Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Risotto alla Milanese

This is the quintessential Milanese dish and, you might also say, the quintessential risotto!

For me, it typifies the cuisine of Northern Italy perfectly - rich, creamy, simple to make, and delicious to eat! Risotto is especially common in Lombardia, as the short-grained rice used to make it grows well around the Po valley. Be sure to get high quality (Italian if possible) rice for this - Arborio and Vallone are two good brands that I know of.

Though it's probably little more than legend, there is a nice story about the origins of this dish. The story varies a bit from one source to the next, but in essence, it claims that risotto alla milanese was invented towards the end of the 16th century, when a Dutch stained-glass artist working on the windows of Milan's Duomo (cathedral) added some of the saffron he used for coloring the glass to his risotto. Several accounts say the bright yellow risotto was served to guests at a wedding, perhaps the artist's daughter's, in order to impress them. Another version says simply that the artist was eating his lunch up on the ladder where he was working and some saffron fell in, coloring his rice with its signature hue. This seems a little more far-fetched to me, but in any case, whatever its origin, there is no doubt that this classic risotto is a delight to both the eyes and the stomach!

Ingredients (for 2 large servings):
150 g short-grained white rice (I used Arborio)
One small yellow onion
30-50 g butter, depending on how rich you want the risotto to be
Beef broth
A half-glass of white wine
Saffron powder or threads
A generous quantity of freshly-grated parmesan

Like many Italian dishes, this dish really requires that you use top-quality ingredients (except for maybe the wine). If you substitute a bouillon cube for the broth, it will definitely show. I strongly recommend using real broth; if you can't buy any, it's very simple to make your own - just throw a marrow bone into a pot of water along with a carrot, an onion, a stalk of celery and some spices, bring the water to a boil and let simmer for an hour or two. When the broth is done, strain out the pieces of vegetable and the bone and freeze whatever you don't use in the next few days. If you freeze the broth in small tins, you can then put those frozen broth-cakes into plastic freezer bags and simply take them out of the freezer as you need them - they'll last for months.

As for the saffron, I used threads and ground them up with my mortar and pestle, but already-ground saffron works just as well. Though I doubt anyone uses them anymore, if you happen to have actual saffron petals, make sure to add them about 2/3 of the way through the cooking, instead of at the end.

One final note about ingredients - many recipes actually call for both butter and ox marrow. As I don't generally have much ox marrow around the house, I just use butter, but if you do have some, then by all means go ahead and use it!

Dice the onion and heat a large sauté pan. While the pan is heating, put the broth in a smaller saucepan and heat that too.

Once the sauté pan is hot, add 3/4 of the butter (or butter + ox marrow) and then add the onions. Sauté the onions until tender and then add in the rice. Mix the rice around until it's fully coated with butter and then pour in the white wine. Let the wine evaporate; meanwhile your broth should be coming to a boil. If the broth starts boiling before the wine has fully evaporated, simply turn the heat off and cover the saucepan so the broth will stay hot.

Once the wine has evaporated, add a bit of the broth, stirring to combine. Continue to add broth a bit at a time, making sure not to let the rice dry out. Reserve a bit of broth and add the saffron to this.

Once the rice has absorbed all but the last bit of broth, add the last bit of saffron-infused broth and stir well so that the risotto turns a bright yellow. Just before serving, add in the rest of the butter and the parmesan. Mix well and serve warm. I've seen this risotto served with bits of sausage added in which makes it even more indulgent and also very tasty!

As an homage to the city of risotto alla milanese, below is a picture of the Duomo di Milano and also a picture of one of its stained glass windows - perhaps the same window whose saffron yellow colored the very first plate of risotto alla milanese!

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