Before two Persian restaurateurs opened an Italian trattoria in my Boston neighborhood sixteen years ago, I'd never tasted risotto.
I'd never heard of arborio rice.
I'd definitely never heard of carnaroli.
And I'd most definitely never heard of vialone nano.
All I knew was that I was in love with the rich, full taste of Azita Bina-Siebel's risotto ai funghi, flavored with dried porcini and fresh wild mushrooms, a touch of tomato paste, beef stock, sweet butter, and cream. Even when she took it off the menu, I ordered it. It was worth every one of the hundred million carbs and calories.
I've been making risotto ever since. Of course I've branched out to other flavorings, but I still follow Azita's method, as she so graciously taught it to me when I asked her for her recipe. There's always more than one variety of "risotto rice" in my pantry, but carnaroli, a variety that has been cultivated for only 40 years or so, is my first choice.
Arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano are short-grain rices with a high starch content, native to the Piedmont and Lombardy regions of northern Italy. Carnaroli grows nearly twice as tall as either arborio or vialone nano, making it extremely difficult to harvest (it must be harvested as soon as it matures, before the large grain falls over from its own weight!), and therefore more expensive.
Why do I like it? Why do chefs in Italy prefer it? Well, carnaroli's larger grain plumps to three times its size when cooked, holding its shape while absorbing a staggering amount of liquid along the way, which results in an extremely creamy risotto.
Azita and her brother Babak closed their ristorante in 1995, and opened Lala Rokh, a delightful Persian restaurant featuring recipes from their family heritage, on Boston's Beacon Hill. I'll always be grateful for their early foray into Italian cooking, and for teaching me the how of risotto.
Risotto ai funghi (mushroom risotto)
An amalgamation of every great mushroom risotto recipe I've ever tried. Note: if you use homemade chicken stock, you'll need to add salt when you add the stock to the rice. Serves 4 for main course, 6-8 for appetizer.
6 cups chicken broth (I use Swanson 99% fat free, but homemade is great, if you have it)
1 cup water
2 oz dried porcini mushrooms
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup finely minced onion
2 cups Carnaroli rice (or arborio, or vialone nano)
1 cup white wine
12-14 oz fresh mushrooms (button, cremini, shiitake, or a mix), sliced
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Black pepper, to taste (be generous!)
Bring broth to boil in a large pot and set aside at a simmer on the stove.
In a microwave, boil 1 cup water in a glass measuring cup, then add dried mushrooms, and set aside.
Heat oil in a large straight-sided sauté pan. Add onion, and sauté until soft. Stir in the rice, making sure to coat each grain, and let toast for 1-2 minutes.
Remove pan from heat, and stir in the wine. When the liquid is absorbed, begin adding broth, 1 ladleful at a time, letting each bit of liquid be absorbed.
In the meantime, when the dried mushrooms are soft, strain and reserve the liquid. After 3 cups of broth are added, pour in the mushroom soaking water, being careful to leave behind the sediment in the bottom of the measuring cup. After 5 cups of broth are added, stir in the fresh mushrooms.
Continue adding one more cup of broth, reserving 1/4 cup. Stir until mushrooms have given off their liquid and almost all of the liquid in the pan has been absorbed by the rice.
Remove pan from heat. Add butter and cheese, and stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Add in reserved 1/4 cup broth, if needed to finish cooking the rice. Season to taste with lots of black pepper, and salt if needed, and serve immediately.
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