Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sicilian-Style Risotto Two Ways

I recently attended a dinner at Solare in Liberty Station featuring prosecco from Villa Sandi, which is located in the heart of the Prosecco region of the Valdobbiadene Prosecco DOCG hills. Valdobbiadene-Conegliano is Italy's certified region for making the sparkling wine. The four-course dinner created by executive chef Accursio Lota was stunning, but one dish in particular stood out for me: the risotto with saffron and bay scallops--"Risotto Capesante e Zafferano," described as risotto carnaroli mantecato with salted butter, Sardinian saffron, and bay scallops. It was lighter than I am used to and beyond creamy. I'd been talking with Accursio about setting up a cook date but we hadn't settled on what I wanted him to teach me. After just one fragrant bite of the risotto, I knew--especially when he told me that his method of making it required far less butter than more traditional recipes.

Accursio invited me and my friend Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared, who had attended the dinner with me, to his kitchen last week and we got not one, but two ways of making the dish. This was important for him to convey because it wasn't--and never is--about recipes to him. It's about technique. When he teaches others--whether it's his line cooks or students at the classes he offers at the restaurant--he wants them to be able to expand on what they learned and use the techniques as building blocks to create other dishes using other ingredients. For him it all rests on technique and ingredients.

So, the first thing Accursio wanted us to be clear about is that southern Italian risotto is different from northern. Northerners, he said, expect their risotto to be al dente--with bite. Sicilians, and he is Sicilian, like a truly creamy risotto.

The other point Accursio wanted to convey is how important the rice is. In fact, it's all about the rice. Now that seems obvious, but when it comes to risotto, we have choices. Many of us by habit default to arborio, an Italian short-grain rice named after the town of the same name in the Po valley, where the rice is grown. The problem, Accursio said, is that most of us aren't buying rice from that region. It's now grown all over the world--and he can't be sure of its quality. Instead he uses one of two rices: Carnaroli or Vialone Nano.

Carnaroli is grown in Northwest Italy and it, too, is a short-grain rice, often referred to as the "caviar of rice." Carnaroli rice is usually pricier than other Italian rices because it's more difficult to grow and harvest. The plants break easily, they're more disease prone, and the grains of rice break more during processing. But it's also more forgiving during cooking; it can absorb large amounts of liquid and creates a very creamy risotto.

Vialone Nano is similar to Carnaroli. It's very rich in starch and its high amylose content allows it to keep its shape and absorb lots of liquids during cooking. It's grown in Verona, which specializes in growing rice, said Accursio. You can find both varieties online, but also check with Mona Lisa, Specialty Produce, and other gourmet stores in San Diego to learn if they carry it.

For both these risottos, Accursio uses a vegetable stock made with celery, carrots, onions, and a whole tomato, which he simmers for about 40 minutes. He pointed out that when making risotto it's important to customize the stock based on the other ingredients you're going to use. Add lobster, mussel, shrimp, and clam shells to the stock for a seafood risotto, for instance. And he usually uses a three-to-one ratio of stock to rice, although we ended using four to one this day. The rice just kept absorbing the liquid.

Using the two varieties of rice we created two dishes. With the Vialone Nano, we started with toasting the rice gently--not to brown it but to eliminate whatever humidity it was starting with from the packaging. That way, Accursio said, the grain can better hold its shape as it absorbs the liquid. Then he added olive oil to coat the grains, then diced shallots, then the liquid. In the version with the Carnaroli, he added olive oil to pot first, then diced shallots, then the rice, then the liquid.

So, two techniques, both concluding with the same approach in creating creaminess--what Accursio told me is called mantecato--which is done by adding butter and cheese and stirring. Altogether it should take about 20 minutes, depending on the rice. There's a lot of stirring. Yes, you'll find plenty of recipes these days which dismiss the importance of constantly stirring, but that's not how Accursio does it. And, he noted, make sure that you keep incorporating wayward grains that end up on the wall of the pot. You don't want any lingering grains that wind up crunchy at the end.

And, with that, here are the two recipes:

Risotto with Sardinian Saffron
from Accursio Lota
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 servings

1 cup short grain rice (Here we used Vialone Nano, but you can use arborio or Carnaroli.)
4 cups vegetable stock
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon diced shallot
A few pinches saffron (Accursio prefers Sardinian saffron.)
2/3 cup Grana Padano cheese, grated (You can use Parmesan.)
1/8 cup butter
salt and pepper to taste

In a saucepan, add the rice and toast briefly over medium heat. Do not brown it. Add enough olive oil to coat each grain of rice by stirring. Add the shallot and mix together.

Begin adding the stock, stirring well. As the rice absorbs the stock, add a little more, and continue stirring. After about seven minutes, add a couple of pinches of the saffron. Keep stirring.

Remove from the heat and add the butter and another pinch of saffron. Stir for three to four minutes.

Add 1/3 cup of the cheese and continue stirring. If the mixture is getting too thick, add a bit more stock--and keep stirring. Add the rest of the cheese and stir. Add salt and pepper. Taste, adjust seasonings, add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and serve.

Risotto with Summer Truffles
from Accursio Lota
(printable recipe)
Yield: 2 servings

Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon diced shallots
1 cup short grain rice (Here we used Carnaroli, but you can use Vialone Nano or arborio.)
4 cups vegetable stock
1//8 cup butter
2/3 cup Grana Padano cheese, grated (You can use Parmesan.)
salt and pepper to taste
1/3 ounce, thinly sliced summer truffles (Accursio gets his from Umbria.)
1 teaspoon white truffle oil

In a saucepan, add about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add shallots and saute until translucent. Add the rice and stir together.

Begin adding the stock, stirring well. As the rice absorbs the stock, add a little more, and continue stirring.
Robin Ross of Cupcakes Squared stirring the risotto.

After about seven minutes, remove from heat and stir in the butter. Add the cheese and stir well for about three to four minutes. Then season with salt and pepper.

Add about 2/3 of the truffles and a teaspoon of white truffle oil and stir. Plate the risotto and top with the rest of the truffles. Serve.

Solare is located in Liberty Station in Pt. Loma at 2820 Roosevelt Road.

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