Think Italy and food and the first thing that springs to mind will, no doubt, be pasta. However, dig a little deeper and picture the menu in an Italian restaurant and alongside the spaghetti carbonara and lasagne you’ll usually see a risotto dish. Rice as well as pasta is quintessentially Italian.
It’s thought that rice was introduced to Sicily by the Arabs and arrived in northern Italy in the 14th century, possibly brought in by traders from Genoa and Venice. In the Po Valley north-east of Turin, it thrived in the flat, wet and humid conditions and soon became a staple food. Today the main rice-growing areas are Piedmonte, the Veneto and Lombardy.
At one stage there were around 40 different varieties grown, however, when we talk about Italian rice we usually mean Arborio or risotto rice. In Italy there are four varieties of rice used for risotto: Arborio, Carnaroli, Baldo and Vialone Nano. However, outside Italy Arborio is the most commonly found.
This short-grain rice is plump, firm, chewy - and creamy when cooked. This is because of the starch content: as you stir the starch is broken down and released creating a creamy consistency. (You should never wash risotto rice as you’ll rinse away some of the starch). Risotto should be slightly al dente – with a bite, like pasta. Arborio rice is, crucially, able to absorb a lot of liquid yet still retain a crunch. You don’t want mush – although in parts of Italy they prefer their risotto soft and soupy...
Risotto is an incredibly easy dish to rustle up. The basic ingredients are always the same. You start with soffrito (sauteed onions and garlic). Then add the rice to the pan and lightly toast it with the mix. Add a splash of wine and then gradually ladle in a good broth or stock plus any additional ingredients for flavour. To finish grate Parmesan on top.
In Italy risotto is generally served as a first course and they tend to keep it simple. You can’t beat a good Risotto Parmigiano. However, there are also regional variations. In the Veneto they love their seafood risotto. In Milan they add saffron for Risotto alla Milanese. In the spring Risotto Primavera with zingy fresh asparagus and peas is a perfect light dish. Mushroom risotto is moreish, or add Italian sausage and beans for hearty comfort food. Risotto is nothing if not versatile. The most intriguing recipe I’ve found, however, is one for strawberry risotto with balsamic vinegar. A pink concoction it’s not sweet, apparently, but has a fruity sourness - perfect for summer.