It’s not a dessert, yet it is one of the most sensuous dishes ever devised. When I seriously started down the path of Italian cooking, there were a few dishes on my bucket list to discover, but risotto wasn’t one of them. Why? Because it is rarely done properly or well and more often than not it comes tasting like mushy rice mixed with Lipton’s cup-o-soup. And I don’t mean that to sound condescending or arrogant, but for a dish at its essence is so purely simple, it is constantly ruined. All it requires to be amazing is stellar ingredients matched with love and patience. But in our fast-food culture, it’s no wonder why most people haven’t tasted really good risotto. I aim to change that.
I will honestly admit that I learned my risotto craft in the kitchen of Matt Kramer’s cookbook: A Passion for Piedmont: Italy’s Most Glorious Regional Table. I bought this book 15 years ago, the same year I turned a love into a passion (some might even call it an obsession). It remains in print for a very good reason. In eight packed pages, Kramer does an amazing job of teaching what risotto is, its origin and how it fits within the Piedmont cuisine, how to prepare it, and he then provides sumptuous recipes that are perfect. To succeed, all you need do is the foundation and techniques which I will try to share here as well. Once you’ve mastered this (and it’s not very hard), you’ll have the confidence to invent your own or do whatever the heck you want. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 15 years and why, today, making risotto is as second nature as making fried egg or a grilled-cheese sandwich.
Risotto is Northern Italian fare and it is as good an example of what makes Mediterranean, Italian and Northern Italian food spectacular: prima materia. Prima materia? The best ingredients. Beyond the cooking technique itself, there are three particular ingredients that are at the essence of any risotto: 1) arborio rice, a short-grain Italian rice native to the Po region (a river valley in Northern Italy) and it is this rice which informed the dishes in which it is used because its high starch content produces an unmistakeable creaminess 2) high-quality Parmesan and 3) homemade chicken stock. The key to the whole thing, however, is that incredible rice. The whole cooking process is really an art in coaxing out as much of that irresistible starch as possible. So, contrary to most rice dishes, risotto is cooked “open,” and without a cover. This means for a longer cooking time — 3xtimes longer than long-grained white rice — but it means for 3xtimes more minutes during which you can slowly move the rice around the pan and draw forth those starches. Those same starches, however, also mean that this dish has a clear zenith — a moment when the rice is al dente and the starch is still liquid. For this reason, risotto has a very small serving window when it is perfect because as soon as the temperature lowers, the starch starts to congeal and it goes from creamy to sticky. This is also the reason why it should ideally be served on a hot plate and its why I personally add a little bit of cream to the dish to reduce the ‘stickiness’ … and it is for all these reasons why risotto needs to be served fresh! If risotto comes to your table in any less time than 45 minutes, it means someone has cut a corner, something has been precooked, and/or the rice is not arborio. It is made with 45 minutes of gentle stirring, 45 minutes of adding a half-cup of stock a laddle at a time ever 5 minutes; it is a dish that is made patiently and with love. If it isn’t, send it back!
Ah, the risotto soap-box, a lonely place to stand but once you’ve tasted it ‘right’ you won’t settle for anything less either ….
So about this particular risotto dish. The inspiration came once I identified the mystery veggie in my CSA box #4 (see “What Am I?” — and thanks to Tammy (aka AgriGirl) who identified it as “Dinosaur Kale” and from there I learned that it was also known as “Tuscan Kale.” And so the Northern Italian linkage was made in my brain and the rest is, as they say, history.
It seems a bit of a sin to take something so extraordinarily hedonistic as risotto and make it healthy, but the fact is, the Tuscan kale does bring distinct nutritional values to this dish which is, kale aside, essentially a classic lemon risotto with the exception that I chose to use strips of lemon peel rather than lemon zest. What’s particularly nice about using the kale in this recipe rather than the more ubiquitous spinach, for example, is that the kale softens but never disintegrates or gets mushy and so the its toothfeel and flavour are always distinct and a nice counterpoint to the risotto’s creaminess. All in all, the addition of the Tuscan kale is a great way to bring a classic Italian ingredient to the modern table.
Prep time: 15 hour
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 60 minutes
Lemon Risotto with Tuscan Kale
- 1½ cups arborio rice
- 75 grams of pancetta or bacon, cubed
→ order from butcher ‘thick’ sliced, about ¼” (½cm)
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 carrot (1/2 cup) chopped
- 3 cloves of roasted garlic
- 1/2 a lemon, peel cut into strips
→ reserve rest of lemon for garnish
- 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, chopped
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1/2 cup of white wine
- 1/2 lb (2-3 cups) Tuscan kale (stalks/veins removed), cut into 1″ strips
- water as necessary
- 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1/2 cup of whipping cream
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/2 cup pine nuts, roasted (optional for garnish)
- sprigs of rosemary (optional for garnish)
- If you haven’t already roasted your garlic, start by doing this. Also, if you’re using pine nuts for garnish, toast your pine nuts now and set aside.
(See Direction #3 in Caesar Salad recipe for instructions on roasting garlic).
- Heat your chicken stock in a pot and keep on low for duration of cooking. (Cold stock will slow the process.)
- Meanwhile do your prep. Cube your pancetta and chop your shallots and carrot. Chop the rosemary. Lay each kale leaf flat on a cutting board and slice out the middle vein attached to the stem and discard. Roll the leaves together in a cigar and slice kale into 1″ strips. Wash thoroughly in a salad spinner and set aside. Prepare the lemon skin by cutting half a lemon into quarters and then, using a very sharp knife, ‘fillet’ out the white pith until just the outer yellow lemon skin remains.
- Begin by frying the pancetta over medium-heat for 2 minutes. Add butter and then add carrots and shallots and fry for another 3 minutes until everything is lightly browned. Add in rosemary and stir.
Add the rice to the pan and stir around until all the rice is covered in oil and the rice becomes transparent except for heart/pearl of the rice which will stay white.
Add the wine and deglaze the pan. When wine is about 1/2 evaporated, add in a ladle of stock and reduce pan to medium-low/low, just so that the rice is at an even simmer. Once the stock is reduced by half, add the lemon peel, and a half-cup more of stock. Carefully stir with a wooden spoon by moving the risotto back-and-forth to incorporate the stock. Let simmer.
- Watch the rice carefully while it cooks and each time that almost all the stock has evaporated, in about 5 minute intervals, add in another 1/2 cup stock and carefully stir (as above) again. Don’t let the pan dry out.
- After 15 minutes, stir in the roasted garlic paste and about 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt. Continue to cook.
- After about 30 minutes of total cooking, put your dinner plates/bowls in the oven at lowest setting (≈ 150ºF) to heat them.At this point, stir the kale leaves into the risotto and continue adding stock.
If you run out of stock near the end (which is possible) either use more stock or simply use hot water. There will be enough chicken flavour at this point, regardless. Continue this process until rice is almost al dente, firm to the tooth. Taste for salt and pepper at this point.
- Add the cream into the rice, stir, and 1 minute later, add in the Parmesan. Remove from heat.
- Serve immediately on warm plates and garnish with lemon wedges, rosemary sprig, roasted pine nuts (optional), and fresh Parmesan curls.
Note: I served this dish with Tuscan Chicken but risotto is truly best served as it’s own dish as either a middle or a main course.
Wine Pairing: Dry white wine like a Gavi (from Piedmont) or an Orvieto (central Italy).