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Giancarla Bodoni of Escopazzo: How to Master Risotto

If making perfect risotto were a race, it would be a marathon, not a sprint. The cooking process is all about maintaining a watchful hand and a careful dedication to teasing the starch out of each rice grain. In fact, if a restaurant serves a risotto less than 15 minutes after it was ordered, you have a very good reason to be suspicious.

That's because a flawless risotto is achieved solely through the steady stirring of the rice. It typically takes about 20 minutes to complete. Faster renditions, unfortunately, are probably faking the starch effect with fatty dashes of cream.

But a perfectly achieved risotto is the epitome of velvety indulgence (with no cream in sight). So we sought the advice of Giancarla Bodoni, chef and owner of Escopazzo, the South Beach staple for Northern Italian fare since 1993, and asked for her tips on mastering the rice dish. With her help, we created a basic recipe that will deliver a perfect risotto every time. And after a few practice rounds, you might discover it is quite simple -- the best risotti are made with caring hands and quality ingredients.

To begin, select a riso superfino -- short-grain, barrel-shapped rice with a white center that remains firm when cooked, with a starchy outer surface. Bodoni recommends carnaroli, maratelli, or vialone nano, although she primarily uses carnaroli at the restaurant. Arborio is more readily available, but it will not render the sufficient starch required for a perfect risotto. I couldn't find carnaroli at Whole Foods, Publix, or Milam's, so it might be best to just go ahead and order a few pounds online.

Also, opt for a stainless-steel or ceramic skillet with a heavy bottom. The size of your pan will always determine the amount of risotto it will yield, because the layer of rice should never exceed an inch of thickness. Thin layers ensure proper development of starch and even cooking. For this reason, risotto is probably not the ideal dish to serve for parties larger than four to six people. Larger portions would require an extremely large skillet.

Bodoni stresses the importance of using a wooden spoon as well. "Metal spoons can harm the rice grain and interfere with the release of the starch into the dish," she explains.

Also, always try to use homemade stock for the risotto. Bodoni uses mostly a vegetable stock at the restaurant -- one flavored heavily with celery. But seafood risotto could benefit from a stock flavored with open shellfish, and a beef risotto could benefit from chicken or beef stock. If you don't have the time to make your own stock, buy high-quality, low-sodium organic vegetable stock. Scope out the ingredients to make sure there is nothing artificial sneaked in there.

All of the ingredients added to the risotto should be warm or room temperature so the grains aren't shocked (this would, again, affect the release of starch). The exception is cold butter, which is added at the very end of the process (mantecare).

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Last, the following recipe is for a basic risotto alla parmigiana, but it could easily be adjusted to suit your tastes or cravings. Use it as a base to strengthen your familiarity with the whole process, and then get playful: Add seasonal vegetables, and vary the cheeses. Incorporate meats and seafood. Herbs too.

The Perfect Risotto
A recipe created with special insights by Giancarla Bodoni
Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as pasta course or side dish

4-5 cups home made vegetable stock (or store-bought low sodium, organic)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/2 - 3/4 cup)
1 1/2 cups Carnaroli rice
1/4 cup good white wine (I used Grüner Veltliner)
1/4 stick cold, unsalted European-style butter, chopped in small pieces

3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Heat the stock in a medium saucepan over low heat. Maintain the stock just below a simmer.

2. Soffritto: In a large, wide skillet, sweat the onion and olive oil over low or medium-low heat for about 10 - 15 minutes. The onions should not brown. One of my teachers of Italian cuisine always stressed that a soffritto should never make harsh noises of stir-frying or sautéing. It should be a soft, low and slow process.

3. Tostatura: Giancarla says, "The tostatura or toasting the rice is the most important part of starting a risotto dish." This step is all about prepping the rice to release its starch. Add the rice to the soffritto and stir until each grain is glistening and covered in olive oil. Stir gently until you hear faint sounds of toasting, for about five minutes. The edge of the rice should become translucent.

4. Next, do as is said in Italy, she explains, "Il riso nasce nell'acqua e muore nel vino" (rice is born in water and dies in wine). Bump up the heat to medium-high and deglaze the pan with white wine. Stir until the wine has evaporated.

Tip: Most restaurants prep risotto until this point. They continue from here when the dish is ordered. You can do the same at home. Transfer the risotto to a sheet pan and keep in the fridge. Continue cooking once guests have arrived, or it's nearing dinner time.

5. Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup stock to the risotto and stir with a wooden spoon. Make sure there aren't any grains stuck on the side of the skillet, or these could make for a few harsh, under-cooked bites. Sweep the wooden spoon along the edges of the pan, and shake the pan occasionally. Continue adding stock every time the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid. Repeat this process for about fifteen minutes (if it's your first time making the dish, set a timer for ten minutes and begin checking the risotto after that point).

6. The rice will be ready when the interior of each grain maintains a slight bite. Run the spoon through the center of the rice -- it should hold up and then slowly begin to get back together. It should be slightly fluid, especially since risotto gets thicker as it cools.

7. Mantecare: For the finishing additions of butter and cheese, always remove the risotto from the heat. Add the butter and cheese and stir until creamy and velvety. The stock and cheese should have contributed sufficient salt to the dish, but verify seasoning just in case.

8. Serve the risotto in warmed plates with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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