There are few dishes as popular or as versatile as risotto.
At its simplest, risotto is a hearty, warming rice dish, rich with the flavours of the stock used in its making, as well as saffron, parmesan, butter and any of the hundreds of ingredients that match so perfectly with it.
Risotto is not only versatile, but easy to make, and as such the dish has found popularity around the world, from home kitchens to those of the finest restaurants.
But what are the origins of this Italian icon?
The history of risotto is naturally tied to the history of rice in Italy. While there are many conflicting opinions on the historical intricacies, rice was first introduced to Italy and Spain by the Arabs during the Middle Ages.
The humidity of the Mediterranean was quickly found to be perfect for growing shorter-grained rices, and enormous profits were made by those selling rice in Genoa, Venice and the surrounds.
The popularity of rice grew through Italy, though primarily among the wealthy owing to the still-exorbitant prices of the product.
Once the outside world discovered the quality of the Italian product, however, the money poured in and the availability of the short-grains spread, making the rice far more widely accessible.
It was in Milan where the rice met its delicious destiny. Milan had been under Spanish rule for almost two centuries (hence the similar evolution of paella in Spain), and rice had become a staple. Slow-cooking also dominated the culinary landscape of the region, with Ossobucco a long-held favourite.
The slow-cooking principles were combined with the local rice, emphasising the rich flavours, and spices (particularly saffron) for which the area was known, to create ‘Risotto alla Milanese’
Served by itself, or as an accompaniment to Ossobucco and other dishes, risotto was discovered to be an excellent way of using the shorter-grained rice, the starchy component of the dry grain mixing with the stock to create a thick, creamy sauce.
(Have a look at Joseph Vargetto’s gourmet variation on the original concept).
Even now the dish is still built around the same core components: rice, stock (usually chicken), onions, butter, wine, parmesan and saffron.
Today the dish is served extensively, almost unchanged, in the kitchens and restaurants of the world. Ingredients as varied as scallops, lobster, truffles, veal, mushrooms, squid ink, snails, asparagus, duck, sausage, pumpkin and almost anything else are paired with this classic dish.
If you haven’t embraced the history and elegant simplicity of the risotto in your own kitchen, the dawn of Spring is your perfect opportunity.
Source: The Essential Ingredient