puts cream at the final stage, then he is cheating and hoping that the dairy product will mimic the creaminess that should have come from the rice starch. If he puts a lot of cheese only to thicken the risotto, then he isn’t much of a chef, anyway.

Every skilled chef has tricks that amateurs don’t understand. At Alice, the Milan restaurant, Viviana Varese the Michelin-starred chef and TV personality told me that she makes an acid butter from white wine and butter. She adds this to her magnificent risottos just before serving to give the buttery balance the flavours need and to compensate for the white wine she skips in the cooking stage.

If a simple, straightforward recipe like risotto lends itself to so many variations and tricks and involves such detailed knowledge of various kinds of rice and starch-release, then how do you suppose amateurs can ever hope to make restaurant-quality food?

The short answer is that we can’t.

I am cooking risotto, right after I finish writing this piece. I know that it will taste nothing like the ones I have had in Italy this year.

But that is fine. Home cooking has its own charms and its own flavours. When I next go to Italy, I will once again try risottos cooked by the likes of Viviana and Niko Romito. And I will love them.

Restaurants have their own finesse.

But our home kitchens can give us more pleasure. Because sometimes joy is better than finesse.

(HT Media)


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