By Alison Ashton
As long as there’s a jar of arborio rice in the pantry, stock on hand, and a smidgen of leftover wine, I can bust out a hearty, comforting risotto for supper any evening. But because I’m expanding my repertoire of whole grains these days, I’m experimenting with different types of grains so I can have my risotto and eat it, too.
The term “risotto” refers to a method as well as a dish and involves gradually adding hot stock to a grain, which gently coaxes out the starch for a lovely creamy texture. It’s a technique that can be used to cook all kinds of grains, and the Italians have a long tradition of using the risotto method to prepare grains other than arborio rice. Heck, it even works with pasta.
The basic steps of risotto are simple and worth committing to memory so you can improvise:
Soffrito. Heat a little fat–olive oil, butter, lard (if you’re feeling decadent)–in a large, heavy pan (a saucepan, Dutch oven, or saute pan is fine) over medium heat. Add finely chopped aromatics (shallot, onion, carrot, and/or celery), and cook until tender. Add minced garlic, if you’re using it, and cook 30 seconds or until fragrant.
Riso. Add the rice or other grain, and cook it a minute or two, stirring constantly. White rice like arborio or carnaroli will turn translucent; whole grains will get a bit toasty. Arborio and carnaroli are both types of short-grain, starchy rice, which makes for particularly creamy risotto. When using whole grains, you’ll want something similarly plump and starchy, like short- or medium-grain brown rice, farro, barley, or even steel-cut oats. I even made a pretty risotto recently with Madagascar pink rice. Long-grain rice and non-starchy whole grains like quinoa don’t lend themselves to the risotto method. These grains will still cook using the risotto technique, but they won’t become creamy.
Vino. Next, add a generous splash or two of wine, and cook, stirring the grains constantly, until the wine is absorbed. White wine is traditional. In a pinch, I’ll use dry vermouth. Rose, sake, or even sherry or red wine also work.
Brodo. Risotto requires liquid, which can be hot water, stock (chicken, vegetable, beef, our Mushroom Stock, fish), or even milk. Whole-grain risotto requires more liquid than risotto made with white rice. The Whole Grains Council has a general guideline for grain-to-liquid ratios, and you can always supplement with extra water if you need more liquid. Add the hot liquid a little at time, stirring frequently, until it’s absorbed before adding the next ladleful. The risotto is done when the grain becomes creamy and al dente–tender, but not mushy.
Condimento. Risotto is a rich canvas to showcase seasonal ingredients–delicate English peas or asparagus in spring, grilled bell peppers and eggplant in summer, roasted butternut squash, and root veggies come fall. Mushrooms are a classic match for risotto; so is shellfish. A little grating of cheese is a nice finishing touch.
Five easy steps to risotto-style whole grains … great for any season.
A longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.