April 01, 2017

Risotto alla Milanese

Risotto (alla) Milanese, also sometimes called Risotto Giallo Zafferano, is a luxurious dish. It is not cheap to make, nor is it vegetarian; alongside its famously expensive saffron, the other signature ingredients include bone marrow and meat stock. The risotto kits that one can find on supermarket shelves tend to include only the merest whisper of saffron (if at all) and rely on turmeric or other colorants for the vivid yellow colour. They may make a serviceable side dish of sorts, but you would be in for a disappointment if you expected it to live up to the magic of a traditional Risotto alla Milanese.

I've made saffron rice dishes before, and while I've always enjoyed the flavour, I'd never achieved the deep, dark golden hue that is one of the signatures of this, one of the most famous Italian dishes. It turns out, it very much matters no only what kind of saffron one uses, but also how fresh it is. After recently making a saffron risotto that was underwhelming in colour, texture, and flavour, I decided to set aside what I've learned making other risottos, and learn how to do this one in all of its traditional glory.

I had used up the last of my good Persian saffron in the previous batch. While that saffron was indeed top quality when I received it, I had been eking it out over a few years, and gradually the remaining strands had greatly diminished in both their pungency and the amount of colour they provided. So I bought a new tiny tube of beautiful, dark red threads, and used them generously. Note that not all saffron is created equal. Don't be deceived by "safflower saffron", Carthamus tinctorius AKA "American saffron" or "Mexican saffron" or even "Dyer's saffron" (it has colour, but no flavour). It's not even from the same type of plant as true saffron. The one you want is Crocus sativus.

One departure from other risottos that I've made is that this one has you boil the onions in wine before adding the rice. This made the onions virtually disappear into the dish, adding a depth of texture to the sauciness of the dish. I note that Claudia Roden's other The Food of Italy (so, not the region-by-region version from which the below recipe is adapted) has a slightly different recipe given for Risotto alla Milanese, with slightly different proportions of some ingredients and, more importantly, with the wine added after the rice, following the more classic risotto-building method. Undecided at first, I eventually chose to go with the unusual version, which turned out to be nothing short of glorious.

Risotto alla Milanese

Adapted from Claudia Roden's The Food of Italy: Region by Region

Serves 4

300 grams rice for risotto - eg. Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone Nano
30 grams butter
30 grams beef or veal bone marrow
1 litre (4 cups) beef or veal stock, warm
125 mL dry white wine or dry white Vermouth
1 small onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt (only if your stock is not too salty)
60 grams freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
3/4 teaspoon saffron threads
50 mL hot water (from a recently boiled kettle)

As always, risotto is best (and the cook less harried) when the mise en place, the advance preparation of all necessary ingredients, is done before actually starting to cook.

Risotto needs near constant attention, but it does not require continuous stirring, no matter what you might hear. A stir once per minute will suffice. If you overstir, especially if you are making a drier, non-soupy style, your rice will be half way to congee by the time you've added all your stock. So: stir frequently, and gently, but not continuously.

Chop your onion very finely (try to match the size of a grain of rice), grate your Parmesan, warm the stock in a small pot on the stove, and prepare the saffron infusion: in a small mug or measuring cup, pour the 50 mL hot water from a recently boiled kettle, and crush the saffron over it, letting the dark red dust fall into the hot water. You can crush the saffron with a spoon, a mortar and pestle, or simply use your fingertips. Let the saffron steep in the hot water, which will gradually turn bright yellow.

Melt the bone marrow in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. When it has all melted, add half the butter (a tablespoon) and let that melt, too. Next, add your very finely chopped onion, and let it sauté for a few minutes, and then add the white wine. I used dry Vermouth for the wine, which is my usual risotto practice, but you could also use a nice Pinot Grigio or Soave. Let the wine boil almost dry, until the mixture of fat, onions, and wine looks syrupy, and then add the rice. Stir the rice around well, to coat each of the grains with the viscous liquid. Stir in the salt.

Add a ladle of stock to the rice, and give it a few stirs. Let it simmer, lid off, until much of the liquid has evaporated, and then give it another stir, and another ladle of stock. Stir again, and let it be for a minute. Repeat this process, stirring about once per minute or as needed (if you need to stir more often, turn the heat down), until half of your stock is gone, about 12 - 15 minutes in. You may stir more than once between each addition, of course.

When half of your stock has gone in, add the saffron and its steeping liquid and stir it through, marvelling at the abrupt change of colour, and intense fragrance! I like to add a bit of stock to the emptied saffron cup, and swirl it about to make sure I get every last speck of saffron into the risotto. Continue with the stirring and the adding of stock as before, until all of the stock has been added and mostly absorbed, and the grains of rice are just on the verge of being tender. Turn off the heat, and stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and the parmesan cheese. Partially cover with a cocked-lid and let it stand for a few minutes while you plate any other elements of your dinner (in case of the above, braised beef shank and cauliflower mornay), and then spoon the risotto onto the plate last. If you like a very wet style of risotto, you may wish to use a shallow bowl to serve, instead.

Should you be lucky enough to have any leftover, they make wonderful arancini (Italian rice balls). Coincidentally (cough cough), that is next week's recipe. Stay tuned!

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