Cook The Book: The Trick to Marcella Hazan’s Risotto is Continuous StirringFebruary 16, 2017
In Cook the Book, we test whether iconic recipes, old and new, work well today and with ingredients available locally.
If Julia Child is credited with introducing and simplifying French cooking in the US, Marcella Hazan may well be the Italian equivalent. With an emphasis on simplicity and fresh ingredients (versus the processed stuff popular in America back then), Hazan taught Americans about true Italian cooking at a time when the cuisine was considered exotic and out of reach.
Though she did not grow up around the kitchen (Hazan’s background was in the natural sciences, and she grew up eating meals prepared by the family maid) it was marriage and emigration from Italy to New York that encouraged her to learn how to cook. As she later on became a cooking teacher, she would become known for her detailed instructions and straightforward (but never ostentatious) tone.
Her 1992 release, The Essentials of Italian Cooking, offers exactly what its title promises: a basic manual of classics for beginner and experienced cooks alike. From the beginning, however, Hazan emphasizes the cuisine’s inherent regionality due to geographic factors. But the country’s greatest cooking, she says, originates not from one sole region, but from the home kitchen. “All roads lead to the home, to la cucina di casai—the only one that deserves to be called Italian cooking,” says Hazan.
Here we take on her Risotto with Asparagus, a dish that demonstrates one of Hazan’s core pillars: the art of simplicity. The subtlety of the risotto base, flavored with little more than onions, parmesan and broth, allows the asparagus’ characteristic flavor to come through, while the asparagus’ natural earthiness gives this rich dish just the right amount of edge.
Though Marcella does say you can use canned beef broth, the flavor of homemade broth is hard to beat. The book includes a recipe for Italian broth, which differs from French stock for a couple of reasons: it’s “light bodied and soft spoken,” she says, allowing other ingredients to shine through when used in a recipe. More notably, she calls for three different meats: beef, chicken, and veal. (As veal can be expensive in these parts though, I just went with beef and chicken and it worked out just fine.)
The next step of the recipe has you cooking the asparagus separately. Using a vegetable peeler, which strips off layers evenly, simplifies the asparagus-paring step immensely. You then cook it briefly, and the liquid used to boil it then gets added to the broth.
Risotto can sound intimidating; you may think it to be a dish only relegated to restaurants. But you can absolutely make it at home. The classic way of cooking it—as Hazan espouses—is not so much complicated as it requires constant attention. We know others have called these old-school tricks into question, but it’s worth going the traditional route before breaking the rules.
Hazan is particular about the method: “you must never stop stirring and you must be sure to wipe the bottom of the pot completely clean,” she warns. Stirring is thought to help release the starch from the rice, resulting in a creamy mixture. It sounds rather fussy; thankfully, her instructions are written clearly and descriptively enough that you can follow through even sans actual pictures.
Pay less attention to following exact quantities or cooking times, and more on the progression of the actual mixture as it cooks. As the book outlines, the cooking time for risotto can vary based on the type of rice, the amount of liquid being added at a time, and the speed at which the liquid evaporates; Hazan suggests beginning to taste the rice after 20 minutes’ cooking. The consistency is up to you: have it stickier and compact (as I did) a la the style of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Emilia-Romagna, by allowing all the liquid to evaporate as the mixture finishes cooking; or all’onda (wavy, e.g. loose and runny) the way they do it in the Veneto, by keeping the mixture moist. Either way, be careful not to overcook. You want the grains to retain some bite; to stand their ground amidst the creaminess in the backdrop.
Find your rhythm as you stir, stir, stir the pot away. When you take a spoonful of the finished mix, you’ll find it to be well worth the effort.
Risotto with Asparagus
Adapted from The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
YIELD: 6 servings
TIME: 4 hours and 30 minutes (30 min prep / 4 hrs cooking)
INGREDIENTS: basic homemade meat broth
- 1 carrot, peeled
- 1 onion, peeled
- 1-2 stalks celery
- ¼-½ red or yellow bell pepper, cored and seeded
- 1 potato, small and peeled
- 1 tomato, fresh and ripe
- 5 lb assorted beef, veal, and chicken pieces, of which no more than 2 lb may be bones
INGREDIENTS: asparagus risotto
- 1 lb asparagus
- basic homemade meat broth
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tbsp onion, finely chopped
- 2 cups Arborio rice
- ¼ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
- 1 tbsp parsley, chopped very fine
procedure: BASIC HOMEMADE MEAT BROTH
- Put salt, carrot, onion, celery, bell peppers, potato, tomato, and meat in a stockpot, and add enough water to cover by 2 inches. Set the cover askew, turn on the heat to medium, and bring it to a boil. As soon as the liquid starts to boil, slow it down to the gentlest of simmers by lowering the heat.
- Skim off the scum that floats to the surface, at first abundantly, then gradually tapering off. Cook for 3 hours, always at a simmer.
- Filter the broth through a large wire strainer lined with paper towels, pouring it into a ceramic or plastic bowl. Allow to cool completely, uncovered.
- When cool, place in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight until the fat comes to the surface and solidifies. Scoop up and discard the fat.
procedure: ASPARAGUS RISOTTO
- Cut off 1 inch or more from the butt end of the asparagus spears to expose the moist part of each stalk, then pare the asparagus and wash it.
- Choose a pan that can accommodate all the asparagus lying flat. Put in enough water to come 2 inches up the sides of the pan, and 1 tablespoon salt. Turn on the heat to medium high and when the water boils, slip in the asparagus and cover the pan. Cook for 4-5 minutes after the water returns to a boil, depending on the freshness and thickness of the stalks. Drain the asparagus when tender, but still firm, without discarding their water. Set aside to cool.
- When the asparagus is cool enough to handle, cut off the tips of the spears about 1¼-1½ inches from the top and set aside, and cut the rest of the spears into ½-inch pieces, discarding any portion of the bottoms that seems particularly tough and stringy.
- Add enough broth to the asparagus blanching water to make about 6 cups, and bring it to a very slow, steady simmer on a burner near where you’ll be cooking the risotto.
- Put 1 tablespoon of butter, the vegetable oil, and the chopped onion in a broad, sturdy pot, turn on the heat to medium high, and cook the onion, stirring, until it becomes translucent. Add the cut-up asparagus stalks, but not the spear tips. Cook for a minute or so, stirring thoroughly to coat the asparagus well.
- Add the rice, stirring quickly and thoroughly until the grains are coated well. Add ½ cup of the simmering broth and asparagus water. Cook the rice, stirring constantly with a long wooden spoon, wiping the sides and bottom of the pot clean as you stir until all the liquid is gone. Do not stop stirring, and be sure to wipe the bottom of the pot completely clean frequently, or the rice will stick to it. When there is no more liquid in the pot, add another ½ cup, continuing always to stir in the manner described above. Maintain heat at a lively pace.
- Cook the rice until it is tender, but firm to the bite, with barely enough liquid remaining to make the consistency somewhat runny. Off heat, add the reserved asparagus tips, a few grindings of pepper, the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, and all the grated Parmesan, and stir thoroughly until the cheese melts and clings to the rice. Taste and correct for salt. Mix in the chopped parsley. Transfer to a platter and serve promptly.