Wrestling with risottos

Mushroom & red pepper risottoThanks to the Italian influence, risottos are a real Istrian speciality. But my attempts at risotto had always been disastrous (because I was always too lazy to stand over them, constantly stirring in more liquid, as you are supposed to do). So I had more or less given up on them … but since we moved to Istria, I noticed that Nicky ordered them a lot when we went out. Thus I resolved to try again and, in my researches, I turned up a much simpler way to cook them – the baked risotto.


The Istrian risotto

By far the most common risottos served in Istria are mushroom risotto (because every local is a secret mushroom hunter) – often made with truffles – and fish or seafood risotto (because … well, Istria has a long coastline!). Almost every restaurant offers a variant of these and, rather than being served as the ‘primi’ (or starter), as they are in Italy, they are often served as a main course.

However, asking around, everyone here uses recipes which insist on this tedious business of continuous stirring and adding the liquid a spoonful at a time … takes too long, too much effort. It also doesn’t work well if you want to make a risotto for a dinner party, where you want to be chatting to friends rather than locked in the kitchen stirring pots! So I wondered if there was a simpler way and, one day, trawling through a Delia cookbook (her Winter Collection), I found exactly what I was after – a technique for baking them. I tried it, it worked, and have never done them any other way since. The two recipes mentioned at the end of this article both use exactly the cooking technique she describes.

I must acknowledge the debt my mushroom recipe owes to her original (although I’ve modified it heavily, to turn it from a starter to a main course and through using local Istrian ingredients). Also, while the basic cooking method is simpler than for a standard ‘stirred’ risotto, my version has ended up a rather fiddly dish that takes quite a while to prepare – but the result is outstanding, well worth it for a treat. I’ve also indicated how you can simplify it for ‘everyday’ cooking. The other dish – a salmon, prawn and fennel risotto – is pretty much my own creation. It is simpler, but just as tasty (and is now Nicky’s favourite risotto dish).


A few helpful hints

Before looking at the recipes themselves, here are my “dos and don’ts” for making baked risottos, some pretty obvious and some perhaps not so …

  • Don’t try to make a risotto with ordinary rice (this was another of my basic mistakes when I first tried them)! Get a good quality ‘Arborio’ rice and, once you’ve found one you like, stick with it. There is a type of risotto rice called ‘Carnaroli’ that is specifically intended for baked risottos, but I’ve never tracked any down and anyway, I can report that any decent Arborio seems to work just fine.
  • Don’t rinse the rice beforehand, as this removes the starch essential to the process of making a good creamy sauce. And always treat the rice gently: if you crack the grains, the starch leaches out and, instead of the grains swelling up, you end up with a gloopy mess that is more suited for filling cracks in the wall.
  • Be fairly precise with the quantities and cooking times, at least the first time you try them. The key is to get the proportion of rice-to-liquid (and total cooking time) correct: you want to end up with the liquid mostly absorbed, and the rice cooked so it has a gently firm core (at least that’s how we like it), and the sauce taking on that lovely creamy texture that’s the defining characteristic of a good risotto.
  • Both these recipes are for two people. Obviously, you can scale up for as many as you like, but I’ve found that the liquid quantity doesn’t quite scale the same as with the rice. So if you are using 700 ml of liquid with 170 g of rice for the standard two-person version, you’ll probably need slightly less than 1400 ml of liquid for the 340g of rice in the four-person version. Why this should be, I don’t know, but my first four-person attempts ended up too liquidy. So reduce the liquid slightly, or do what I do and simply cook two, two-person dishes!
  • While it pays to try and be reasonably accurate with the liquid and rice quantities, for everything else it’s down to personal taste (and I confess some of the quantities given are little more than guesswork!).

And finally, a bit of risotto folklore: when you take it from the oven, you are supposed to cover it with a cloth and let it rest for a minute before serving it. No, I have no idea why, but a friend who’s an expert paella maker also says this is a crucial step! (Don’t tell anyone, but I use the kitchen tea-towel … and my friend uses toilet paper. No, really!)

So go and try my recipes: the two posted so far are my wild mushroom risotto and salmon, prawn and fennel. I am also experimenting with a true seafood one, with crab and mussels … I’ll let you know. Enjoy!


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