If ever Peter and I arrive later than usual at the Capital Region Farmer's Market on Saturday morning, I make a beeline for Noel Arrold's Li-Sun Mushroom stall (hopefully) before his stock sells out. Peter and I love Noel's exotic fresh funghi and regularly use an assortment of mushrooms in omelettes, stir fries, pan fried with toast for breakfast, and risotto.
Risotto is a favourite on the menu at my place. The making of risotto is an art form and it takes time and patience to master. Indeed, MasterChef judge, Matt Preston, often 'marvels at the inability of contestants to cook risotto'.
As with all cooking, a good risotto requires premium-quality ingredients: home-made broth or stock; butter or extra virgin olive oil (EVOO); the freshest vegetables, meat, fish or poultry, Parmigiano-Reggiano; and risotto rice, such as Arborio, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli. You will also need a long handled wooden spatula and a sturdy, heavy-bottomed pan (a Scanpan or Renaware saute pan or casserole is perfect).
In Marcella Cucina, doyenne of Italian cookery writing, Marcella Hazan, provides very specific instructions about the unique cooking method and exact technique for risotto. For best results in risotto making, Hazan's instructions are well worth following. Step one is the gentle sautéing of onions and other ingredients (such as meat and vegetables), and then adding the rice.
Step two is where you add the broth or stock, a ladleful at a time, to the pan, 'stirring the contents, scraping them away from the bottom and sides with the wooden spatula, until the liquid is gone, partly through absorption, partly through evaporation'. Hazan advises that another ladleful of stock be added only when there is no more liquid in the pan and that the risotto absolutely must be stirred constantly. Chef, food writer and gourmet farmer, Matthew Evans, once confirmed this theory for me in a cooking class he gave, demonstrating a zucchini flower risotto and his own relaxed style of stirring which he referred to as 'a contemplative stir'. Nicely said.
Step three, Hazan says, is tasting the rice to see whether it is cooked. At this stage, the rice begins to form a porridge like consistency. By now, the amount of liquid added should be reduced so that when the risotto is cooked it should be moist but not runny. Finally, butter, cream or crème fraîche is added to the risotto to give it a soft consistency.
Hazan explains how the risotto method works. 'The gradual addition of small quantities of liquid at a steady high heat gradually dissolves the soft starch surrounding the rice kernel, which begins to swell. Constant stirring rubs away the dissolving starch and at the same time distributes it, binding it uniformly to every single grain of rice and to all the ingredients in the pan. It is only through that sustained stirring motion that you produce the marvellous amalgam, the creamy fusion of swollen rice and vegetables, or seafood, or meat that is risotto'. Hazan describes this as the final and best tough, bestowing on a risotto 'a creamy consistency of great opulence'.
So, dear reader, you are now armed with instructions from an expert (Hazan) on the making of a perfect risotto. And this method is ideal for weekends, when you have the time to while away an afternoon in the kitchen. But what about midweek, after work, in the depths of winter. You're cold, tired and hungry, and have all the ingredients for risotto, but little time or energy? Please allow me to come to the rescue with my recipe for risotto cooked in a rice cooker. Would the purists please cease with the commotion and indulge me for a moment!
My first experience with risotto cooked in a rice cooker was when a well known chef, whose name now escapes me, demonstrated it in a cooking class at my school over a decade ago. At the time, I had no idea that such a thing was possible (in fact, I'm not sure I even owned a rice cooker). I should mention that as a child my mother taught me how to make perfectly delicious rice with chicken stock, eschalots and garlic, cooked by the absorption method in a pan with a tight-fitting lid. Mum would place a folded damp tea towel over the lid of the saucepan to make sure no steam escaped! While I could never quite reach the heights of flavour that my mother achieved with her rice, I did master her technique, so never had the need for a rice cooker. Then the generous PR people at Breville sent me one to play with. My eyes had been opened to a whole new world of rice cookery and I haven't really looked back. This is not to say that I don't prepare risotto in the traditional way, I do (regularly), so please don't despair and throw your tea towel in the air just yet.
Here's my recipe for midweek mushroom risotto in a rice cooker. Try it, fiddle, tweak and make it work for you. I think, once you get the hang of it, you will love it!
1 tablespoon EVOO (and a little butter if you wish)
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
2 eschalots, chopped
1 cup (2 rice cooker cups) Arborio, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice
200mls dry white wine
2 cups stock, warmed but not boiling
3-4 King Brown mushrooms
a handful of Swiss Brown mushrooms
a handful of Wood Ear mushrooms
a handful of button mushrooms
a small red chilli, finely sliced
sea salt and white pepper, to taste
an extra King Brown Mushroom and 2-3 extra buttons and Swiss Browns for garnish
Parmigiano-Reggiano, for garnish
First, brush any dirt off the mushrooms and chop them. Heat the EVOO in the rice cooker and add the garlic and eschalot, stirring until they soften. Add the mushrooms and stir, gently, taking care not to bruise the mushrooms too much. Then, add the rice and stir until the rice is 'pearly'. Add the wine and wait for the alcohol to boil off, stirring through. Then add the warm stock, a little at a time, stirring. Season with sea salt and white pepper. Now pop the lid on, bring to the boil and allow the risotto to cook. Do not stir it from this point. Test when the rice cooker switches to 'Keep warm'. If you feel the risotto needs a little more stock, or a little longer cooking time, then do so. It should have that creamy consistency of a typical risotto.Meanwhile, slice the extra King Browns, and toss them together with the buttons and Swiss Browns into a hot frypan with a tiny bit of EVOO and the chilli. Cook quickly, just to colour the mushrooms. When ready to serve your risotto, spoon it into a serving bowl, garnish with the browned mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano. This quantity will serve 4.
Incidentally, if you prefer to have a little protein in the form of chicken with your mushroom risotto, pan fry some diced tenderloins or breast meat in a little EVOO, garlic and chilli, and toss this through the risotto before serving. Yum!
The process in pictures... chop, fry, stir, cook
Dinner is served in a jiffy...
Does risotto feature on your menu? Have you ever cooked risotto in your rice cooker? Are you willing to try?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.