Stepping away from my Chinese approach to rice, such as cooking sticky and plump rice to match many of my mother's recipes, like braised pork, which needs rice to absorb its almost gravy-like sauce, I found myself in the heart of Northern Italy. Here, rice paddies glisten like crystals from afar and rice is king instead of pasta.
Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Novara in the Piedmont region of Italy where I met many passionate rice farmers. The technique used by some of these third- and some fifth-generation rice farmers is still old school. Farmers use wooden machines to process rice and they shake their hand-grown rice to produce an off-white coloured grain. Varieties of this rice include Carnaroli, Roma and Baldo.
Risotto is a dish many home cooks turn to for special dinners and even last-minute suppers. It's definitely a 'go-to' for many home cooks, but as someone who grew up watching countless TV chefs cooking risotto, it really seems like the technique and execution in many Aussie-taught risotto recipes have been lost in translation.
The phrases, "keep stirring the rice" and using "Arborio rice", are actually a bit erroneous, as I discovered when I visited Novara where more than 200 varieties of rice are cultivated.
Marta Grassi, a 1-Michelin star chef from Novara, told me during a cooking class that you don't need Arborio rice to make a good risotto. However, the pint-size chef who works hard to promote a regional Italian producer from her northern Italian region of Piedmont adds that you should use the Carnaroli variety.
Unfortunately, in Australia, Carnoli is rarely mentioned in risotto recipes. While it's a good alternative, Carnaroli has a higher starch content and is also firmer in texture which doesn't succumb to risotto's slow cooking process.
But at the end of the day, Grassi says you should use very high-quality rice, toast it and add the stock before letting it bubble away over a low flame.
The undisputed Godfather of Italian cooking in Australia, Guy Grossi, holds his risotto close to his heart. "My mum is from Verona and it is all the rage there," says Grossi during a recent cooking segment in which he made risotto di aspargi (asparagus risotto).
'All the rage' is perhaps putting it lightly. Locals from Verona love risotto and just south of Verona is Isola della Scalla, known as Citta del Riso, The City of Rice, because it has many rice fields in the region. Unsurprisingly, Verona has many different types of risotto — there's amarone (made with red wine) and radicchio de Verona (made with bitter radicchio leaves), as well as Grossi's asparagus risotto, to name a few.
Cristina Guidobono Cavalchini, the owner of Riso Buono, a small-scaled rice grower in Novara, Italy, remembers that she only ate rice when she was sick to cure an upset stomach. "I'm from Roma (Rome) and I never ate risotto when I was young. I only ate pasta from my region like carbonara and amatriciana. Rice was always boiled and eaten plain," says Cristina. "I ate real risotto, like real risotto for the first time at 35."
But when she found herself in Novara, after she was married and had moved to an old farmhouse on her husband's land, she decided to turn her risotto curiosity into a business.
"My palate was very clean. I never ate risotto and so I didn’t have any memories of eating risotto, but I was inspired by the region's landscape and soil and so I was determined to promote a high-quality ingredient to 'show off' our region," says Cristina.
Cristina spent years researching rice cultivation and eating a lot of risotto dishes in between, and has concluded that less is more. "My favourite recipes are the simplest ones, just rice, parmesan cheese and olive oil. That's it."
She continues, "If it is good rice, you will have the smell of nature — its terroir — so you don't need to add anything complicated. But since I am now in Novara, I will of course add gorgonzola (cheese from the region), sage and some butter – that's it!"
"If it is good rice, you will have the smell of nature — its terroir — so you don't need to add anything complicated."
Chef Simone Cantafio, who's currently based in Calabria in southwest Italy, says that risotto is his favourite dish. "I remember my mother in her kitchen making risotto and it was simply delicious, with delicate flavours and super tasty. It was a must on Sunday for our family lunches."
When asked about the secret to making a great risotto, the chef was happy to share his know-how, which was passed down from his mother and also one of his mentors, master chef Gualtiero Marchesi. "There needs to be a balance of fat and acid in the risotto and your aim is to get 'mantecatura', which loosely translated means a creamy risotto."
Get Silvia Colloca's risotto with prawn and spring peas here.
He continues, "The key to a great risotto is to start with the best ingredients, I prefer carnaroli and I always work with a less strong stock. It is all about the rice which absorbs all the taste and flavour. Other important steps include 'tostatura', which means to toast the rice in butter. When the grain begins to become hot, you will hear the rice 'sing' and that is when I add the stock — little by little," says the chef.
"The key to a great risotto is to start with the best ingredients."
To finish, take the risotto off the heat when it is 99 per cent cooked, says Simone. This is one of the most important steps. "Add parmesan grated cheese and really cold butter to shock the temperature — this will give you the 'matecatura' you are looking for. And be sure to give it at least half a minute of rest and be sure to serve it really hot.''
For Melbourne-based head chef Andrea Rigodanza, risotto is one of his favourite dishes and regularly features at his restaurant.
"I come from northeast Italy where risotto is a very popular dish," Rigodanza says. "We have very cold winters and risotto is perfect for that kind of weather. My dad used to cook it for us every time he had his day off, he couldn't cook many dishes [at home] because he owned his own restaurant and was always busy, but the risotto was one of my favourites and where I learned the best way to make it."
Rigodanza sums up how to make exceptional risotto. "It's very important to toast the rice before start cooking it, this helps to keep the rice intact during the cooking process. Even though it's a simple recipe, there are some tips to follow in order to get a great result."
"Remember everything you put inside [the risotto] you will find in your mouth, so use the best ingredients...that is the best secret," says Simone.
This Italian classic is all about mellow flavours and perfectly cooked rice.
With its nutty flavour, the barley base is a delicious alternative to rice and the ideal match for some autumnal chanterelle mushrooms.
Bring together this cheat's risotto with fresh pippies cooked in white wine, and cherry tomatoes.
Less is more with this risotto as a handful of simple ingredients bring together a bowl of steaming, costal Italian goodness.
A simple, nutritious meal that also helps to reduce your food waste. Celery heart is the tender inner section of a bunch of celery and has a sweeter, more delicate flavour. The pale inner leaves of the cauliflower and broccoli are those that you find still snuggly attached after you have removed the larger outer leaves.
You can use vegetable stock to make this dish vegetarian, but I like the depth of flavour you get from using homemade chicken stock. I generally use everyday green cabbage but feel free to experiment with other varieties.