“Well, these figs are small, but they look good. Hopefully they taste good, too.”
That was my thought while grocery shopping the moment I decided to switch the risotto recipe in my head from blueberries to figs. It is almost fall after all, and end of summer is the perfect time for figs. One would have been enough for the recipe, but I picked up two baskets of figs because there is always the styling to consider, plus it is always nice to have a few extra to nibble on.
You have already heard the story of my family’s fig trees in my other post, so I will not go into that. Suffice to say that there is a degree of frustration that surfaces whenever I consider buying figs and other non-Hawai’i fruits that are usually best from your own tree, or wild, like chestnuts and porcini – even if these last ones are not exactly fruits… but you know what I mean.
Secular chestnut trees live in my family’s garden in the Northern Italian hills, about five or six of them, and we are a family of mushroom hunters, especially my dad. Which means I am spoiled that way. Sigh!
At least these figs were ripe and sweet, and the risotto turned out delicious.
Risotto is usually something we Italians make “by eye”: we measure the rice in handfuls (usually two per person) and match the broth to that, always having a bit extra.
To my horror, I have read several recipes here in the U.S. – including one in a beautiful cookbook by a supposedly reputable chef – that used hot water instead of broth to make risotto. If you come across such recipes, disregard them. Risotto is made with broth, end of story.
If you make it with water it becomes something else entirely. It even has a name, though the only one I know is not just in local dialect, but I bet not entirely official in its dialect-ness. Ok, I will tell you anyway, even if auto-correct will go nuts on me: Ris mená denter – which literally means “rice stirred in”. That would be a creamy, soupy kind of rice made with hot water instead of broth, and finished off with a little grated parmesan. The only person I knew who ate this was my uncle, and only when he had an upset tummy.
Talking about broth, I know there is this obsession with chicken broth for everything here in the U.S., but it is rarely used in Italy. When a meat broth (brodo di carne) is used, it is just that: a generic meat broth that has been made with pieces of various meats, vegetables, plus other flavors of choice like herbs et all. It is rare that you will find a chicken-only broth, or a beef-only broth. The meats used are usually mixed.
In any case, meat broth is good for some risottos, but not all. I like my risottos to taste of the flavors I decide to use, not be overwhelmed by the broth, which is intended to enhance the flavor of the rice as it cooks, not take over. If I am making Risotto alla Milanese I want to taste the saffron. If I am making Risotto with Pumpkin or Porcini, I want those flavors to pop. Chicken broth makes everything taste like chicken, and I am not saying this just because I personally do not like and do not eat chicken, but because I have found it to be true.
Therefore, unless I am making a Risotto al Barolo and Roasted Duckbreast – or something like it, or maybe one with seafood, my broth of choice is a good vegetable broth. And you can get the recipe here.
Ok, broth-rant over, onto the recipe!
RISOTTO WITH FIGS, BRIE & THYME
yields 3-4 portions
– 230 gr. (or 8 oz.) risotto rice, that is one of these types: Vialone Nano, Arborio, or Canaroli
– 1.5 lt. (ca 6.4 cups or 50.72vfl. oz.) vegetable broth, simmering hot
– 180 ml (ca 6 fl. oz) good quality white wine at room temperature
– 140 gr. (5 oz.) brie cheese, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
– 250 gr. (8.8 oz) ripe but firm figs, cut into pieces and at room temperature + extra for decoration if desired
– 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme leaves + extra for sprinkling on top
– 2-3 handfuls of freshly grated Parmesan
– 4 Tablespoons butter (2+2)
– 2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
– 50 gr. (1.7 oz.) onion
A note about the onion: if you like to keep your onion in the risotto, you will slice it finely. If you want to remove it after it has flavored the risotto, you leave the pieces big, so they are easy to find. I like it either way, though, like with the broth, it depends what risotto I am making. In this case I left the pieces big and removed them later. It is a matter of taste.
1. Make sure the broth is simmering hot, but not boiling, throughout the process.
2. Heat 2 Tablespoons of butter and 2 Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil in a medium, heavy based saucepan over medium/high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring, until soft – about 2-3 minutes. Add the rice, let it heat up for about a minute, stirring. This is called toasting the rice. Add the glass of white wine all in one and stir. As the wine is absorbed, start adding the broth, one ladleful at a time. Keep stirring to prevent sticking. As you see the broth is about to be all absorbed, add another ladleful. The rice will take about 20 minutes to cook, so you will be continuing this process until almost to the end.
3. About half-way through, add the figs and the thyme leaves and stir. Continue with the broth as explained above until the rice is tender but just a little al dente, and the mixture is moist but not watery. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the brie pieces. Lift the pan on one side, allowing air to circulate underneath it while you keep stirring the risotto. Now add the other 2 Tablespoons of butter and stir, then add the parmesan and stir. If you like a creamier risotto, keep a little moisture at the end. If you like it dryer, make sure all the liquid is absorbed, or let it sit for a couple of minutes once completed. I like mine creamy. It dries up as it cools anyway.
4. Ladle the risotto on individual serving plates or into bowls, sprinkle with a few more thyme leaves, decorate with figs (if you like) and serve immediately.
Risotto is not complicated to make and is very versatile, as you can make it with almost anything you like. Leftover risotto can be used to make risotto cakes, arancini di riso, or risotto al salto the next day. Once it has cooled completely to room temperature, transfer the leftover risotto to a container and store covered in the refrigerator. Risotto al salto is basically chilled risotto that has been pressed into a sauté pan with a Tablespoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil underneath to prevent sticking. It is then gently heated to a crisp, and flipped over (there is your salto, the flip, or jump) like a pancake so the other side can get crunchy, too. Some people like it even better this way than freshly made. With me, it’s a tie.
One more thing about risotto in restaurants before I close. In Italy, risotto in restaurants (at least in the good ones) is made to order. This means that the Chef will have the basics ready (like hot broth and other ingredients for the risottos they have on the menu), but will not start the cooking process until you order it, and will only make the amount sufficient to cover said order. Which is why most Italian menus require risotto orders to be for minimum two people, as making risotto just for one does not yield quite the same results. On your end, know that you will have to wait at least twenty minutes for your risotto, which is why the server might suggest an appetizer first.
My experience with risotto here in the U.S. has gone from so-so to pretty good, though most of the time the risotto on the menu for the night has been pre-cooked before opening hours and then revived when requested. If you have had freshly made risotto all your life like me, or at least enough times, you will know the difference. I am sure that there are restaurants in the U.S. and generally outside of Italy, that make risotto to order. I just have not encountered one yet.
Have you ever made risotto? If yes, with what? And if you have not made it yourself, but tried it in restaurants, did you enjoy it? Which is your favorite so far?