Not all rice dishes in Italy are risotto, says Silvia Colloca, the Italian-born food lover who has a passion for sharing delicious recipes passed down through her family for generations.
"Risotto can make people incredibly anxious, especially, it seems, if you are under pressure on reality TV," she says.
"How many aspiring chefs have tried and failed to beat the curse of the gluggy risotto?"
Very much like pasta and gnocchi making, there are some fundamental dos and don'ts that can make or break your risotto and, by extension, your self-esteem, she says
"In fact, the term 'risotto' refers to a particular cooking technique that is mainly applied to short-grain rice, but can also be used to cook cereal grains, such as barley or even pasta.
"There are three main types of rice used in Italian cooking: arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano. Arborio and carnaroli are high-starch short-grain varieties and are best suited for risotto making. Vialone nano can also be used in risotto, but its higher starch content also makes it perfect for soup preparations, like minestrone or risi e bisi."
The author of several cookbooks and regular delicious magazine contributor has also co-produced several television show including Cook Like an Italian, Wok vs Pot and Made in Italy for SBS and Silvia's Italian Table for the ABC.
In her latest book, Simple Italian: The essentials of Italian home cooking, she shares the secrets of the recipes at the heart of Italian cuisine.
Here she shares her tips for the perfect risotto and some Italian favourites. And one final tip?
"Please, please, under no circumstances add poultry, beef, haloumi, pesto or feta to risotto! And if you must, don't tell any Italians .
"And one final point: if prepared in a slow cooker or other extravagant kitchen gadget, it's not risotto - it's just a yummy rice dish."
- Simple Italian: The essentials of Italian home cooking, by Silvia Colloca. Plum, $39.99.
10 rules for the perfect risotto
1. Not all rice grains are suited for risotto. Carnaroli and arborio are the best ones to use. Under no circumstances try it with jasmine or basmati rice.
2. Use good stock. Your risotto is only ever going to be as good as your stock. No matter how stunning the other ingredients are, if the flavour is not established by the liquid component, your risotto will suffer. If you can use homemade, please go for it. If that is not an option, then you can spruce up bought liquid stocks, powders or cubes by adding a few fresh ingredients, such as carrot, onion (even just onion peel), parsley, chicken bones and any leftover greens you may have in the fridge. Make sure your stock is well seasoned, though taste it first as some bought stocks can be very salty.
3. Toast your rice grains well. It's important to toast the rice before adding the wine and the stock. This creates a barrier that will stop your rice from going mushy.
4. Be gentle. Once you start adding the stock, reduce the heat to medium-low. Risotto appreciates a bit of gentle heat.
5. Don't over-stir. I cannot stress this enough. You only need a light stir to make sure each grain of rice is well covered in stock after each addition. Constant vigorous stirring throughout the cooking time will release too much starch too soon, resulting in a gluey mess.
6. Use the right pan. Don't use a stockpot or large saucepan for risotto making. Rice grains do better in a heavy-based frying pan with a side about 10 cm high. I always use a non-stick one, as it makes cleaning that much easier.
7. Don't overcook your rice. This little-known truth about risotto may shock some, but in Italy we enjoy it al dente. Very much like when you are cooking dried pasta, if the packet suggests 18 to 20 minutes, turn the heat off after 16 to 17 minutes at the most. The residual heat will continue cooking it to perfection. Overcooked rice is truly unpalatable and gives your risotto the texture of baby food.
8. Honour the mantecatura. This is the name given to the final stage of risotto making. After you turn off the heat, add butter and parmigiano and stir like you mean it for 30-45 seconds to release all the starches. Add one ladleful of stock, cover with a lid and leave to rest for two minutes, allowing the steam to finish cooking the rice grains. When you remove the lid you will see that the rice has turned into risotto, with its signature creamy, slightly wet texture we like to call "all'onda" (like a wave).
9. Don't let risotto sit around. It must be eaten straight after mantecatura. Serve it in shallow rather than deep bowls to avoid piling up the hot rice, which will invariably lead to overcooked mush. Leftovers can be repurposed into delicious meals, like timballo, arancini and the underrated but exquisite riso al salto.
10. Enjoy the process. Risotto is no big deal. It cooks faster than you think and it really only requires a little love to reach its potential, so relax and enjoy it.
Risotto with asparagus and prawns
This elegant dish ticks all the boxes when it comes to flavour, texture and presentation. The combination of blushing pink prawns and vibrant green asparagus offers a pretty palette, with a subtle sweetness and earthy aromas. You will notice there is no parmigiano added to the mantecatura; this is because, with a few notable exceptions, Italians prefer to let the delicate flavour of seafood shine through.
1 bunch of asparagus
12 raw prawns
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
350g carnaroli or arborio rice
200ml dry white wine
2 litres good-quality vegetable stock, brought to a gentle simmer
salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
finely grated lemon zest, to serve
1. Trim the woody ends off the asparagus and peel the spears if they are thick. Cut the stems into 2cm pieces, keeping the tips intact. Set aside.
2. Peel and devein the prawns. You can add the prawn shells and heads to your stock for extra flavour if you like.
3. Heat the olive oil and half the butter in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium heat. Add the rice and stir until well coated in the oil and butter.
4. Add the wine and allow the alcohol to evaporate, stirring occasionally (this will take one to two minutes). Reduce the heat to medium-low and start adding the stock, a couple of ladlefuls at a time, giving it the occasional gentle stir. Keep adding the stock until the rice is almost al dente, about 15 to 16 minutes.
5. Add the asparagus and toss through, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining butter and another ladleful of stock. Stir vigorously to release the starch and create an all'onda texture. Add the prawns, then cover with a lid and let it rest for a few minutes to create the perfect mantecatura (creaminess). The residual heat will cook the prawns. Ladle into shallow bowls, sprinkle with lemon zest and black pepper and serve.
Ziti rotti with ragu Genovese
This traditional Italian dish dates back to the 15th century and is a signature dish of Cucina Napoletana. The name "Genovese" suggests its birthplace should be Genova, however it's more likely it was first made by someone whose surname was "il Genovese" (the one from Genova) and the name stuck. Unlike most Italian meat-based pasta sauces, rag Genovese is made without tomatoes. Plenty of onions and olive oil create the base, and the sauce needs to stew for hours until the onion is jammy and the meat is fall-apart tender.
When it comes to the type of pasta to accompany it, the Neapolitans stand firm: it must be ziti, a long tubular pasta that is broken by hand ("rotti" means broken) before cooking. This is the only time Italians agree to break long pasta before cooking. Never try this with linguine or spaghetti in front of an Italian if you value your life. If ziti are hard to come by, paccheri or rigatoni are the only acceptable substitutes. This sauce needs time to develop so make it the day before you want to eat it.
2 1/2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 small onions, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
300g chuck steak, cut into large chunks
300g beef cheeks, cut into large chunks
200ml white wine
salt flakes and freshly ground black pepper
400g dried ziti pasta
freshly grated parmigiano, to serve
1. Heat the olive oil in a large heavy-based saucepan over medium heat, add the onion, carrot and celery and cook until softened. Add the meat (in batches if needed so you don't overcrowd the pan) and brown well all over. Deglaze the pan with the wine, scraping up any bits caught on the base, and cook out the alcohol for three to four minutes.
2. Add 800 ml of water and season to taste (don't over-season at this point as the long, slow cooking process will intensify the flavours). Cover and cook over low heat for four to six hours (or even eight hours, if you can.). You'll know it's ready when the meat falls apart and the sauce is dark and has left a coating on the side of the pan. Leave it in the pan and place in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to develop.
3. When you are ready to eat, bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Break the ziti in half with your hands, drop them into the pan and stir well, then cook for eight minutes or until al dente.
4. Meanwhile, heat up the sauce, breaking up the meat with a fork if you need to. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the ziti to a large serving platter, dragging along a little pasta cooking water, then top with the rag and toss well. Make sure the ziti are perfectly coated in the sauce. Finish with a sprinkling of parmigiano and serve hot.
The perfect bruschetta
You'll find bruschetta on most antipasto platters in Italy as it combines our four favourite ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and bread. This is the traditional version and its disarming simplicity makes it a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Great-quality olive oil is essential, so try and source a locally produced one that packs some pungency. Of course, summer tomatoes are also key, but it's not simply a matter of slicing them and arranging them on the bread. You must first rub the bread with garlic, then use the cut side of a tomato to smear tomato juice all over both sides of the bread before grilling it. This ensures that the tomato flavour permeates the crumb, creating a texture that is both crunchy (courtesy of the grilling) and fluffy. Once you have obtained a char that pleases you, top with chopped tomato and a liberal lick of extra-virgin olive oil, and they're ready to be devoured. I must warn you, it makes for messy eating, but it is so worth it!
Before you dive in, I need to clarify once and for all that the correct way to pronounce bruschetta is broos-ket-ah. Okay, go!
400g mixed heirloom tomatoes
4 thick slices of sourdough (stale bread works really well, too)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
basil leaves, to serve (optional)
1. First, prepare the tomatoes. I usually slice some and roughly chop others, but remember to keep two larger tomatoes cut in half so you can smear the juice over the bread.
2. Rub the bread slices with the cut sides of the garlic cloves, then rub the cut side of the halved tomatoes onto both sides of the bread so they are dampened with the juices. Season with a little salt.
3. Heat a large chargrill pan over high heat. Add the bread slices and cook on both sides until charred to your liking.
4. Meanwhile, drizzle the olive oil over the remaining tomato and season with salt. Heap the tomato, juices and olive oil onto the grilled bread and season with a little more salt. Top with some basil leaves, if you like, and serve.
In Italy we have our very own type of doughnut, but, unlike its Anglo-Saxon cousin, the bomboloni remains in one piece without a big hole in the middle. You see, we Italians need that belly of dough to hold a tasty filling, like jam or custard, ready to gush out at the first bite.
7g sachet dried yeast
120ml milk, slightly warmed (to body temperature)
3 tbsp caster sugar, plus extra for coating
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
2 eggs, beaten
50g butter, melted
pinch of salt flakes
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
vegetable oil, for deep-frying
your favourite jam, for filling
1. Mix the yeast and milk in a large bowl. Add one teaspoon of the sugar and stand for a few minutes to froth up.
2. Add the flour, egg, butter, salt, lemon zest and the remaining sugar to the yeast mixture and mix to form a rough dough. If you have a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, knead it on medium speed for five minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic. Otherwise, just tip the rough dough onto a floured board or bench and knead for up to 10 minutes or until smooth.
3. Place the dough in a bowl, dust it lightly with flour and cover with a damp tea towel. Leave at room temperature for two to three hours or until the dough has doubleddough has more than doubled in size. In very hot climates, try to find a cooler spot (not the fridge) or it will rise too quickly. In very cold temperatures it may take a little longer to rise.
4. When the dough has risen, turn it out onto a clean floured surface and roll it out to 2.5cm thick. Cut out six rounds with a 5cm cookie cutter or ramekin and place them on a sheet of baking paper. Cover and leave to rise again for 30 to 45 minutes, until risen by about two-thirds.
5. Pour a generous amount of extra sugar onto a plate.
6. Pour vegetable oil into a deep frying pan, making sure you have enough to fully submerge the bomboloni. Add the balls in two batches and cook for two to three minutes each side until they are golden and cooked through. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and drop them straight into the sugar, then roll to coat them all over. Add more sugar as needed.
7. Cool the bomboloni on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes, then pipe your favourite jam into the centre. These are best enjoyed on the day you make them.
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