By Christie Popp
We had a long, warm fall here in Indiana, and only now do we find the weather starting cool. For the last couple of weeks, I have had a craving for “autumnal” foods like squash, slow-cooked grains, and, best of all, risottos. If you’ve never had a well-cooked risotto, you are in for a treat. Risotto is an Italian rice dish, in which the rice is cooked slowly while you gradually add liquid so the result is a creamy, starchy masterpiece.
Risottos, in my mind, are the LBD of the food world: simple, classic, and elegant. They need little by way of accessories (though accessories are welcome), and are bound to impress a dinner guest or, more importantly, your kids. Risottos are perfect on their own for a dinner, or can be fantastic a first course in a multiple course meal. I just love them.
I won’t lie to you, a good risotto requires some work. The recipe isn’t long or complicated, but you do have to watch the pot and frequently stir. So if dinnertime is hectic at your house, you might save this recipe for a more relaxed weekend night. (Just in case, I include a tip below for a “quick” risotto).
One great thing about “risotto” is that you do not have to limit it to the traditional riso. I love riffs on risotto with other grains, and below I include a recipe for “Farrotto” using Farro. You can also use a small, quick cooking pasta like Orzo!
This past week was anxiety inducing. We need more than anything to engage in a little self-care. So do this—pour yourself a big glass of wine, turn on your favorite mellow tunes, and start stirring up a pot of risotto. You deserve it!
This risotto is more a method than a recipe. You can take this basic outline and do what you will. The beauty of the risotto is the cooking process, so get that down first, and then have fun!
This recipe below makes enough for 4 dinner servings. Honestly, for my family of four, I double this (using 6-7 cups of stock to 1 ¾-2 cups of rice) because my kids gobble this up. In general, the process takes 30-40 minutes, not including the time to prep your ingredients.
- 1 cup Arborio rice
- 3 ¾ cup stock
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 3 tablespoons of butter, separated
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- ½ cup of grated parmesan cheese (the good stuff, not the canned stuff)
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat stock in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Keep warm.
- Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan set over medium heat.
- When the butter has melted, add the onions and sauté until they are very translucent and just barely starting to turn golden. If you are using a stock that is low-sodium, you might add a little salt while cooking the onions.
- Add the rice to the onions and cook, stirring for around a minute. You want the rice to bet covered in the oil, but be careful not to let it stick. This helps release the starches from the rice, and is a great thing to do for all grains!
- Add wine and stir into the rice.
- Once the wine has mostly cooked off, begin adding stock. This is where your patience is required. I add the stock ½ cup at a time. After you add in the stock, slowly stir it into the rice. Stir frequently, and almost constantly, until the liquid is mostly absorbed (but do give yourself a stirring break from time to time!).
- You will keep adding stock a little at a time, and stir frequently until the rice is tender and creamy. Notice that as the rice cooks, it will absorb the liquid more slowly than at first. Just keep stirring it!
- Once the rice cooked, taste for salt. The flavors and saltiness of the stock will concentrate in the dish, but you may decide you want to add more. Also add pepper to taste.
- Take the risotto off the heat and add in 1-2 tablespoons of butter, stir until it melts into the risotto. Then add in the cheese.
- Buon Apetito!
I’ll go through the variations on ingredients one by one:
- Traditionally, risotto is made with Arborio rice, a special, Italian variety that produces the right amount of starch for the recipe. But don’t fret if you can’t find it. In a pinch, I’ve used short grain white rice. It isn’t exactly the same, but it makes a perfectly fine substitute. If you find Arborio rice to be too expensive, check out the bulk sections of your local natural food store. You can get only what you need, and it is much cheaper!
- Stock: I like to use chicken stock or “not-chicken” stock for a vegetarian risotto. I find that vegetable stocks have a very strong flavor that when concentrated overwhelms the dish. However, if you are making a risotto with vegetal flavors (like butternut squash), the vegetable stock might not be as noticeable.
- Wine is optional, but it does add a great flavor element to balance the creamy, saltiness of the risotto. I have left it out with no problem. If you use wine, make sure to use a dry one. You can also use a dry sparkling wine (I love champagne risotto!), or even a red wine. A red wine will color the risotto into a pretty brownish-maroon color, and I think it accompanies earthy mushrooms well.
- Most of the time, I use a small onion, but other members of the allium family work great. Try a couple shallots or leeks. In the spring, I’ve used both spring onions and even ramps (sautéing the whites and light green parts, and adding the big green leaves at the end). You could even add a minced clove or two of garlic, if you like.
- For a vegan treat, use only olive oil, both to saute and to swirl in at the end. Leave out the cheese.
One great thing about risottos is that you can add in any vegetables or herbs you like. The simple recipe above is perfect, but I also love to add in vegetables from time to time. Generally, if the vegetables need cooking, I do that separately, then add to the pan when the risotto is almost finished (before the knobs of butter). Some vegetables, like peas or greens, cook so quickly they can be added directly to the risotto without pre-cooking. Here are some ideas:
- Spring vegetables: add in frozen or fresh peas (including sugar snap peas!); ramps; or roasted asparagus (chopped in halves or thirds). I also like to add in the zest of lemon for some pop.
- Mushrooms: I love mushroom risotto. I will either sauté the mushrooms with some garlic, or roast after tossing with olive oil, salt, and pepper.
- Greens: spinach and kale are delicious stirred into risotto. Make sure to cut into thin strips so they wilt quickly.
- Squash: I like squash two ways, mashed and creamy, and in chunks. (1) to roast a butternut squash, cut the squash in half and take out the seeds, place cut side down on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roast at 400 until tender. Scoop out the flesh and mash. Add the mashed squash to the risotto. (2) Alternatively, peel and cut the squash into 1 -2 inch chunks. Toss with oil and roast until the pieces are tender. Then add to the risotto.
Some nights, you don’t have the time or energy to stand and stir your risotto. I get it. I have those nights, too. This is what I do: Follow the first few steps of sautéing your aromatics, adding in the rice, and adding in the optional wine. At that point, add in around a quarter of your stock. Stir and cover the pan. Come back and check periodically to make sure the rice isn’t sticking. Once most of the liquid has absorbed, add in another quarter to half of the remaining stock. Stir and cover again, checking only to make sure it isn’t sticking. When it is absorbed add the remaining stock and cook until absorbed. This method helps to concentrate the flavors and release some of the starches. It isn’t as creamy as a regular risotto, but it is a good stand-in.
I don’t know if Farrotto is a thing in Italy, but it is in our house. Farro, if you don’t know, is an ancient Italian grain, similar in appearance and texture to barley. It is slow cooking, and it takes on a slight degree of creaminess when cooked risotto style (thought not as starchy as rice). Look for the pearled or semi-pearled variety for a faster cooking risotto. You can also substitute with barley if you can’t find farro (but make sure to look at your local natural foods store’s bulk aisle!).
Since you know the process from above, this is an actual recipe that I love to make. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour in total, including prep.
- 1 ½ cups of Farro
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 4 cups of stock (more if necessary)
- ¼ cup of white wine
- 3 tablespoons of butter, separated
- 3 tablespoon of olive oil, separated
- ½ cup parmesan cheese
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 lb mushrooms (button, cremini, baby portabellas, etc…), cut into quarters or small chunks
- 1 medium sized butternut (or 2 acorn) squash, seeded, peeled, and chopped into 1-2 inch pieces
- Heat your stock in a small pan. Keep warm.
- Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees. Toss the squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast on a baking sheet. After around 15 minutes, do the same with the mushrooms (toss with 1 tbsp of oil, salt and pepper). I usually add the mushrooms to the baking sheet with the squash. Roast until you can stick a fork through the squash.
- While the vegetables are roasting, begin your farrotto. Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet or sauté pan over medium heat. When it has melted, add in the onion. Sauté the onion until it is translucent and barely starting to take color.
- Add in the farro and stir to cover in the oil. Cook for around a minute. Add in wine, and cook until the wine has mostly been absorbed.
- Begin adding liquid, ½ cup at a time, as explained above in the risotto recipe. Stir frequently. Depending on your farro, you may need more or less than the amount of stock listed. Make sure to taste your farro periodically to see if it is done. You can tell it is finished when it is tender, but not mushy. The cooked farro will not have the glutinous texture of risotto, so judge when it is finished based on tasting the farro.
- Once the farro has been cooked, add in the mushrooms and squash. Stir and let cook together for a minute or two. Taste for salt and pepper.
- Swirl in the remaining butter and cheese. Eat right away!