ONE of my first cookery articles was entitled '50 Ways With Rice'. I remember force-feeding groups of remarkably faithful friends with meals composed entirely of rice. A friend who keeps smiling through a menu composed of rice fritters followed by fried rice and risotto, rice salad and a brace of rice puddings is a friend indeed.

Among things that concentrated burst of rice cookery taught me was just how huge the range of different rices is, and how important it is to use the right one for a specific dish. The rice dishes of particular countries have evolved around the qualities of the rice grown there and these qualities can vary enormously.

This is true, above all, of risotto, which is not merely any old dish of any old rice, boiled and mixed with a few bits and bobs. A risotto must be made with genuine risotto rice and there is no substitute. This is not just a foodie's foible. The medium-length grains are stubby, almost square in cross-section and are capable of absorbing large quantities of liquid without going mushy and losing their shape. The high starch content is essential (never rinse the rice), as this is what produces the creaminess of the finished dish.

Buying risotto rice is now much easier than it used to be. Many larger supermarkets sell it, though I still get it from my local Italian delicatessen. The most widely available type is arborio, but you may come across other varieties. The one I like best is vialone nano which has very fat grains, though Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cookery, prefers carnaroli.

Though the right rice is the cornerstone of a good risotto, the other 'must' is the method. Risotto requires constant attention throughout the 25 minutes or so that it takes to cook. You must stir it almost continuously, adding liquid in small doses, in order to dissolve the starch. The way you stir makes a difference, too. Take it gently, stirring in a circular motion, scraping up the grains of rice on the base of the pan so that they do not stick.

The creation of a risotto almost inevitably begins with softening chopped onion or shallot in butter. Olive oil may be used, but this is a dish of the north of Italy, where butter rather than oil reigns supreme. Butter also usually reappears in the last stage of the process when the risotto is mantecati - enriched by having more butter beaten into it. Risotto is not a dish for dieters or cholesterol-counters.

There is no one correct consistency for a risotto. In Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna, cooks like it fairly thick and sticky, while in the Veneto they prefer it all'onda - literally wavy - that is, much soupier and wetter and rather less sturdy. Personally, I'm with the Venetian cooks on this one, but that's just a matter of taste.

The great thing about risottos is that once you get the knack, you can invent your own versions willy-nilly. As long as you have the basics - rice, butter, onion, a light stock (ideally it should be home-made, but many an Italian cook uses stock-cubes diluted to half strength) and Parmesan - you can conjure up a wonderfully filling supper in half an hour or so.

THE following is perhaps the greatest of all risottos. It can be served on its own, or as a side-dish. The quantity of saffron depends entirely on your taste and pocket. A full 1/8 teaspoon gives a glorious daffodil yellow colour, half that reduces it to primrose and a mild aromatic hint. A very generous pinch of saffron threads is about equivalent to 1 16 teaspoon. Dry fry briefly to crisp, then pound to a powder.

Beef marrow gives the risotto a marvellous richness. Good, friendly butchers will provide it for a matter of pennies, or even give it to you free.

Risotto Milanese

Serves 4-6

1150ml/2pts chicken stock

1/16/1/8 tsp powdered saffron or 1-2 generous pinches saffron threads (see above)

60g/2oz beef marrow, roughly chopped (optional)

85g/3oz butter

2 shallots, finely chopped or 1 1/2 tbs finely chopped onion

340g/12oz arborio rice

110ml/4fl oz dry white wine

salt and pepper

60g/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

Preparation: Bring the stock to the boil, turn down the heat and keep at a low simmer. Pour 2tbs of hot stock over the saffron and leave to steep. Melt two-thirds of the butter in a heavy pan. Add the beef marrow and shallot or onion and fry gently until tender without browning. Add the rice and stir for 1 minute until translucent. Pour in the wine and simmer over a medium-low heat until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, stirring constantly. Add a generous ladleful of stock, and simmer again until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, stirring constantly. Repeat this process, adding a ladleful of stock at a time, until the rice is tender but still al dente, ie firm but not chalky and hard. Add the saffron and its soaking liquid after the risotto has been simmering for about 20 minutes. You may find that you don't need all of the stock, but if you don't have quite enough, finish with hot water; the finished risotto should be creamy and wet, but not swimming in liquid. Stir in the remaining butter (or more]), the Parmesan, pepper and salt to taste. Serve immediately, with extra Parmesan for those who want it.

ALTHOUGH you could use any good, meaty pork sausages for this risotto, it's worth a trip to an Italian deli to get the proper Luganega sausages. For a plainer sausage risotto, omit the mushrooms and use white wine.

Sausage & Porcini Risotto

Serves 4-6

1150m/2pts chicken, meat or vegetable stock

10g/1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms

225g/8oz Luganega sausages

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

30g/1oz butter

1 tbs sunflower oil

285g/10oz arborio or other risotto rice

4 sage leaves

1 glass dry red wine

3 tbs freshly grated Parmesan

salt and pepper

Preparation: Cover the porcini with boiling water. Leave for 15 minutes, then pick out the pieces and chop roughly. Leave the soaking water in the bowl to settle. Cut the sausage into pieces about 1cm (3/8 in) thick. Bring the stock to the boil. Reduce the heat and keep hot.

In a large, heavy-based pan, cook the onion and garlic gently in 1/2 oz butter and the oil until tender without brown ing. Raise the heat, add the sausage, and fry until browned. Add the rice, sage and soaked mushrooms and stir for 1 minute until rice is translucent. Add salt and pepper, pour in the wine and the soaking liquid from the

mushrooms, taking care to stop before you reach the grit at the bottom. Simmer until it has almost all been absorbed, stirring constantly.

Continue cooking as for the Risotto Milanese, adding the stock a ladleful at a time, until the rice is cooked. Draw off the heat and beat in the remaining butter and Parmesan. Adjust seasonings and serve.

THIS is a gutsy, robust vegetable risotto, made with cabbage, tomato and sun-dried tomato. Simple, but effective.

Risotto con la Verza e Pomodori

Serves 4-6

1150m/2pts chicken, meat or vegetable stock

1tbs sunflower oil

60g/2oz butter

1/2 onion, chopped

3 cloves of garlic

450g/1lb savoy cabbage, thinly shredded, stalk discarded

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs thyme

285g/10oz risotto rice

200g/7oz tin chopped tomatoes

8 pieces sun-dried tomato, roughly chopped

45g/1 1/2 oz freshly grated Parmesan

salt and pepper

Preparation: Bring the stock to the boil, turn down the heat and keep at a low simmer. Warm the oil and half the butter in a heavy pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and fry gently until tender without browning. Pile in the cabbage and the herbs. Stir, then cover tightly and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover, add the rice and stir for 1 minute until translucent. Add the chopped tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes and a ladleful of hot stock, and simmer until almost all the liquid has been absorbed, stirring constantly. Continue as for Risotto Milanese, adding the stock, a ladleful at a time, until the rice is done. Beat in the remaining butter, the Parmesan, pepper and salt. Serve immediately, with extra Parmesan.