Risotto is _________. If this was a question on a quiz, could you fill in the blank? Is it (a) a type of rice, (b) an Italian rice dish, (c) a method in Italy for cooking short-grained rice that is used interchangeably for both the method and the name of the dish, or (d) b & c? In fairness, I would give full credit for answers (b) – (d), but a gold star to someone who answers (c) alone.
For those who nailed the answer, do you know the correct method to execute the dish “risotto?” I too often read recipes that say “add half of the stock and let cook slowly for ten minutes stirring occasionally.” Welcome to short-cut city. If there is one thing that Italians are known for, it is being fiercely loyal to their food, the technique, the authenticity, the regionality, the “way Grandma made it.” Well ask an Italian (I am one) if “Grandma added half of the stock and stirred occasionally.” Oh, and then duck because they may swing at you.
What makes risotto risotto is the marriage of the cooking technique and the high starch content of the rice that is used. The cooking technique (adding stock slowly while constantly stirring) gently coaxes the starch out of the rice giving the finished risotto a “creamy” texture. Risottos have become a very popular and profitable dish, but my Grandma’s authenticity has been lost in the process.
The origins of this cooking technique and dish are from Northern Italy, where rice fields were abundant. Consequently, typical ingredients for authentic risotto also come from this (Northern Italian) region: truffles, butter, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, mushrooms, saffron, and in the case of “Risotto Milanese,” the braised bone marrow from veal osso bucco.
From this same general area in Italy comes “farro,” a grain that is most like spelt and wheat. It is often ground into flour (the Italian word “Farina,” which means flour comes from the word farro) and used to make pasta. Farro (also known as “emmer”) has a nutty and earthy flavor, higher protein content than rice, and slightly lower starch content. Commonly added to minestrone, farro is easily digestible and is becoming a better-known component of Italian gastronomy.
You can substitute farro for the typical short grain rice in the authentic risotto method. I typically add some curly leaf spinach, parmigiano, and a toasted hazelnut gremolata to accentuate the nutty flavor of the farro and brighten the overall dish. I choose to toast the farro with dry heat to “wake up” the grain before drowning it in slow, methodically stirred additions of chicken stock--the way Grandma would have done it.