Grains of wisdom

If you're making risotto, here's some inspirational advice from a master chef

With green vegetables at their best, now is a good time to make risotto. (The mushroom season is another good time.) Any Italian cookbook will have a serviceable recipe, but for inspirational advice, try Made in Italy by Giorgio Locatelli. I am not sure I would go as far as Nigel Slater, who said that Locatelli's risotto chapter alone was worth the £30 price of the book - although, as I attempted to read the two-kilo volume in bed the other night, I did reflect that such an extract would at least be something you could lift.

Not even those doyennes of Italian cookery writing, Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte, deconstruct risotto with the attention that Locatelli brings to it. He starts, as you would expect, with the rice. Arborio, apparently, is bog-standard; Locatelli's mentor advised him that it should be reserved for soup. Vialone nano and carnaroli are the ones you want - vialone nano for robust dishes, carnaroli for more simple ones. About 400g is the ideal quantity to cook at one time, Locatelli advises: less, and the rice absorbs the liquid too fast; more, and you have trouble getting the heat to circulate evenly.

Next, the stock. It must be fresh. I have confessed in this column to the occasional use of a cube in other dishes; but only in small quantities. The stock is integral to risotto, which would be spoiled by any hint of artificiality. Warm it in a saucepan while you prepare the base of the dish.

Locatelli says that you can soften the chopped-onion base in butter in five minutes, but I think you need longer than that, no matter how fine your chopping. The onions have a tendency to catch, so you must stir them almost constantly, perhaps adding a little water from time to time. You have undercooked them if you notice them in the finished dish.

Then comes the bit that I do not understand fully. You tip in the rice, turn up the heat to medium, and stir it until the grains are coated in fat and toasted.

I can see that the contents of the pan should be hot, particularly if you are adding wine and want it to evaporate; but I am not quite sure why coating in fat is desirable if what you are about to do is encourage the grains to release their starch. Because, at this point, you add the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, stirring the rice until each portion of liquid is absorbed before adding the next. Now, another important detail - one that I had not fully appreciated before reading Locatelli's book: when the rice is cooked but still al dente, allow it to cool slightly before beating in chilled, cubed butter and cheese. That way, you get a beautifully creamy, emulsified result.

Last point: cook vegetables such as asparagus, peas or broad beans briefly in the stock, adding them to the dish at the end, so as to retain their freshness.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits