Risotto is a rich and luscious dish that can be served either as an appetizer or an entree. At Trattoria La Piccolo Roma in Annapolis, chef and owner Gino Giolitti serves risottos as "primi piatti," or first courses, after antipasti and before entrees.
Patrons' two favorites have been those flavored with wild mushrooms and smoked salmon.
Mr. Giolitti noted that simple risottos of smoked salmon or shrimp should get very little cream ( 1/4 cup rather than the 1/2 cup for mushroom risotto) and only a pinch of cheese. In more complex seafood risottos -- those with shrimp, mussels, squid -- he uses several tablespoons of marinara sauce, fish broth ("You can use bottled clam juice," he says), and no cream or cheese.
Like most chefs, Mr. Giolitti cooks by eye and by weight, and not with the cups and tablespoons familiar to home cooks. After watching him prepare risotto, I made it twice at home; once simply following his instructions, and once stopping to measure everything. Risotto is a somewhat forgiving dish, and as the chef points out, it can be flavored and seasoned to suit you. Once you've mastered the basic technique, you can devise your own combinations.
The first recipe is my adaptation of Mr. Giolitti's. I found I had to use more stock, but mine was made with beef marrow bones and was not as thick as his veal stock.
Risotto with wild mushrooms
Serves two to three as a main course, four to six as an appetizer.
FOR THE MUSHROOMS:
8 ounces of mushrooms, chopped (domestic, or cremini, or rehydrated porcini, or a mixture) (See note)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon basil
-- of sage
tiny pinch of oregano
2 tablespoons white wine
FOR THE STOCK:
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped
5 stalks celery, chopped
5 medium carrots, chopped
5-6 slices of beef marrow bones
6 cups water
FOR THE RISOTTO:
2 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons brandy
1 cup arborio or short-grained rice (See note)
1/8 teaspoon basil
1/8 teaspoon parsley
1/2 to 3/8 cup of heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese.
Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil; add garlic, basil, sage, oregano, and white wine and saute a few more minutes. Remove mushrooms to a small dish with a slotted spoon and reserve.
Saute onions in butter. Add marrow bones and saute 5 to 10 minutes, turning marrow bones to brown both sides. Add broth and bring to a boil. Add vegetables and return to boil. Add half a teaspoon of basil and a pinch of salt and pepper. (Not too much salt; making your own stock is one way to control the amount of salt in it.) Reduce heat to simmer and cook stock until it has reduced by about a quarter. Strain it twice, using cheesecloth to line a strainer. If you are using immediately, return to heat and keep warm.
(Both the mushrooms and the stock can be made ahead to save time. Store in the refrigerator. If you wish, you can remove congealed fat from the stock before reheating.)
To make the risotto, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large, heavy skillet. Add the mushrooms and saute for a few minutes, just long enough for the mushrooms to flavor the butter.
bTC Add the 2 tablespoons of brandy and -- very carefully -- touch a flame to the liquid. (If you're nervous about this step, just flavor with a few drops of brandy. Or you can skip the brandy, and the risotto will still be very good.) Let the flame die down as the alcohol cooks off.
Add the rice and cook, stirring, until rice is absorbing the butter and just becoming transparent. Add 1 cup of stock and cook, stirring, until it is absorbed. Add another cup and repeat until rice is round and creamy and al dente. (You will probably use about 3 cups, but could use more or less depending on the type of rice and how done you want it to be.) When rice has absorbed all liquid and just about reached desired consistency, add the cream and stir to blend. Add the cheese and stir again.
Take risotto off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes.
Note: Cremini mushrooms are fairly easy to find, as some large grocery chains now carry them. Porcini are a little more elusive, but can be found in dried form at specialty shops, such as Sutton Place Gourmet in Reisterstown and Fresh Fields organic supermarket in Rockville. They're very expensive -- about $5.99 an ounce -- so you may want to use them sparingly, or not at all.
Next to "The Talisman of Happiness" author Ada Boni, whom Mr. Giolitti said is the Julia Child of Italian cooking, the most famous Italian cook, he says, is probably Lorenza de'Medeci, a cookbook author and teacher who holds classes in her family villa near Florence. This is one of the risotto recipes in her "Italy the Beautiful Cookbook," (The Knapp Press, 1988, $39.95). She says in the book that this version is from the region of Veneto.
Risotto al finocchi (Rissoto with fennel)
3 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
6 ounces of butter
1 small onion, chopped
2 cups arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 cups of chicken broth (or stock)
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
7 sprigs fennel greens, chopped