Red wine risotto

What to do with bottles of wine you open and just don’t like? If they’re corked, or off in any way, and I bought them locally, I try to remember to take them back. But if they’re just plain not-very-nice, that’s another matter.

L is organising a tasting of wines from the Marche region made from the rare Lacrima di Morra d’Alba grape. He picked up a few bottles when we were last in Rome. An enologist friend told him that one of the producers he had purchased really wasn’t up to much so we opened a bottle to check. It was horrid. Lacrima is an acquired taste anyway, with its strong (un-sweet) turkish-delighty flavour. But this was so musky it was almost undrinkable. So I sploshed it into a risotto… and the taste was spectacular.

Funnily enough, when we mentioned the variety to Christian at the Bistrot del Duca in town some nights later, he said it was one of his favourite wines but he had searched long and hard and couldn’t come up with dishes to serve such a distinctive sensation with. So I told him about my risotto and voilà, his quest was over: serve the wine with food flavoured with the same brew. He’s going to let me know how it goes.

Outside Italy, you may have trouble sourcing this particular wine. But a lambrusco might give a similar tang. And any red wine with a personality (barolo is a classic for risottos) will lend character to this beautifully rich-red dish.

It may have become pan-Italian in recent years but risotto is, originally, a northern dish and the best risotto rice comes from paddies along the Po valley. Using the right rice is vital: risotto is, after all, just rice with flavouring and if you get your main ingredient wrong, then the end result isn’t going to be great. It has to be short-grain and high-starch, otherwise the texture will be all wrong and you won’t get that creaminess at the end.

Rice, carnaroli or vialone nano are best – about 400 g
Red onion – three medium
Garlic – two cloves
Red wine – 300 ml
Grated parmesan
Vegetable stock – 500 ml or (probably) more
Olive oil

Mince the garlic, and chop the onions as finely as you can. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed frying pan (I find a ceramic one is best) and fry the garlic and onion over a low-to-medium heat, allowing them to soften but not burn. As you do so, put the stock in a saucepan and heat it. (A word about stock: I try to be good and keep some home-made stuff in the fridge or freezer. But the idea of whipping up a quick risotto often comes to me when I’m stock-less, in which case I sprinkle half a vegetable stock cube into the simmering rice in the frying pan, and use boiling water in the cooking process.)

When the onion is cooked, throw in the rice. (My rule for measuring rice is one cupped handful for each person, plus an extra one for up to four, two for up to eight etc. Uncharacteristically for me, I have taken the trouble to weigh it here.) Stir the rice into the onion and allow it to heat through but not catch. When it’s hot, pour in the wine and stand back as it bubbles and sizzles.

When the wine is well on its way to evaporating, begin spooning in the boiling stock, one soup-ladleful at a time: stir gently until the stock is part-absorbed, and add a little more. You should be cooking over a lowish heat. Never let the risotto dry out or stick, but don’t swamp it either.  It’s impossible to say how much liquid you’re going to need: this depends entirely on the rice you’re using. Make sure you have a kettle of boiling water ready in case your stock runs out.

There are different schools of thought on stirring. Some say more or less continuous gentle stirring releases the starch and makes for a better risotto. Others say stirring bruises the grains and should be kept to an absolute minimum. My stirring tends to be erratic, and depend entirely on how many other things I’m trying to do at the same time – it’s the story of my life, really.

A finished risotto should be very creamy in appearance, but the grains of rice should remain separate – soft, but with just the tiniest hint of crunch right in the middle of each grain. It’s smooth – never wet – and infuriatingly difficult to get right. My trick is, as the rice gets closer to being done, to put smaller amounts of water in, gently turning the rice over and tasting regularly. Remember, too, that the heat inside the rice will keep the risotto cooking well after you’ve taken it off the heat. Don’t ever prepare this dish in advance: it needs to go straight from preparation on to the table.

When you’re pretty sure it’s done, take your risotto off the heat and stir in lashings of grated parmesan. Again, how much is up to you. I would fill a small soup-bowl with freshly grated cheese – loose, not packed – for this quantity of rice. Stir the risotto well and leave it to ‘mantecare’ – sit and rest and ooze out its final creamy starch – for five to ten minutes, then serve it with more grated parmesan to sprinkle over the top, and lots of freshly grated black pepper.
© Anne Hanley, 2011

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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