Risotto is a favorite food–sometimes it’s comfort food and sometimes it’s a treat for a special occasion. I am addicted to that luscious, sensual, creamy texture. Depending on the additions it’s an all-season dish–veggies or shellfish in warm weather, or sausage and meat for cold-weather, stick-to-the-ribs comfort food.
There was a time when risotto was a special-occasion, dinner-with-friends dish for me. I’d invite friends for a meal and make risotto. One day while making spinach risotto to go with pan-seared tuna, supervised by the cat, stirring and adding liquid, stirring…and thinking…I decided that there must be a way to have risotto in single-serving quantities. Thinking of restaurants, I was sure that there was some “trick” that would allow finishing off one serving at a time; I needed to figure out what that was.
I’ve tried the recipe given by Barbara Kafka in Microwave Gourmet (p. 114) and that’s good for quick risotto but, to me, not quite as luxurious as the long slow kind. The advantage there is that she does give quantities for serving one or two. I kept going back to restaurant line cooking, and wondering how I would do risotto in that situation–I certainly would not be making it totally “to order”–I’d be finishing it off as ordered. As much as I like risotto, it seemed worthwhile to try to find a way to have it more often.
I was using one of the recipes from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (pp. 242-245) as usual–still stirring, thinking, and stirring…. Maybe I could take some of the risotto out while slightly undercooked, before adding the cheese and butter and any final ingredients and freeze it for later use. (Can you see the light bulb appear above my head with this though?)
Judging that there was more than enough for two of us in the batch that I was working on, I grabbed a small container and took out a single serving (fairly large single-serving), sealed it carefully so that there was no air space, and put it in the freezer.
A couple of weeks later, I pulled it out of the freezer and let it thaw in the refrigerator. Now to see if I had something edible. I’d taken it out of the original batch when I though I had about ten minutes of cooking time left. Now, back into a pan, add some broth, and more stirring. It took a bit of effort to get it mixed with the liquid as it was stiff, but after that it seemed to be a good consistency. As soon as the rice had that bit of “bite” –tender outside, but still firm at the center, I added the parmigiano-reggiano, and a bit of butter and it was ready to eat.
I have not done a side-by-side tasting with this method and the microwave risotto or with risotto freshly made with the classic technique, but I felt that this was a bit creamier than the microwave method, and it took about the same amount of time.
Rice for risotto needs to do two things: to have soluble starch to dissolve in the liquid to give the creamy texture of risotto, and to have enough insoluble starch to have that “tooth” or “bite” at the center of the grain that makes risotto such a sensual (and sensuous) delight. I’ve most often used Arborio rice for risotto, and that’s what I used for this, and for the microwave trial, and from the same batch of rice. Two other varieties of rice used for risotto are Vialone Nano, and Carnaroli. These three varieties offer a bit of difference in the consistency of the risotto due to differences in the kinds of starch that predominate. The Vialone Nano has enough e “bite” while having enough soluble starch to have the creamy texture of risotto, albeit looser, and maybe a bit less creamy. The Carnaroli has an even firmer “bite” with the creaminess, with the Arborio being sort of in between, and the most readily available (and the least expensive) of the three. I have not tried this technique with either the Vialone Nano or with the Carnaroli–maybe that’s a future experiment, but with the Arborio I was pleased with the result.
There are so many variations that make risotto a meal in itself: you can add meat, vegetables, fish, or shellfish easily as you finish the thawed risotto and vary the seasoning easily. Quick-cooking vegetables could be added as you start the finishing step; harder vegetables can be sautéed or partially cooked before you add the risotto to finish it.
One surprisingly good addition to risotto (from Marcella Hazan’s recipes) is celery! I’m always looking for things to do with the celery that’s left after I use the one or two ribs called for in recipes; when I saw her recipe for “Risotto with Celery” I just had to try that variation on risotto. Her recipe (p. 249 in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) calls for 2 cups finely diced celery for six serving of risotto. It’s added in two different stages (if you’re making risotto in the classic way): half at the beginning when the rice is added, and the remainder when the rice is about half-cooked so there is some texture variation. This is a great side for grilled meat or fish. I really liked it to accompany a grilled lamb shoulder chop. (I’m starting to feel that celery may be an under-appreciated vegetable and not just an aromatic seasoning.)
For finishing liquid, if the original batch of risotto was made using broth, you could finish it with water, though I find I usually have some broth in the refrigerator. I’ll concede that you may not have the melding of flavors that you would have were the veggies or meats cooked with the risotto for the entire cooking time, but the result is good enough when you consider the shorter time, and the fact that you can have this in single-serving quantities.
Another lovely “comfort” food with Arborio rice that is a favorite of mine is “Boiled Rice with Parmesan, Mozzarella, and Basil” (again from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (pp. 258-259). Here is a summary of the recipe:
Boiled Rice with Parmesan, Mozzarella, and Basil
Servings: 4, but halving the recipe works well.
- 4 tablespoons or butter
- 6 ounces of mozzarella (fresh)
- 1-1/2 cups Arborio rice
- 2/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- 4-6 fresh basil leaves (shredded)
- Cut room-temperature butter into small pieces and cut the mozzarella in small pieces (grate on the largest holes of a box grater if it’s not too soft–mine usually is too soft). You want small pieces so that the heat of the rice will melt it.
- Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil, add 1 tablespoon salt, and bring back to a boil.
- Add rice, stir immediately for a few seconds so that it doesn’t stick together. Cover the pan. Keep at a constant, but moderate boil, until the rice is tender but still has the central “bite”. Stir occasionally while cooking, about 15-20 minutes.
- When tender but al dente, drain the rice and add the mozzarella, then the Parmesan cheese, then the butter; stir well after each is added. Finally, add the shredded basil leaves and stir in and serve immediately.
It’s not risotto, but then you don’t have the constant stirring that goes with classic risotto, while you do get a great texture given the soluble starch of the Arborio and the cheese melted into the hot rice.
I’ve yet to try the Cook’s Illustrated baked risotto, but that looks like another possible alternative and perhaps adaptable to smaller quantities. As well as I like rice and risotto, I have a lot of exploring to do to find out what works best for single-serving cooking.
A son goût!