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The Cowgirl Chef: Any cook can learn to get risotto right

Posted Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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If Chef John Tesar can't get a risotto right, who can?

Earlier this month, the venerable Dallas chef fell victim to what Top Chef fans -- including Tesar himself -- have called "the curse of the risotto," when he was sent packing from Bravo's hit TV cooking competition for an umami risotto that the judges complained was unevenly cooked. Tesar, the oldest "cheftestant" and one who seemed like a shoo-in to make the finals, blamed an uneven pan for his dreadful dish.

But like a handful of great chefs from previous seasons of the show, Tesar's risotto was a no-go.

Home cooks: Do not fear a risotto. (Unless you too are making it for a panel of judges that includes Tom Colicchio. Then be very afraid.)

Truth be told, risotto is easy. It takes just 20 minutes to make, but you need to pay attention for the entire time.

Risotto is definitely not a throw-it-in-the-pot-and-let-it-cook-on-its-own sort of thing. You cannot watch television while you're making it. You cannot go put the clothes in the dryer. You cannot talk on the phone. Risotto demands your full and total attention, but really, is 20 minutes too much to ask?

All you have to remember is this: Keep stirring the pot (something I've been told I never have any trouble doing). Then add stock a little bit -- no more than a 1/2 cup -- at a time, stirring all the while. Then add some more. And keep stirring. You get the idea.

It's not hard. And it shouldn't be intimidating. (If you want to talk about intimidating, let's sit down and talk about making croissants.)

I asked cooking instructor Terresa Murphy of la Cucina di Terresa in Paris (https://lacucinaditerresa.com) how to make the perfect risotto every time, and what to look out for along the way.

Why does risotto have a reputation for being hard to make?

I think that's somewhat of a myth. It all has to do with coaxing the starch out of the rice, which must be done with attention. People think they have to stir without stopping, which is not true. But what is true is that you mustn't go walking off. A risotto has to be tended to.

There are two ways of adding the broth. One way is ladle by ladle, adding the next once the broth is mostly absorbed. I use the parting of the Red Sea as an image when dragging the wooden spoon across the bottom of the pan.... One should begin to see that parting effect.

It's also important to have all the ingredients -- butter, wine, Parmesan -- at room temperature. Your broth must be gently simmering at all times. Your vegetables and the like should be warm or just out of the oven or pan.

I always add my vegetables at the end of the cooking to keep the flavors more decisive and separate. There are also risottos that are more "wet-wavy" ( all'onda) and others dryer; it often depends on the region. Some are more al dente than others; likewise, it depends on the region. I always make mine somewhat all'onda and always quite al dente, for the simple reason that when serving a risotto as a main dish, if it's too dry, one loses interest quite rapidly.

What are the keys to a good risotto?

The key is coaxing the starch out of the rice. The best to use, by the way, is carnaroli -- it has a higher starch content, so the risotto is more creamy, and with a firmer texture.

The first important step is the soffriggere -- sautéing the onions till translucent, and then adding the rice.

And here is the most important part: coating the rice with the olive oil in the pan and cooking it till it turns "pearly." Then, stirring often, but not constantly, scraping down the sides, then stirring again. It's just a 3- to 4-minute process.

Then, add the wine [if using -- it's not necessary and not called for in fish risottos], and stir till absorbed. This step begins to tease out the starch [you'll see it forming in the bottom of the pan]. Then add your broth, either ladle by ladle or three quarters of it in one fell swoop, covering the pan and letting it cook for 12 to 13 minutes when done [17 minutes, give or take a minute]. Then turn off the heat, add the butter and Parmesan, cover and let stand for 2 minutes. Then, mantecare [stir rapidly] to a creamy consistency, adding a bit more broth if needed.

What should you never do?

You should never let the rice burn when initially cooking it with the onions [that destroys the rice's ability to release its starch]. And never cook it till it's soft. And never rinse your risotto rice. And never add cold ingredients.

Ellise Pierce is the Cowgirl Chef and author of "Cowgirl Chef: Texas Cooking with a French Accent" (Running Press, $25). www.cowgirlchef.com; @cowgirlchef.

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