A STIRRING PERFORMANCE : FOOD & DRINK

A true risotto is a work of art, not the soggy pudding we often meet. In the first of a series on kitchen classics, Michael Bateman learns the secret of this Italian speciality from a master chef MasterClass 1: Risotto
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The Independent Culture
How many have been lucky enough to eat risotto alla milanese as it really should be cooked, a lovely golden platter of runny rice with slices of bone marrow adorning it? Alas, risotto prepared in this country too often arrives at table as a solid rice pudding.

In this occasional series, we look at great dishes of the world rendered by the masters of their genre. Many are favourites which have been debased by the reworking of inferior hands, by compromising on time, effort, energy or quality of ingredients.

So here then is an original, true risotto alla milanese. The uncompromising instructions will enable you to make as good a risotto as any in Milan. Have a little patience, though; if you do not get a perfect risotto the first time, it will soon come with practice.

First, meet our maestro and teacher, the dashing, moustachioed Stefano Cavallini, who resembles one of the Three Musketeers. At 28, he is head chef of The Halkin Restaurant (5 Halkin St, London SW1X 7DJ, tel: 071- 333 1234), which is home to London's most ambitious modern Italian cuisine; it won its first Michelin star last month. Stefano cut his teeth at Milan's stylish Gualtiero Marchesi, a Michelin three-star restaurant and one of the most renowned in Italy.

Risotto is not an ancient classical dish, Stefano quickly explains. Nor is it even eaten universally in Italy, as are pasta and pizza. (Italians eat a modest 10lb a head of rice per annum compared with people in the East, who eat several hundred pounds a head). Although rice has been grown in the Po Valley from the 15th century, it was usually used for puddings or to bulk up soups. By the 19th century, the soup was bulking up the rice. The soupy risotto of Milan was born.

Risotto is made exclusively with a unique, plump, round-grain rice (sativa japonica) that has the special quality of absorbing a great deal of liquid. Very special, and very costly: Italian round-grain rice is the most expensive in the world. And no, Uncle Ben's won't do; it's made from long-grain rice (sativa indicus), which embraces everything from patna to basmati.

There are four grades of Italian round-grain rice. The cheapest is commune, used in broths and puddings. Next is semi-fino. Then fino. And fin-ally, super-fino - the toughest, starchiest and most expensive - the best known being arborio and carnaroli. It needs the longest cooking time, 20-30 minutes, and is usually considered the most suitable for risotto. (Not by Stefano, though. We'll come to that later.)

So, risotto. The recipe. The basic method doesn't vary much, but there are many kinds of risotto - with meat, beef marrow, chicken, seafood, mushrooms, vegetables and so on. The rice is cooked in stock which may include different flavourings, such as saffron or squid ink. Stefano lists the five stages.

Stage 1: Il soffritto - a flavouring base of slowly cooked onions. Gently fry finely chopped onion in butter or olive oil. This will take up to 10 minutes, though some dedicated cooks do it very slowly over half an hour.

Stage 2: La tostatura. Heat the uncooked rice in the soffritto to coat the grains in fat, partially sealing them.

Stage 3: La cottura (the cooking). Simmer the rice in good stock. Risotto rice contains a lot of starch; the cooking method is designed to release enough of it to make a creamy, thick sauce - and to get the rice to soak up as much stock as possible at the same time.

Stage 4: All'onda. When the rice is ready - not soft, but chewy (al dente) - test for consistency of the risotto by jerking the pan sharply to make the mixture roll like a wave falling on the shore (onda - a wave).

Stage 5: Mantecare (mixing in). Off the stove, generously stir in butter and grated parmesan cheese.

Now let Chef Stefano demonstrate. He will cook two kinds of risotto: the traditional saffron-coloured milanese, and a black seafood risotto.

First, he sets out his stall. For a start, he has made a lot of stock - one from beef shinbone, onions and carrots simmered for three hours, the other from fish bones, wine and onion simmered for 25 minutes. He keeps six ladlesful of each (a pint or half-litre) simmering in pans on the stove until he needs them.

Next, he arranges his other ingredients. Slices of marrow from a marrowbone. A blob of glace de viande, jellied beef stock. Butter. Extra-virgin olive oil. Finely chopped onion. White wine. Saffron. Salt. Pepper. Pieces of squid.

And, of course, the rice. The first surprise: he's not using the usual Milanese risotto rice, arborio or carnaroli. He measures out two heaps of vialone nano, a semi-fino rice normally used in the Venice region. "It's my preference. It's more of a challenge. Semi-fino has a shorter cooking time [13-16 minutes]. On the other hand, it requires more attention, as it is easy to overcook."

Now to the pan. Stefano produces a chef's pan of tinned copper, steep- sided, 6in across. Would any pan do? Perhaps a non-stick frying pan, given risotto's tendency to stick? Good heavens, no, says Stefano, passing a hand across his brow. "Never. A frying pan disperses moisture quickly. You need a steep-sided pan to retain it." (A heavy-bottomed casserole would do.)

In a restaurant kitchen Stefano usually cooks the first stage, the soffrito, in advance. He fries a tablespoon of finely chopped onion over a medium heat, stirring it with a wooden spoon. It starts to turn yellow. He tastes it at intervals until he thinks it sweet and soft enough.

Now he scatters in 2oz/55g of rice (for two people this is a modest amount, but risotto in Italy is usually eaten as first course, followed by a dish such as braised meat). After stirring for a mere 30 seconds, he picks up a grain to show how it has changed from chalky white to glossy and opaque. The tostatura is now complete.

Stefano now raises the heat under the rice and pours on a large glass of dry white wine, cooking it until it completely boils away. He pours in two ladlesful of the piping hot stock prepared earlier. It sizzles in the pan and bubbles to the boil. "The important thing is to keep the rice boiling the whole time," he warns. "If the surface starts to cool, it will harden. Then it won't absorb liquid properly."

It wouldn't be true to say Stefano stirs without stopping for 14 minutes. But he doesn't take his eye off the pan, adding more liquid as it starts to dry out, but never drowning it. Quite early on he adds a large pinch of saffron. The rice quickly turns a golden yellow.

At last Stefano can tell from the appearance of a grain of rice, which has swollen to more than twice its original size, that it is done. It looks done. It tastes done. Now he judges the soupiness of the mixture, adding only very little stock to get it right (if too much had been added earlier, it would be impossible to reduce the liquid at this stage without overcooking the rice). Stefano shakes a wave across the pan and it rolls like the ocean breaking on a distant shore. It is ready.

Off the heat, he stirs 1oz/30g of butter and a tablespoon of freshly grated parmesan cheese into the mixture. The risotto is very sloppy, and when he shakes it on to a wide plate it runs to the edges. He garnishes it with some slices of beef marrow (poached in beef stock for a minute) and a circle of the glace de viande to intensify the flavour.

That's all. In less than half an hour he has produced one of the most heavenly dishes ever conceived.

Suddenly, the black seafood risotto appears. In a restaurant one chef will have more than one risotto on the go simultaneously. The seafood risotto is made with fish stock coloured with a few blobs of squid ink (your fishmonger will oblige), but it is otherwise made the same way. Off the heat, butter is added, but not cheese. Stefano garnishes it with quickly stir-fried pieces of squid, a trick he learnt in Japan. (Squid needs 30 seconds of cooking or three hours. Nothing in between works.)

This is all very well for the restaurant chef, the batterie de cuisine pots and pans at his fingertips, but is it something you can really do at home? Having bought a suitable tinned copper pan (£40 from Divertimenti) and a kilogram of vialone nano rice (£3 from Carluccio's in Covent Garden) I went home and made the second best risotto alla milanese I've ever eaten. The best was, of course, Stefano's.

RISOTTO ALLA

MILANESE

Serves 2 (as a main dish for lunch)

12 onion, very finely chopped

2oz/55g butter

6oz/170g round-grain rice (vialone nano, arborio or carnaroli)

1 pint/600ml beef stock

beef marrow, cut into 14in slices (optional)

1 glass dry white wine

1oz/30g parmesan cheese, grated

pinch of saffron

salt and pepper

Using a tall-sided, heavy-bottomed pan (preferably 6-7in across) melt 12oz/15g of butter. Gently cook the onion in it until soft, sweet and yellow.

Pour in the rice in a stream, and stir with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds until the rice is well coated with the onion-flavoured butter.

Raise the heat, pour on the wine and, without stirring, wait until it boils away. Then pour on two ladlesful of simmering beef stock (either made your own way or Stefano's, see above), and cook briskly (but not on highest heat) until it is absorbed, stirring to prevent sticking. Before rice dries out completely, continue to add stock a ladleful at a time.

Crush the saffron with the back of a spoon, and add it now. After 12 minutes (semi-fino rice) or 20 minutes (arborio and carnaroli super-fino rice), start tasting the grains to check when the rice is al dente. Season with salt and pepper.

Add only enough liquid now to keep the sauce creamy and slightly runny. If you have run out of stock, add a little boiling water.

When ready, the grains should be cooked but slightly chewy. The consistency should be so wet that it will make a wave if you shake the pan. (If you can do that, you're a maestro already.)

Immediately remove from the heat, and gently stir in the butter, cut into little pieces. Stir in the grated parmesan. Garnish with a ring of beef marrow, poached in beef stock for a minute. !

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