It’s said that Italians have a way with words and a better way with cooking starches.
Pasta is a famous prime example, but of course the real primo example (that’s an epic double pun, believe it or not) is so good that in Italy it’s often considered the essential starter for a full meal set. Risotto’s cheesy, creamy, delicate and versatile flavour is so beloved in the culinary community that an inability to make one is often cited as the mark of a true armature (pies be damned).
To say that I wanted risotto one evening would be an understatement. It was much more of a need than a want. I’m a man of sudden cravings and when I was smack in the middle of conversation with a co-worker at an Oram’s Retirement home in Gambo one evening, risotto was the food that my brain commanded me to make. There was a sticky wicket with that scenario, however; I was certain that none of the elderly residents of the home would be pleased by an exotic dish that they most likely had never heard about before in their entire long lives.
As I often do, I kicked my proverbial cook’s selfish gene aside and resumed my plans to make that night’s Jiggs’ Dinner. It wasn’t long after that a friendly resident named Percy came up to the kitchen nook and asked for a banana, as he often did. He really wasn’t encouraged to eat them at the home but I always had a hard time denying my elders any treats, especially healthy snacks.
Nonchalantly he asked me about the food I was speaking about earlier. I explained to him as best I could about risotto and the next question he asked me was if I could make some for him as a lighter substitute for supper. I grinned.
That was all the excuse I needed to make:
Ham and Cheese Basmati Risotto
3 ½ cups chicken stock
1 ½ cups basmati rice
½ cup of white wine
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp vegetable oil
¼ cup parmesan
¼ cup cheddar, shredded
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped
1 cup frying ham, diced
½ cup red onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat stock in a medium saucepan by bringing it to a simmer and reducing the heat to low. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the chopped onion, ham and spinach. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes or until onion is slightly translucent. Add rice and stir with a wooden spoon until it is well coated. Add wine and cook until all liquid is absorbed. Continue to gradually add stock 1 ladle at a time and stir continuously until all is absorbed. Add remaining ingredients and stir all together until smooth and sticky. Remove from heat. Serve in bowls or use ramekins as molds for plating.
The true risotto method is a bit tedious (as you probably just discovered) but the rewards are intense. Arborio rice is also the go-to grain for any risotto but I personally prefer to substitute some basmati for a quicker cook time and a sweeter grain. Luckily, I always seemed to have a lot of free time at the homes I worked in because of the ease of labour involved for a professionally trained cook and there was plenty of allotted time for a risotto that night. Percy got his risotto right around the same time that the rest of the residents ate their Jiggs’ and I ate mine right alongside him.