To me a good risotto is characterized by grains of rice that still have discernable texture, but are not in any way crunchy. Furthermore, the grains of rice are suspended in--almost one with--a thick, creamy liquid that tastes of the rice, sometimes cheese and the vegetables, herbs and/or meats that have been used to garnish the risotto. Sometimes the effect is a blended, harmonious whole and others it is an interplay of distinct flavors and textures--depending on when and how the garnishes have been added.
To achieve the desired result, the first thing I focus on is the cooking of the onions in the fat. The onions should be cooked until they are completely tender. The juices that the onions release will contribute to the creaminess of the final result. The rice (I prefer carnaroli or arborio) is then added and cooked in the fat so that it too will begin to release its starches. After that the liquid should only be added in small increments--allowing each addition to be almost fully absorbed before adding the next. The rice should never be swimming in a thin broth, but always cooking in a minimal amount of an increasingly creamy liquid. The risotto should be frequently and regularly stirred throughout the cooking process, as this too increases the creaminess of the final dish. Finally, the final addition of butter is important--don't skip it--it helps to pull the risotto together into a creamy, fluid whole.
Every now and then you come across an explanation of a cooking process that is so clear and informative that it seems complete--there is no need to look anywhere else. Paul Bertolli's description of how to cook risotto in Chez Panisse Cooking is such a text. It is, hands down, the best explanation of how to cook risotto that I have ever come across. I highly recommend seeking it out.
As I pulled together my ingredients for my zucchini and corn risotto, I thought it would make a simple and satisfying midweek meal...and it did.
Risotto with Zucchini, Basil & Sweet Corn
12 oz. small zucchini and/or summer squash, trimmed and cut into small cubes or thin slices
5 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 to 1 1/2 cups fresh corn (plus pulp and "milk" scraped from the cob)
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 ½ c. Arborio or Carnaroli rice
½ c. white wine
About 6 c. hot chicken stock
1 T. chopped thyme
2 to 3 T. butter
2/3 c. grated Pecorino or Parmesan
1 to 2 T. basil chiffonade
Salt & Pepper, to taste
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Increase the heat and add the zucchini. Quickly sauté until the squash is beginning to color.
Add the corn and continue to sauté until the corn is tender and the squash is golden brown. The squash should still have some texture. Set aside.
Heat 3 tablespoons butter in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and sweat until very soft, but not brown—5 minutes or so. Add the rice and continue to cook for a minute or two. Add the wine and cook until the pan is nearly dry. Begin to add the stock. Add enough so that the stock is at the same level as the rice in the pan. Adjust the heat so that the rice cooks at a slow simmer. When the pan is nearly dry,
add more stock and season lightly with salt & pepper. Continue to stir and cook the rice, adding more stock as each addition is absorbed.
When the rice is almost cooked (after about 15 to 20 minutes of cooking), stir in the cooked squash and corn along with the thyme.
Continue to cook, stir and add stock until the squash is tender and the rice is al dente—another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, cheese and basil.
Taste and correct the seasoning and serve immediately. Serves 6
Note: This recipe is easily divided--for my batch for two, I divided it by three (and I used a heaped 1/2 cup of rice...I was hungry).