“Don’t touch my risotto!” yells Chef Jason Morgan of la Cascata Restaurant. Jason is a perfectionist and he knows his risotto. He also knows, if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll end up with a bland mount of sticky, gluey rice and he won’t let that happen, not on his watch.
Risotto, literally translated, means “Little Rice” and is unique among all rice dishes. First, unlike other rices, the ingredients are usually cooked with the rice rather than combining the two parts after the rice is cooked. Second, risotto rice has a creamy texture when cooked, yet it maintains a ‘toothy bite’. This is mainly because it is based on specific varieties of rice that are grown in Northern Italy.
The special rice used for making risotto is a white, starchy, medium grain that can absorb far more liquid then long-grain rice. Of the four types of rice grown in Italy, only superfine or fino varieties are suitable for risotto. The best-known and most widely available superfine is Alborio. Other lesser-known varieties include Carnaroli, Baldo, Roma, Maratelli and the fino Vialone Nano.
Chef Mogan uses Alborio rice exclusively because of its slightly nutty flavour and for the way he can release its magnificence in the pot. While the technique for making risotto is not difficult, it requires attention, patience and knowing when to add each ingredient. After that, it’s all about designing the flavors to make it sing.
While Chef Morgan loves to play with different foods of the seasons, there’s one risotto he just won’t mess with. It’s the restaurant’s consistently popular, leek risotto that is partnered with the grilled salmon on the restaurant menu. It is, for anyone who has tasted it, just glorious!
I asked the chef to share some of the secrets to his delicious risotto and he walked me through the entire process. First, the leeks are sautéed until they’re tender and until they’re just beginning to release their aromas in the kitchen. Yes, smells in the kitchen are as important to notice as any other sign of doneness.
When the aromas begin to fill his kitchen, Chef Morgan pours the Alborio rice over the sizzling leeks and flips the skillet a few times so each grain jumps up, mingles with the leeks and falls back down to soak up the delicious leek juices. When the pan begins to dry, he pours in a bit of white wine. It spits and sputters before settling down to feed the plump, hungry grains of rice. It’s an elaborate show that builds flavor.
The technique for preparing risotto is as important as using the right variety of rice. In making traditional risotto, onion and garlic are briefly cooked in butter and oil then the rice is added to the pan.
If you’re making a risotto where the vegetables play a greater role, as in a mushroom risotto or squash, the vegetables are cooked in the pan to release their juices and flavor, then they’re removed to prevent them from “boiling” during the rice cooking process. Whether you remove the vegetables or not, the rice is always stirred in the juices until all the grains are thoroughly coated and have soaked up all the flavors in the pan.
Most risotto recipes go right into adding stock but in Chef Morgan’s case, he spills in some delicious white wine – never red, for it will stain the rice. “It adds dimension and another layer of flavor,” he explains. These secret little tips are the difference between a good risotto and a memorable one.
Next – the stock. In la Cascata kitchen the vegetable stock is always simmering when it is added to the rice. Cold or room temperature stock would only shock the rice cooking on the stovetop and because you’re adding the hot stock a ladleful at a time, cold liquids would slow the rice’s ability to absorb as much flavor.
That’s right, here is where patience pays off. The hot stock is added to the rice in very small amounts and only when the rice has absorbed almost all of the liquid, is more added. It’s like starving the rice so it’s eager to suck up more broth and consequently more flavor. It’s about standing over the pot, adding liquid, stirring, waiting until it’s almost dry, stirring more, waiting until the hard rice succumbs to the relentless assault of hot broth under the strong hand of a constant stirrer. “You should never leave risotto to fend for itself,” warns chef. Turn your back for just one second and you could burn the risotto. It takes patience and attention and in a busy casino kitchen it’s a huge gamble, but Chef Morgan can pull it off.
When you make risotto at home, use a large heavy bottom pan as the rice will triple in volume during cooking and the rice is far less likely to stick to or worse yet, burn on a heavy bottom pan. Chef Morgan recommends you avoid skillets because the large surface area will cause too much evaporation. The entire process should take about 20 minutes or so.
Chef Morgan is not Italian but he should be. His risotto philosophy is that of an Italian born and trained chef. He believes that some of the best Italian recipes – and that certainly include risotto – are the simplest, using top-quality, seasonal ingredients in complementary combinations. The flavors of herbs, vegetables, mushrooms and cheese are allowed to ‘sing out’ balanced against the rich, creamy texture of the rice. As a result, these simple dishes are, in fact, utterly delicious.
At la Cascata they also offer a risotto of the day. This allows Chef Morgan to play with whatever he wants. In a restaurant where guests come to eat Morgan’s cuisine, they look forward to what he creates. In the spring his favourite risotto is asparagus, in the summer it’s sweet pea, in the fall it’s squash and in the winter, mushroom. In between you’ll find the risotto of the day taking on the activities of the kitchen. If his team of chefs is cleaning fish that day, it could be a seafood risotto, if they’re roasting beef bones, it could be a Milanese risotto. Whatever it is, you won’t want to miss it.
Risotto can be served as a main course, a first course and like at la Cascata, an accompaniment, providing a delightful contrast in flavor and texture to meat or fish based dishes. If you are planning to serve risotto as a main course at home, you can safely assume that one cup of Alborio rice will feed four. If you’re serving it as a first course (smaller portions) or an accompaniment to the meal, it will stretch to serving six. Risotto, after all, is very filling.
I asked Chef Morgan how I could get my risotto as lusciously dreamy as his and he says, “it’s all about the butter.” When the risotto is on the verge of perfection, he stresses, “you will need to learn to ‘feel’ when it is exactly al dente”. That’s when he stirs in some fresh, creamy butter to luxuriate throughout the rice – and it does. Next he finely grates a large wedge of Parmegiano Reggiano over the top of the steaming heap of gorgeous risotto. One last stir and he lays a large spoonful on a clean plate in front of me.
I don’t hesitate digging into the soft mass of leek risotto. It’s spreads across my palate with warmth while the leeks tickle my sweet senses. The soft texture gives way to the dense firmness of the rice itself and the flavors play on earthy, almost nutty, dreaminess. It’s surprisingly light for a dish that’s so creamy and filling: it’s glorious!
Risotto, like soufflés should not be kept waiting while your guests come to the table. Once the butter and grated Parmesan have been melted in, the risotto should be served. There is a window of perfection before it cools and it’s creaminess turns to stickiness – yuck.
Risotto is for those who love sophisticated and luxurious dishes but more than that, it’s for those who appreciate the extra special ingredient that should never be overlooked – the tender loving attention of the chef.
La Cascata is located inside Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino.
By Lynn Ogryzlo