Monday, September 6, 2010

Risotto al pomodoro and how to make risotto (and tomato sauce)

My in-laws are in town so we had them over for lunch yesterday.
You remember my mother-in-law? The Sicilian cooking goddess who made one more fabulous dish after another during our stay in Elba? The woman who has been cooking non-stop for the past 50 years and never writes down a recipe? The mamma of my DH?

Sunday lunch is a big deal in Italy, a family event, especially in the south. For years we had regular Sunday lunches with the family at my in-laws'. Then recently my sister-in-law moved to Rome and my in-laws spend less and less time in Milan. So, now that there are not so many of us and we are really the only milanesi, I have started inviting them over. It is still very new for me, hosting the Sunday get-together. The few times I have done it I usually played it safe and made something a little, er, exotic, just to  muddy the waters if you know what I mean. So m-in-law couldn't really judge my cooking skills because she was eating something she had never tasted before. But the time to cook Italian had come: there are only so many curries, meat pies and Marrocan lamb you can serve your Italian in laws. The day comes when your mother-in-law will find out if her son and grandchildren are eating decent Italian fare...

On Friday F tells me his Dad just wants some boiled white rice, he has blood work to do on Monday. So I suggest a very simple, light tomato risotto for all of us to eat. He calls his parents. It's a deal.

Now, I live in Lombardy, the region that invented risotto, where risotto is a science, and I know how to make a pretty mean one, if I may say so myself. I can't say that about a lot of dishes, but I am particular about risotto. So I thought to myself, this will be easy as pie (there is that crazy expression again, since when is pie crust easy?). Then I got thinking: father-in-law is risotto obsessed. Not only is it one of his favorite dishes, he is extremely picky about it too. When I decided on tomato risotto I was picturing my simple, go-to dish, the one I make when there is little in this house and we want something quick and comforting. It involves pelati and bouillon cubes. My thoughts came to a screeching halt. Pelati? This is tomato season. M-in-law makes fresh tomato sauce on a daily basis. Quick calculation: she has made it about 20,000 times in her life vs. my...maybe 5 (I am more for quick cooked sauces). Bouillon cube? Not in their vocabulary. What on earth was I thinking???

So what was supposed to be a simple Sunday lunch to satisfy all palates with minimum effort became an Odyssey. On Saturday I started preparing the vegetable stock and the tomato sauce. I could not risk cooking three courses from scratch on Sunday morning with kids in the house. F watched me obsess with slight amusement and kept telling me to relax. "My parents are so easy going!" True. Except m-in-l makes about five different dishes for Sunday lunch. Except she spent her whole life cooking for her family. Except she is Italian and I am American and Sunday lunch is not just any lunch. I watched Jamie Oliver break into a sweat on "The Great Italian escape" when he had to cook for a group of Italian nonne (grandmothers) who had been making that dish just so for over half a century. 

On Sunday noon I am ready. I have my 4 courses (antipasto, primo, secondo and dessert) perfectly planned. My freshly made vegetable stock is simmering on the stove, my salsa di pomodoro is nearby, my mise en place is prepared. In walks mother-in-law just as I am sweating the onion in olive oil. We chat, I am doing fine. I feel confident. She is telling me a story and I am stirring and nodding. And then comes the look. I am sure it was a distracted glance into the pot, she was probably not even seeing what she was looking at, but it was all I needed. Suddenly I was the inadequate, foreign daughter-in-law attempting a risotto (of all dishes! Hah!). My mind blanked. I am serious. I poured in the rice, feigned indifference and kept on chatting only to notice I hadn't put in the tomato sauce before adding the rice. How could I forget the tomato in a tomato risotto? How is that even possible? However, when discussing this at the table (yes, the whole family talked about the risotto at the table. Just so you know, when f-in-law asked if I had used pelati my m-in-law immediately said it was homemade sauce of course. Not so distracted after all...) my f-in-l correctly pointed out this was not a mistake. The rice was supposed to toast in the oil and soak up the flavor of the onion before putting in the tomato. Of course, why didn't I remember that a the time? Answer: because I was sweating more than my onions, which were a touch undercooked in the finished dish.

Anyway, to make a long story short, the risotto turned out good  and everyone really enjoyed it and went for seconds, even father-in-law. I know I can do better, but it was all'onda (more on that later in important tips to make a killer risotto) and al dente, the way it should be. So, all is well that ends well. But being a good cook means dealing well with pressure and I know I still have a lot to learn in that area. Have you ever been in a similar situation? How do you deal with pressure in the kitchen?

Tomato sauce
1kg ripe tomatoes (I used perini)
basil, a few leaves
e.v. olive oil

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and throw in the tomatoes for a minute or so to blanch them. Let them cool in a colander and then peel them. Then squeeze them over the sink to get rid of most of the seeds and liquid. When I make quick sauces I never peel or deseed, but if you are cooking it for a while, the seeds will give the sauce a bitter edge. Heat plenty of extra virgin olive oil in a skillet and throw in some garlic in large pieces (so they are easier to fish out after cooking) and let brown. Add in the previously chopped tomatoes and let simmer for as long as you need to get rid of excess liquid, the longer the better. Add salt and basil when the tomato chunks start breaking down. If your tomatoes are not sweet enough you can add a pinch of sugar, but you shouldn't need it if they are ripe.

Vegetable stock
1 or 2 carrots
1 or 2 zucchini
1 onion
a few celery stalks
1 tomato
pepper grains

Place all the ingredients in a pot full of water, bring to a boil and let simmer for about 45 minutes.

500gr rice (Carnaroli or Vialone Nano variety)
tomato sauce
vegetable stock
olive oil
grated paremsan

Before I explain the process, there are a few things I think it is important to know if you want to make a killer risotto. 1. Use high-starch, short-grain rice for your risotto (Carnaroli and Vialone Nano are best). This is key to getting an authentic risotto. 2. Usually, when you are making vegetable-based or delicate risotto, use vegetable stock; chicken or beef stock for meat-based risottos; fish stock for sea food or fish risotto. When in doubt, vegetable always works because the flavor will never overpower the dish. Home made stock is best of course, but I have used bouillon many a time. 3. Try not to use salt while cooking. The flavor should come from your stock and from the grated parmesan you will be adding at the end. 4. Risotto must be served al dente, rich but with some resistance when you chew it. The grains should remain separate. It is better to take it off the stove too early than too late, because it will continue cooking once it is on the plate. 5. Risotto should be served all'onda (onda means wave), creamy in texture. Never runny, never lumpy. When you ladel it onto a plate (it is preferably served on flat dishes), you should be able to spread it by just shaking the plate a little.  6. Do not add cream to risotto: the creaminess comes from the starch and the butter and parmesan you stir in quickly shortly before it is ready (mantecatura).

Ok, now that you know this, it is an easy process. All you need is time and patience.  Coat a large based pot with olive oil, butter or a mix of both and sweat onions in it. Add the rice and let it toast for a few seconds so the grains individually soak up the flavor. Add whatever ingredient you will be using as the star of your risotto (except for ingredients you do not really cook, such as zucchini flowers for example). Ladle in a little broth at a time and stir constantly so the rice does not stick and so that it lets off starch. Keep doing this for about 15-20 minutes, tasting it towards the end to make sure the rice does not overcook. When it is almost ready, turn off the heat, throw in a large knob of butter and plenty of parmesan and stir quickly. Serve immediately and sprinkle over some more parmesan, a drizzle of oil and pepper.


  1. Yes, I can relate to that kind of pressure in the kitchen. Usually I throw everybody out. I need my space, peace and a plan to follow. That usually works very well. Congratulations on your risotto that turned out so beautifully!

  2. My kitchen in the Rockies - I wish I could do that...a couple more years and the kids will be old enough. These days getting some decent pictures and a recipe for the blog is always a question mark when F isn't home. Thank you!

  3. Oh you poor petal! That is so intimidating cooking for a MIL. I actually think that this would make a great book! :)

  4. Phew - cooking for (let alone in front of) your MIL is a very daunting task, but you did it! Well done :) It looks delectably simple and delicious - just as risotto ought to be.

  5. Lorraine - I hope I won't have to cook in from of m-in-l often enough to get a book out of it! Best if I keep learning by watching her...
    Ladybird - thanks!


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