Very few ingredients are as versatile as rice. I love cooking rice in every possible way; as an appetizer, first course, second course, side dish or dessert.
Native to Asia, rice was cultivated over ten thousand years ago in China and India.
Alexander the Great brought it to the western world, first to Greece and then to Rome.
Both populations used it as a medical remedy, rarely cooking it for culinary pleasure. Rice started to be cultivated in northern Italy's Po Valley during the late 1400s, and Italy's most celebrated rice comes from that area.
I grew up with rice, in Tuscany. My village is close to lake Messaciuccoli, where Puccini lived and composed most of his operas. The whole area around the lake was an immense rice field; rice had represented a great source of money for the farmers since around 1600.
During the 1700's, however, the rice fields were blamed for spreading malaria, but that did not stop the cultivation of this important grain. During the WWII, the rice fields and the ancient Brilla (rice factory) were abandoned, and are now museums. Even though rice is no longer cultivated in Tuscany, Tuscans still use it and cook it as part of their culinary heritage.
HOW TO CHOOSE RICE
There are over 100,000 different varieties of rice, varying in color from white to brown, from red to green, from black to purple. In Italy we tend to use carnaroli, arborio and vialone nano for risotto; balilla for fritters and puddings; and baldo for minestrone with rice.
The grains are small, round and very rich in starch, cooking in 12 to 13 min- utes. Very rich in starch. Suitable for fritters, puddings, soup. Cripto is the most prized of this type.
❖ Balilla grana grossa
❖ Razza 253
❖ Americano 1600
The grains are round and slightly lon- ger than comune and normally cook in 13 to 15 minutes. Used for timballo, rice appetizers, croquettes and creamy risottos.
❖ Rosa Marchetti
❖ Vialone nano
The grains are long and slender and normally cook in 14 to 16 minutes. Used for risotto, rice salads and for recipes in which grains should be visible, separated and not sticky.
❖ P. Marchetti
❖ S. Andrea
❖ Vialone nero
The grains are big, extra long and slender and cook in 16 to 18 minutes. The rice in this category does not release too much starch and grains remain separated. These are the most expensive varieties. Suitable for risotto, side dishes and salads.
❖ Razza 77
Saffron risotto with guanciale (Risotto allo zafferano e guanciale)
Saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, is grown in many different places on the planet. San Gimignano, a town of beautiful towers, was built thanks to a tax put on saffron during the Middle Ages. Today, crocuses get harvested in October and from that point on, saffron is celebrated in incredible recipes. This is a traditional Tuscan recipe; guanciale (cured pork jowl) adds amazing flavor. If you can’t find it, use pancetta.
For the beef stock
- 1 pound beef, plus a couple of beef bones
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 carrot, peeled
- 1 white onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig flatleaf parsley
- Salt, to taste
- 4 quarts water
- 6 ounces finely diced guanciale, plus 4 thin slices for garnish
- 1 medium white onion, finely diced
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 cups carnaroli rice
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 quart beef stock (or more)
- 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 ounces freshly grated Grana Padano
- 1 tablespoons cold butter
1. Make stock. Place all stock ingredients in a pot, cover and let simmer for 2 1⁄2 hours. Strain stock, retaining just the hot liquid.
2. In a large skillet on medium high heat, sear slices of guanciale until crispy. Arrange them on a plate lined with paper towel to drain. Set aside.
3. Make risotto. In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, add diced guanciale and sauté on medium heat. Once all fat has been ren- dered, add onion and cook without browning. When the onion is soft and translucent, stir in rice and, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, toast it for about 4 minutes, or until it gets opaque.
4. Add butter; stir. Add wine; let alcohol evaporate completely, about 3 minutes. Season with pepper. Start adding hot broth, one ladleful at a time. Do not add a second ladleful until first one has been absorbed. Keep cooking rice for 10 minutes on low heat. Add saffron; blend well. When the rice is just al dente, remove pan from heat, add cheese and a bit more broth, then add butter. Garnish with crispy guanciale and serve immediately.
Rice fritters (Frittelle di Riso)
During Carnival it is very common to find fried sweets, especially frittele and doughnuts, almost everywhere. Filled with pastry cream or chocolate, dusted with powdered or regular sugar or covered in glaze, frittelle come in dozens of styles. This recipe is the most traditional, easy to make and delicious. The child in me will always love them.
SERVES 4 TO 6
- 4 1/2 cups whole milk
- 1/3 cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- Zest of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, or 1/3 tea spoon vanilla paste
- 3/4 cup either balilla or vialone nano rice
- 2 tablespoon Vin Santo or Maraschino liqueur
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/2 tablespoon baking soda
- 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
- 2 tablespoons (or more) all-purpose flour
- Peanut oil, for frying
- Granulated or powered sugar, for dusting
1. In a medium saucepan on medium-high heat, combine milk, sugar, salt, lemon zest and vanilla. Bring to a boil; add rice, reduce heat to medium and cook until rice is completely tender and milk is absorbed. Remove from heat and let mixture cool to room temperature.
2. In a small bowl, using an electric mixer, whip egg whites until firm. When rice has cooled completely, add wine or Maraschino, egg yolks, baking soda, baking powder and just enough flour to hold mixture together; stir until blended. Fold in whipped eggs whites. Set aside.
3. In a medium skillet, heat oil until it reaches 375°F, then carefully drop spoonfuls of mixture into oil. Fry fritters in batches until lightly golden brown on each side, about 4 minutes. Do not overcrowd pan. Remove from heat and drain on a platter lined with paper towels. Dredge each fritter in granulated or powdered sugar. Serve immediately.
Suppli alla romana (or on the telephone) Suppli alla Romana o al telefono
If you find yourself in the Testaccio food quarter of Rome, you must nibble on this incredible street food. Suppli are oblong croquettes; a small meal for some, a tantalizing appetizer for others. Do not confuse arancini (rice balls) with suppli...arancini are round and made with saffron rice (or leftover risotto) and have a heart of meat sauce and/or mozzarella. When you break open Suppli al Telefono, the hot melting mozzarella forms strings that are like an old-fashioned telephone cord.
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small white onion, finely diced
- 7 ounces ground beef
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 14 ounces canned peeled tomatoes, finely chopped, with juices
- 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 pound arborio rice
- 1 quart chicken or beef stock, plus more if needed
- 1 egg
- 4 ounces grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Mozzarella cheese, coarsley cubed
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 cups plain breadcrumbs
- Vegetable oil, for deep frying
1. In a large braising pan on medium heat, sauté onion in olive oil until it is soft and translucent, but not brown. Add beef; season with salt and pepper and cook until it has turned golden brown and all liquid has evaporated. Add wine and let it evaporate completely. Add tomatoes and tomato paste; cook until sauce has reduced. Blend in rice, stirring well. Cook for approximately 5 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Add broth, a ladleful at a time (as if you were making risotto), and cook rice until it is tender, stirring constantly. Season to taste. Remove rice from heat; add one beaten egg and all the Parmigiano, mixing very rapidly.
2. Transfer mixture to a baking sheet, spreading into a thin layer with spatula. Cover with plastic wrap and cool completely, about 10 to 15 minutes (or prepare the day before and refrigerate).
3. Place a handful of cold rice in the palm of you hand, pressing it flat. Place a small cube of mozzarella in the center, then roll rice around it completely. Press into the shape of an elongated croquette. Repeat.
4. Roll croquettes in breadcrumbs, making sure they are well covered all over. Dip in beaten eggs, then roll in breadcrumbs again.
5. Heat 2 inches of oil in a deep skillet to 320°F. Deep fry croquettes until they are golden brown all over, about 5 minutes. Place on paper towels to drain briefly; season with sea salt and serve hot.
Rice minestrone (Minestrone di Riso)
Minestrone soup is made with seasonal vegetables and beans; the rice finishes cooking in the soup.
SERVES 4 TO 8
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and minced
- 1 medium white onion, peeled and minced
- 1 celery stalk, finely minced
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 medium white onion, peeled and diced
- 1 celery stalk, finely diced
- 1 small savoy cabbage, shredded
- 2 medium zucchini, diced
- 1/2 pound peeled butternut squash, diced
- 1 medium potato, peeled and cubed
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 cup cooked cannellini beans
- 1 cup cooked borlotti, cranberry or red beans
- Salt, to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 cup arborio or vialone nano rice, cooked in salted water until al dente, then drained
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, for garnish
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish
1. Make sofrito. In a large stockpot over medium heat, heat oil. Add minced vegetables and cook over medium heat until vegetables are golden.
2. Add all remaining vegetables except beans; add hot water to cover by . Cook, covered, for 35 minutes.
3. Add tomato paste, cooked beans and seasonings. Add more if soup is too thick. Cook, covered, for another 10 minutes.
4. Transfer enough minestrone to serve four people to another pot and add cooked rice to it. Cook for 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Serve with a drizzle of extra-virgin and grated cheese. Reserve remaining soup (without rice) for serving another time.
COURTESY OF INTERMEZZO MAGAZINE