Risotto, the basics

Before I became really keen on risotto, I had always believed it to be about long and tedious and watchful cooking. And it is. And also about richly flavoured stocks adding bite to just-crunchy rice, and it is. But, and this is an important but, it is also rice which does not need hard-working stock to make it perform at its top – not at all. It is simple rice, with rich sauces providing the necessary kick to take you and it into heaven.

What I have learned well is this: if there is anything more wonderful, at the end of 20 minutes of reasonable concentration and minimal labour and hardly any cost, then I haven’t found it.

It’s open to debate whether cooking is an art form or not, but it certainly needs an audience to reach its peak. I think if I were cooking for myself, I’d become a vegetarian, extend the vegetable garden, and cook a huge batch of risotto once a week. I’d re-heat it daily, adding different vegetables, herbs and spices to give it new life. I’d fry it, bake it, turn it into a soup. I’d become a world champion risotto maker, an authority, an evangelist, and change my life. I’d start a risotto restaurant, write risotto books, become a risotto consultant, make a fortune, hire somebody to cook for me, and probably never eat risotto again. That’s what life’s all about, isn’t it?

The secret to success with risotto is to have two large, heavy-based pots, one for cooking the rice, the other for preparing and maintaining a stock at a simmer while you are making whoopee with the rice. A vegetable stock is best as the basis for anything. It needs to be made of a decent load of aromatics: plenty of carrots, plenty of celery, plenty of parsnip, a good amount of black pepper, some herbs, bay leaves, and not much more. Just do it once a week and you can keep it on top of the stove. Whatever the guide books say, risotto tastes very good if made with no more than boiling water. Don’t be put off if you can’t be bothered with a stock.

Ideally, you will need a full-flavoured vegetable stock to infuse the grains. Those who don’t believe this should think again. What we are enjoying here is the starchy flavour of high quality rice. A simple stock to try needs 1 tin of peeled Italian (Roma) tomatoes, 2 parsnips, 1 leek, 2 carrots, 1 stick of celery, a little white wine, 4 cups water, black pepper, 1 chilli, all cooked for an hour or so gently; the stock strained and reserved, the vegetables left to accompany something dull.


1 medium-sized onion, chopped finely

1 clove garlic, chopped finely

½ cup virgin olive oil

2 cups Italian rice, usually labelled Arborio rice

plenty of stock or boiling water


50g butter parsley, chopped roughly plenty of Parmesan


Cook the onion and garlic gently in the olive oil, allowing it to glisten rather than fry. Keep stirring gently for a few minutes, until the onion softens.


Toss in the rice and stir it around on a low heat for a couple of minutes to allow each grain to be touched by the oil.


Add a ladle of boiling stock, stirring through the rice until the stock has been absorbed. Repeat about 5 more times, stirring until the rice absorbs the stock. The whole process will take about 15 or 16 minutes: you can bet on it. You can feel and see the rice getting to the cooked stage. It is obvious that it has been cooked through. Test it by feel and taste. It is much better to test it too often than to find you have a soggy, overcooked mass, or an undercooked bunch of crunchy individuals. Set aside.


When the risotto has reached its ideal state – it should have some pourability, but not by any sense, a liquidity – mix through the sauces you like. At its most basic, minimalist level, it works very well with no more than butter and parsley and Parmesan. And there are two other little tricks which make the basic job luxurious: a little tarragon and a splash of poppy seeds. Might sound funny, but trust me.

Try these options, before you move on:

  • Risotto with chunky pumpkin, tarragon, chilli and Parmesan.
  • Risotto with pureed pumpkin, flavoured with a little curry, caraway seeds and peeled, chopped tomatoes.
  • Risotto with steamed broccoli and steamed cauliflower, cooked until quite soft, mixed with parsley and cheese.
  • Risotto with uncooked shredded carrot and garam masala.
  • Risotto with baked, skinned red peppers, olives and cheese.
  • Risotto in a soup of vegetable stock from all the leftovers of the week.
  • Risotto with a handful of podded peas, sugar peas, or beans.
  • Risotto with steamed mussels and clams, and all sorts of herbs, v Risotto with the most full- flavoured, dried mushrooms, cooked from the beginning through the rice, and tossed with thyme and Parmesan.
  • Risotto with eggplant, tomato and zucchini, with stacks of basil and Parmesan.
  • And for meat eaters: risotto with the meat from a slow-cooked ox tail, removed from the bone and tossed through, late. Don’t forget the carrots!

2 Responses to “Risotto, the basics”

  1. [...] the risotto as usual, cooking through a couple of additions of stock, then add the cauliflower and mix it [...]

  2. [...] the risotto and while it is going through its usual phases, have the butternut pumpkin in the microwave [...]