I learned how to make risotto 30 years ago from Mary Ann Esposito, the host of PBS’s “Ciao Italia,” TV’s longest-running cooking show. In the teaching kitchen at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education off Harvard Square, she taught me and a dozen other aspiring chefs the recipe for risi e bisi (rice and peas), a version of risotto made with the first peas of the season Veneto, a northern region of Italy where rice has been cultivated since the 16th century.
In the time that has passed I have made many, many pots of risotto. Some of my favorites include Maine wild mushroom, tomato, and mini mozzarella balls; and lobster and lemon. While no two were alike, I’m following the technical advice Esposito gave that night to pull off each and every one of them.
As I recall, this advice includes the following:
Use a heavy-bottomed saucepan so that the low heat required for the process is evenly distributed.
Dice the allium very small so that they melt in the butter without burning.
Fry short-grain rice (typically Arborio or Carnaroli) in fat so that the grains separate.
If you use wine, choose one that you enjoy drinking because you can taste it in the dish.
Make sure the broth (which, like the wine, should taste good) you add to the simmering rice is warm.
Stir, stir and keep stirring.
Turn off the heat when the rice still has some bite. The only way to know is to taste the rice as you cook it.
Add cheese at the end of the process and only if no seafood is involved.
Taste for flavor after adding the cheese.
Risotto served in warm bowls is always the way to go. (OK. I may have added that because I really like eating risotto while it’s hot.)
However, Esposito made it clear that while the technique for risotto remains constant, the recipes are endlessly adaptable to suit your taste, budget and vegetable container. Risotto is therefore an extraordinary way to curb food waste in your kitchen.
The ingredient ratios must of course remain constant. Two cups of rice require 6 cups of liquid to achieve the creamy consistency of a good risotto for four. You will need 6 tablespoons of butter or olive oil/butter mixture per 1/2 cup of finely diced spring onions (onions, shallots, leeks, and the like). Two cups of chopped ingredients — whether raw (zucchini or tomatoes), frozen (peas or broccoli), canned (artichokes or chickpeas), or already cooked (lobster meat or smoked sausage) — will do. Any more than that, and the rice no longer stars as it should.
As long as you stick to these ratios, you can use any combination of extra veggies, cooked meats, cheese ends, and herb bits lying around in your fridge to make today’s risotto main course.
At the end of Easter week, I found myself with leftover locally cured ham, a handful of spinach, some fine English cheddar, and three spring onions whose greens got a second life from the white roots sitting in some water on my windowsill. Yes, I actually used an English cheddar in a traditional Italian risotto. Blasphemous? Possibly, but the resulting dish was delicious, not to mention environmentally and economically sustainable.
WASTE-FREE HAM AND CHEESE RISOTTO
Risotto is best eaten immediately after cooking. But day-old risotto can be formed into meatballs, lightly breaded with breadcrumbs, and fried until the outside is crispy and the inside is warmed through. Top these rice patties with an egg, sunny side up.
For 2-4 servings
4½ to 5 cups vegetable or chicken broth
6 whole spring onions, trimmed
6 tablespoons butter
2 cups Arborio or Carnaroli rice
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup diced smoked ham
1 cup tightly packed, chopped, raw spinach
1/2 cup grated aged cheddar
Heat the broth in a 2 quart saucepan over low heat and keep warm while you prepare the risotto.
Cut the white and light green parts of the spring onions from the dark green part. Finely dice the white and light green parts. Thinly slice the green, on the diagonal.
Melt the butter in a 4-quart, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the diced white and light green parts of the spring onion. Cook until the spring onions are translucent, 3-4 minutes, being careful not to brown them. Stir in the rice and brush well with butter. Increase the heat, add the wine and let it evaporate.
Add the warm broth, 1 ladle at a time, and let the rice absorb it before adding the next ladle, stirring constantly. Add just enough of the remaining broth until the rice is cooked but still has some bite, 15-18 minutes. Stir in the ham, spinach, and all but 2 tablespoons of the chopped green onions. The spinach is cooking in the hot risotto.
Stir in cheese and salt to taste. Pour the risotto into warm bowls and garnish with the remaining chopped green onions. Serve hot.