Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Risotto Snob - What to Look For in a Good Risotto

Risotto can be quite perplexing, especially for those who might not know how to appreciate a good one.

Being Asian, we tend to be a huge consumer of rice, and we like our rice somewhat soft and fluffy. And for some, the idea of mui fan, or mushy rice in gooey stock is a particular favourite.

Truth is, risotto is a totally different ball game. Or in this case, a grain game. There is a reason why risotto rice costs more than your Thai fragrant rice.

For one, the starch level in risotto rice like arborio and carnaroli is much higher. Thus, it tends to elicit a creamier, thicker consistency when compared to traditional rice grains.

The other key difference is how the grains are cooked. Rice is simply boiled in water until the grains are soft and edible in one go. Risotto, however, needs more effort and care in cooking it. And lots of stirring is involved.

The risotto grains need to be toasted either in olive oil or butter first, before stock is added in ladle by ladle until they are cooked. And there is also what the Italians call mantecare, which is to finish the cooking process with butter and cheese to emulsify the sauce further to make it even creamier and glossy.

Perfect Risotto at Bridge

The perfect risotto should have the grains still visible and plump when it is presented, and a rich, shiny creamy sauce covering the grains. The sauce should not be too watery, nor too dry.

At the same time, the risotto grains should flow easily onto the plate when it is served and move like a lava like motion.  But looks are not everything, and this is where a lot of Singaporeans tend to get it wrong on what is a good risotto dish.

Most Singaporeans will complain that a risotto is too hard or undercooked, and that might be true. Undercooked risotto will have the texture of a bullet, but more important, it will have a very chalky and powdery taste.

Porcini Risotto

On the other hand, overcooked risotto will result in broken grains and this is the most common mistake found in a lot of cafe risottos. Yet, a number of Singaporeans like it this way, which is wrong. Once the grains are broken, it is over. No two ways about it.

The perfect texture should have the classic al dente bite. That is, it is still firm enough to have a slight bite, but will not be overly resistant to bursting/breaking with just the slightest of pressure. Similar to a good pasta texture.

The problem with a lot of commercial risottos sold outside is that they tend to par cook their risotto. That is, they pre cook half way, and only finish the cooking upon order. This is bad as the risotto will have dried out and literally died. Adding more stock only upon a new order does not rescue the rice, and often will lead to broken and unappetising looking grains.

The best way to have a risotto is to have the chef cook it from start to finish. That will take about 20 minutes, but trust me, it is worth the wait. A good risotto, when done right, it just a pleasure to savour.

Nasi Lemak Risotto

The other big issue I have with commercial risottos is how they like to treat it more like a gimmick and fusion dish. The risotto should always be the hero of the dish, and not just be a side prop to a east meets west party trick. Often gimmick risottos will have the grains buried under a barrage of protein and extraneous ingredients that take the focus away from the actual risotto.

A lot of young folks might think this is clever, but the proof is in how many times will you go back to a gimmick dish? No matter how instagrammable it may look. Good risottos you can have every day, and sticking to classic flavours like mushroom is the way to go.

Ultimately, a beautiful plate of risotto should look simple but elegant, with the grains calling out to you to eat them. They will look calm and relaxed, unfettered by superfluous ingredients. And especially, avoid risottos drizzled with truffle oil. A well executed risotto will taste fine on its own.

Chorizo Risotto

The taste of a good risotto is undeniable. It is rich with a feeling of warmth. It should have a mischievous texture yet soothing even at the last spoonful. It should also look glossy and shiny like a brand new polished automobile. Preferably an Intercontinental car.

So, next time you order a risotto, pay attention to the little details. Ignore the extraneous gimmicks or fusion that comes with it. Respect the risotto ingredient for what it is, for when it is done well, it can be quite sublime.

Finally, enjoy a risotto dish for all the flavours and bite that it can provide to be one of the most comforting dishes that can exist today.

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