Rice is a visual as much as a taste memory of my childhood. In the flat part of Northern Italy where I grew up, it is one of the most visible fields out in the landscape, together with corn and wine. Only, corn is easy to spot only in late summer, thanks to its sky-high (for a child) plants. Wines are naked and almost invisible in winter and often the wines are cut low. Rice is impossible to miss. For a long period of time the fields are flooded and create a beautiful, haunting landscape of water reflecting the sky, where the only solid objects appear to be the few streets and the birds, often lost in the mist, with a few far away brick houses. Then the fields will explode in the most vivid green later, while sprouting, and then turn to darker colours and eventually to yellow.
Rice is actually grown in a limited region where water is abundant and there is a lot of flat space, a region split between Lombardia, Piemonte and Veneto. Its cultivation was probably introduced in Italy via contact with Spain, where it was introduced by the Arabs. Rice is a staple in Veneto, more traditional than durum wheat based pasta, which in turn is more popular in Southern Italy (though things of course have changed much with internal movements in the after war boom ). Italian rice is round grained and contains much starch The shorter grain varieties are used for soups and pudding, while the (relatively) longer ones are cooked in a risotto. Risotto is truly a versatile dish: the tradition is, take whatever ingredient is in season and available, and make risotto with it.
With the years I started to really appreciate the flavour of rice itself. You can taste it if you prepare a risotto with a top quality rice variety, extremely fresh, and use delicate ingredients. Ready made cube stocks are great candidates for hiding the rice flavour. Now, they are perfectly acceptable and in fact accepted – most Italian households, including mine, use them – but I found out I prefer to make risotto with water, when I don’t have home-made stock (this does not happen any more since when I started to make my own vegetable bouillon).
One thing I never changed through the years is my taste for rice with bite. I like sticky rice, kind of, but I really love the grains to be defined and not mushy. I find many rice dishes to be overcooked: in Veneto in particular we leave rice to a degree of doneness that other people would probably classify as raw. I love it this way: the real risotto to me is what is called ‘all’onda’,wave-like, still with some liquid sauce, bound by the starch and by some fat (mantecatura), and with the grains slightly crunchy and with a bite. While eating the rice cools and absorbs the leftover liquid completely, and each bite is different from the previous one. I find it unbeatable when it comes to fish dishes.
When expanding my food tastes to other countries, I have met a huge pool of rice based recipes. Over the years and with experiments I have gathered a few techniques I am very happy with, all producing rice with a clearly defined texture, even when it is ment to be a bit sticky – that is my personal preference. The variety out there is of course something unique to rice, since rice is a staple in so many different places and cultures. And though I must admit I still have a weakness for risotto when I want to cook to impress, and turn rice into the main dish of my dinner, I now have an array of different techniques I always go for when I want to cook rice as a side. Here is a collection of my favourite techniques, coupled with the type of rice they work with.
Steamed rice, Basmati or Jasmine, white
I don’t have a rice cooker. This method is fast, fuss free, and the result really makes the delicate flavour of those rice types shine. I found it here. It is true to what it says – it is brilliant. I tried it also with brown varieties; if you increase the cooking time, it will work. I don’t have a steamer and use my faithful pressure cooker for this: I use the basket for steaming vegetable, fit a heat proof bowl on it with rice, add a little boiling water to the bottom, add the required amount of water to the rice, put on the lid without closing the pressure valve, put on minimum heat, and forget about it for 10-15 minutes. I check it and it is always perfect. You just need to try once or twice what amount of water works for you and your rice. I like it quite crunchy so I always use little. The only downside is that my heatproof bowl does not accommodate more than a cup of rice, so I am limited by my equipment, but I can’t blame the method for this.
Steamed rice, brown, short grain
I found a high quality short grain brown rice in my local organic shop, at a surprisingly good price. I love it cooked in this way. It keeps really well for the day after – this is my go-to method and rice type for bentos. It is great reheated as explained here – only, you don’t really need the negimiso, it is also good on its own (though I am quite addicted to negimiso sweet-salty flavour now, my latest food obsession)..
Pilaw rice, persian way: long grain or Basmati white.
This is one of the first techniques I learned from Claudia Roden and I literally fell head over heels for that. This is why I love cookbooks. It is my cook-to-impress rice side of choice. It is not very labour intensive but it does require some time. The crunchy bottom is a super special treat. I make it when I feel like pampering myself. The recipe can be quite successfully adapted to brown rice, just cook it in water for longer (maybe ten minutes, depending on variety), though there is something unique in the flavour combination of white rice and butter.
Ingredients: white long grain or Basmati rice, salt, butter (can be substituted with oil)
1) soak rice in cold water. No need to wash it. Need to soak or at least half an hour, no more than four. Don’t skip, otherwise you will obtain a much poorer result.
2) bring a medium pan of salted water with a thick bottom to the boil. Choose the size of the pan according to the amount of rice you are cooking – you are going to fit the rice by itself here, so you don’t want it too big.
3) cook the rice in hot water for about 3-4 minutes (adjust time according to length of soaking period). Taste the rice: it should be very al dente, but not completely raw. Let it cook a bit more if not sure, but remove it well before it is anywhere near done.
4) drain rice to a colander. Melt a tablespoon of butter on the bottom of the pan, then lower the heat to minimum. Add rice, without mixing. Put a little more butter on top if desired. Cover with a clean cloth and a lid. Let cook on minimum for about 30-45 minutes. Check by removing the lid and tasting one rice grain on top if you are happy it is cooked. Then remove from heat and let it rest for at least ten minutes.
5) Rice will be steamed and fragrant. On the bottom, a golden and crunchy layer will have formed. You can serve it separately or break it and mix it with rice for serving.
And finally… risotto (here with wild mushrooms)
Note on mushrooms: I picked them myself. I am a keen hunter for wild things :) Don’t try this unless you are super extra sure of what you are doing as this can really turn nasty. And even if you know what you are doing, you might end up finding out that in the place where you live, wild mushrooms are absolutely tasteless, and you are much better off with cultivated ones…
Note on other ingredients: this is the standard technique for vegetable risotto. If the vegetable cooks quickly, add it to the end of cooking time; if it requires a cooking time longer than rice, start before. Try pumpkin risotto for a seasonal Venetian treat, or spinach risotto, with a little nutmeg. Some people add stock instead of water; I find the amount of water to be difficult to predict, while I know how much salt or stock I am going to need. So unless I have real stock – which I often prepare without salt anyway – I prefer to add the seasoning (in form of salt or stock cubes or homemade bouillon) to the rice at the beginning, and then just add water. I always adjust seasoning when rice is ready, after adding other salty ingredients like cheese.
Ingredients for two:
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
300 g wild mushrooms of choice
200 gr carnaroli or arborio rice
50 ml white dry wine (optional)
1 tablespoon vegetable bouillon (or whatever stock you have at hand, or use water)
30 gr parmesan, grated
salt, black pepper
10 gr butter
Heat oil in a very thick bottomed pan. Bring roughly a litre of water to the boil. Add shallot and let in sweat gently until softened. Add mushrooms, washed and cut into chunks. Let cook for a few minutes, rise heat, and add rice. Let rice toast and soak up the first water from vegetable for about 4-5 minutes, stirring all the time. Wet with wine, if using, letting alcohol completely evaporate. Add vegetable bouillon or salt. Start adding the hot water, about two ladleful, and stir well. If you are an expert, you don’t need to stir all the time – just the crucial ‘now and again’. Just make sure the rice does not run dry, adding a ladleful of water as needed. Keep doing this until the rice is cooked, but still retains a good bite: this takes 15-20 minutes, depending on the type of rice you are using and the pot. make sure the rice is still quite humid, in case add a little more water. Turn off the heat, add parmesan and butter, adjust salt and pepper, stir well. Let sit two-three minutes then serve immediately.