If your mother cooks Italian food, why should you go to a restaurant? ∼ Martin Scorsese
But for the rest of us who don’t have Italian mothers, we have to learn!
The Italians had been in town recently. Not one, not two, but more than 40 Italian Master Chefs from Italy and around the world, 25 of them associated with Michelin starred restaurants. The 6th Italian Cuisine World Summit is back to Dubai for the second year in a row, after the overwhelming success of the summit’s debut in the city last year. Masterclasses on a varied topic from Italian cuisine, special dinners at the city’s finest Italian restaurants (like my exclusive lunch session with Giorgio Locatelli on the terrace of his restaurant in Atlantis – a blog post later on that!), cooking competitions, truffle auctions and a lot of events have been lined up for this summit. The two week long summit (7 -20 Nov) is considered one of the world’s most influential Italian food events and showcases the finest that Italian cuisine has to offer – from techniques to cook Italian cooking to high quality ingredients that are so integral to the Italian cuisine. I chose to do a masterclass on Rice & Risotto – not surprising though, as this is the most frequently cooked Italian dish in my Bengali kitchen!
History of Italian Rice with Chef Walter Potenza
Chef Walter Potenza is known as one of the most passionate and accomplished practitioners of traditional and innovative Italian cooking in the United States, having his own fine dining restaurants (Walters originally located in East Greenwich, Rhode Island and also Potenza Ristorante-Bar) and also a cooking school (Chef Walters Cooking School). The history of rice in Italy date back to the 15th century. Rice came into Europe by way of India, China, Afghanistan etc and found its way to Italy via Spain, courtesy the Moors and the Arabs. In Italy, rice arrived specifically around Naples in the south of Italy and because of lack of water around this region, it didn’t remain confined only to this region. In the beginning, it had been used mainly as a medicine for physical rejuvenation with the prescription of ‘rice cooked in white/milk’, the blancmange – or the white food. Although it used to be produced in the north and west of the country – specifically Lombardy and Piedmont, where the fertile swampy plains of the Po river valley – the Padane plain provided suitable growing conditions for rice, it slowly moved to all parts of Italy. Specially, with the construction of Canal Cavour which distributed the water from the main rivers of Italy (Po, Dora Baltea, Sesia, Ticino) to the surrounding land. Until the mid 19th century, there was only one variety of rice that grew in Italy – the ‘Nostrale’. In the 19th century, a Jesuit priest named Padre Calleri, returned from the Philippines and brought 43 different rice varieties with him. Thus began Italy’s experiments with rice production. Today, Italy produces 150 varietals of rice, the more popular varieties being Arborio, Baldo, Carnaroli, Maratelli, Padano, Roma etc. The speciality of the Italian rice is that they are high in starch and the grains are round, medium or short grained white rice. Unlike the long grained rice varieties, these absorb more liquids and release more starch and are stickier – making the creamy Italian Risotto dishes so unique and legendary. Italy is also currently the biggest producer of rice in Europe, and as Chef Potenza lovingly declared – ‘1 in every 3 rice grains consumed in Europe is produced by Italy’!
Risotto is not a Rice dish, but merely a cooking technique!
My masterclass on Risotto starts with the shocking knowledge that Risotto doesn’t refer to the Italian rice dish that I have always known. It is merely a cooking technique. As Chef Walter Potenza explained, ‘Risotto is nothing but a combination or a love affair between a solid and a liquid. When the two combines, it makes a technical procedure called Risotto’. Risotto can be made of anything and can be utilsed in a variety of ways – hot, cold, lukewarm, as a salad and so on. There can be various recipes of Risotto. In theory, if one is making a Risotto, understanding the grain is very important. As the Chef says – ‘We Italians are very particular and picky in selecting the right grain for the right dish. In North Eastern Italy, say Venice, people enjoy eating their rice with more liquid because they use seafood. In western parts like Piedmonte and Lombardy, the grains will be more reduced and the type of rice that are used are different – for example, Carnaroli. The different varieties of rice that are available in Italy, allows the us to choose the grains that is right for the application of the final recipe that we want.’ The most commonly used rice grain in Risotto is Arborio. Ordinary grained rice cannot be used for making Risotto as they do not have any starch. The creaminess of the Risotto comes from the starch that is there in the grain and its the ‘love affair’ of the solid and the liquid releases the starch.
To make a good Rice Risotto
• Choosing the right grain that releases the most starch – because this starch is what that would eventually lend the creaminess to the Risotto. Hence, the rice that are available in Asia is not suitable for making Risotto, however, they are suitable for making the fluffy rice.
• A wooden spoon, as a metal spoon breaks down the fibre in the rice or the shape of the rice grains. A metal spoon breaks down the outer surface of the rice grain when used for continuous stirring and actually cuts through the rice grain as it soaks the liquid. So the idea is to add as much of the grains, however, cooked.
• Rice like Pasta must be cooked al dente, that is the grain should be firm and has some resistance or bite, yet cooked. How to determine that? The rice grains should fall off smoothly from the spoon and not stick to it.
• The ingredients – vegetables, meat, spices, if they are to be added to the Risotto, are added while cooking the rice itself and not the other way round.
• Patience and time to slow cook a Risotto and adding the stock lovingly at frequent intervals and continuous stirring (as Chef Potenza described rightly – it’s almost like ‘making love’… yes Italians and passion is known to go hand in hand, isn’t it?). Hence, it is important to understand that when we order a Risotto dish in a restaurant, we shouldn’t be expected to be served immediately – a minimum of 20 minutes has to be kept in hand.
• Risotto cannot be kept overnight, it has to be served and eaten immediately after it has been cooked.
• In Italy risotto with a fork but you may want to add a spoon on the table mis-en-place.
• There is no one way in cooking Risotto – no right way or the wrong way. The only rule to remember here is ‘The rice roasted in water and dined in wine’!
Procedure of making a Rice Risotto
Rice grains are not washed but directly stirred in a base of onion and butter or olive oil – the Soffritto. This to coat each grain in a film of fat, the Tostatura. The next step is to add white or red wine which needs to be absorbed by the grains (this step skipped in the masterclass for obvious reasons ). Hot stock or broth (meat, fish, or vegetable) is continuously added in small amounts while stirring – this is when the starch releases from the rice grains into the liquid, creating the smooth creaminess of the Risotto. The Risotto, cooked al dente, is taken off the heat and the creaminess is further enhanced by stirring in diced cold butter into the Risotto – a process known as Mantecatura or the addition of fat at the end of the cooking process. Usually, the Risotto is served on flat dishes, with a bit of broth overflowing in its sides. Chef Potenza used the Carneroli for making this Risotto as they can be moulded into different forms. This is why it is important to understand the different rice grains as they can be applied in different styles of Risotto application as envisioned by the cook and his recipe. The recipe of Risotto varies across different places of Italy, depending upon the fresh produce and the type of grain cultivated in that region.
Chef Enrico Bertolini’s *modern and contemporary* Risotto
The youngest Italian chef to be associated with a Michelin star (two stars actually), Chef Enrico Bartolini of the acclaimed Devero restaurant in Cavenago di Brianza, Italy, took us through some creative techniques to create Rice Risotto. Incredibly beautiful and easy to make… we learnt 3 different Risotto dishes – all of them inspired by 3 different spectrum of the colour wheel. The first one was the Saffron & Parmesan Risotto (above) – Risotto alla Milanese. Traditionally, this dish is a speciality of Milan and is made with beef stock, beef bone marrow, lard (instead of butter) and cheese, flavored and colored with saffron. The second dish was a Beetroot Risotto with a creamy Gorgonzola cheese (below). The Gorgonzola cheese is a veined Italian blue cheese, produced in the northern Italian regions of Piedmont and Lombardy. And the third was a beautiful green Herb Risotto with hints of a green jelly made with different herbs like sage and mint. Once the technique of making Risotto has been mastered, one could always play with the creative use of ingredients to give it different colour. Not only did each of the dishes look different, they tasted very different too. And nothing could describe these dishes better than what Chef Enrico strongly believes in… ‘Be Contemporary’!
Risotto alla Milanese or Saffron & Parmesan Risotto
One heavy copper or stainless steel saucepan with one handle 28×10
One wooden cooking spoon (mestola)
300 gm rice, Vialone or Carnaroli
100 gm butter (unsalted and cold from the fridge, not half melted and greasy)
150 ml dry white wine (at room temperature not cold)*
1 lt broth (made from beef or beef and chicken or veal, keep it light in color but full in flavour, salt sparingly)*
1 teaspoon of saffron threads
50 gm white onion, chopped very fine
50 gm grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano (not everything is Parmesan!)
(Bone marrow. You can skip this ingredient. Alternatively you may pan roast 20 pieces of 1cm thick slices of it and place them on top of your risotto just before serving it)
- Fry the chopped onion in a pan at very low heat until translucent, making sure the onion does not gets dark, and place it aside.
- Add 50gm of the butter to the saucepan, making sure it is not too hot otherwise the butter will burn. Add the rice and toast it at medium heat and always keep stirring with the wooden spoon.
- When the rice is well toasted, add the onion, stir well and add the wine, simmer and keep mixing until the wine has evaporated.
- Cook the rice, stirring in the broth, ladle by ladle, making sure that the level is of broth is about 1cm over level of rice. Keep mixing. Add the saffron threads.
- Continue stirring the rice, adding the broth, mixing the rice and the broth until the rice is al dente.
- Remove the saucepan form the heat. The rice should be of a runny consistency (all onda) and ready for the mantecatura – the vigorous addition of the cold butter into the rice. This will give the risotto a creamy but a light consistency, so add the remaining butter and the freshly grated cheese and stir well until the butter is all melted and the cheese is incorporated into the risotto. If the broth is perfect in flavour you will not need to adjust the salt, so serve the rice on a hot flat plate.
* In the masterclass that I attended, wine hadn’t been used, neither a non-vegetarian broth. And they tasted divine! The recipe for this authentic Risotto alla Milanese has been shared by GVCI President Mario Caramella. The recipe has been modified by me as I have tried and tested it in my kitchen. More Italian recipes here.)
I chose the Rice & Risotto Masterclass mainly because everyone in my family, the Z-Sisters included, are primarily rice eaters. I do cook Risotto very often, but obtaining the ‘al dente’ state is always a challenge. If I were to compare the Risotto to any Bengali dish (I am born to compare or find similarity between Bengali and other cuisines!), it would be the rainy-day-must-have-Bengali-dish – the Khichuri. a dish made with rice, lentils and spices all put together. Coming back to Risotto… and back to the Italians, my next post would take us through the aroma of truffles. And a gorgeous lunch with Giorgio Locatelli in the sun drenched terrace of his restaurant in The Atlantis. And on a very different note altogether, on the same day as my Risotto Masterclass, the Dubai Tram was launched. The fireworks (below) reminded me of the bright red Beetroot Risotto (above) with sparks of Gorgonzola Cheese splattered on it!
Unblogging it all… Ishita
PS 1: I had been a guest at the Emirates Academy Of Hospitality Management, courtesy my friend Dima Sharif, who has been the official blogger of Italian Cuisine World Summit 2014. Some of my fellow food bloggers from Fooderati Arabia have also written about their experiences from the masterclasses they had attended… Orange Kitchen at the Fresh Pasta Masterclass; Kitchen In The Sand at Michelin Chef Claudio Sadler’s Masterclass; The Recipe Writer at Chef Walter Potenza’s and Lionello Cera’s Italian Main Courses Master Class
PS 2: According to the Italian Cuisine World Summit website, it is the most influential global event promoting Italian quality food, beverages and lifestyle. Its next, sixth edition is also dedicated to the celebration of Dubai as exciting and inimitable worldwide food destination and in particular as the world capital of Italian cuisine and lavish lifestyle outside Italy. Created by Food and Travel Communications (Australia) in Hong Kong in 2008, the Summit is promoted with the collaboration of the best Italian restaurants of Dubai and itchefs-GVCI.com, a network with more than 2500 chefs and culinary professionals working in 70 countries around the world.
Disclaimer: Please note that this post is not a sponsored post and the subject, story, opinions and views stated here are my own and are independent. While you enjoy reading the posts with lot of visuals, please do not use any material from these posts. You can catch my daily food and travel journey on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.