Risotto is a traditional Italian comfort food made most often with a variety of short-grain rice called Arborio, which absorbs a lot of liquid and becomes quite plump and creamy. We usually prepare rice by adding the liquid to the rice all at once and leaving it to cook, covered and unattended. With risotto, you add the hot liquid to the rice gradually, stirring constantly. All this stirring may seem like a lot of work, but the warm, creamy risotto that results is well worth the effort.
Melt the butter in a 4-to-5-quart saucepan over medium heat, stirring regularly.
Add the onion and cook, continuing to stir, until it turns soft and translucent. Turn the heat down if the onion starts to brown.
Meanwhile, pour the chicken broth into a separate saucepan, set over medium heat, and bring to a gentle simmer. Adjust the heat as needed to maintain this simmer the whole time you are preparing the risotto.
Once the onion is soft, add the rice and cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for about 3 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary -- if the rice is cooked at too high a heat, it will turn brown and take on an undesirable flavor.
Adding the Liquid to the Rice
Using a ladle, scoop up about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of broth. Pour it in the pan with the rice, stirring constantly with a spoon. After the first addition of broth, the rice mixture will look a bit soupy.
As the rice begins to cook, stir it constantly, making sure that you scrape along the bottom of the pan so that it does not stick. You should see little bubbles popping up on the liquid from time to time. If it bubbles more vigorously than this, turn the heat down to medium-low.
When most of the liquid is absorbed into the rice and the rice begins to look a bit dry, add another ladle of broth to the pan and stir constantly, as before.
Determining When the Risotto Is Cooked
Continue to add the broth in 1/2-to-3/4-cup batches and stir the rice until you have used most of the broth (this will probably take about 20 minutes). It is now time to test whether the risotto is cooked. Spoon up a grain of rice and bite into it -- it should be tender without being too mushy. If it is still crunchy and tastes a bit starchy, you will need to continue adding liquid and cooking further.
If it looks as if you will run out of chicken broth and your rice is still not cooked, don't be alarmed. Because of variations in individual stoves and cooking temperatures, you may need more liquid than called for in the recipe. Simply heat up another cup or 2 of chicken broth. If you run out of broth, use hot water.
When the rice is tender and the risotto has a creamy consistency, almost like thick oatmeal, it is done.
Serving the Risotto
Add salt and pepper to the risotto, about 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until it seems well seasoned to you. Stir.
Add the grated Parmesan cheese and stir well.
Serve the risotto immediately in warm bowls and have extra grated Parmesan on hand.
Risotto with Tomatoes and Basil:
Take 4 Roma tomatoes, cut off and discard the stem tops, and cut the tomatoes into small pieces. Chop enough fresh basil leaves into small pieces to make about 1 cup. Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet, and turn the heat to medium-high. When the bottom of the skillet feels hot when you put your open hand 1 inch from the bottom, add the tomatoes and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Stir for 3 or 4 minutes, until they seem soft. Put the cooked tomatoes aside, and when the risotto is done, stir the tomatoes and basil into the hot risotto. Stir to mix well; taste for salt and add some if needed. Serve immediately and pass some grated Parmesan cheese.
Risotto with Spinach and Garlic:
Peel and chop 3 large cloves of garlic into small pieces, and put them on a piece of waxed paper. Rinse 1/2 bunch of spinach leaves, and shake off the excess water. Cut off the stems, bunch the leaves up, and cut them into thin strips, then cut crosswise into small pieces. Put 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and turn the heat to medium-high. When the bottom of the skillet feels hot when you put your open hand, palm side down, 1 inch from the bottom of the skillet, it is ready. Add the garlic to the oil and stir for a minute. Turn the heat to low, and add the spinach. Press the spinach down with a spatula, lightly salt and pepper it, and turn it over with a spatula. The spinach will wilt down almost immediately. Take the skillet off the stove, put a lid on the skillet, and when the risotto is done, stir the garlic and spinach into the risotto. Serve immediately, and pass some grated Parmesan cheese.
Recipe courtesy of Marion Cunningham, Learning to Cook with Marion Cunningham, Random House, 1999