When I was working as a chef, for a long time I worked on the vegetable and garnish section of the three man brigade. Despite working in a restaurant which specifically referred to meat in its name, we still offered one vegetarian main course alongside the tongue, heart and charcuterie that attracted the regulars. After a few months of working there it was left up to me to come up with the vegetarian dishes, usually a homemade pasta or gnocchi dish, but often a risotto as well. There are a few important stages to cooking a good risotto, which is in its most basic form rice cooked in water or stock, until creamy and retaining a little bite.
First, it’s important to use a good, but not overpowering stock. Something neutral like a white chicken stock or a vegetable stock works well, and even for fish risottos I prefer a more neutral stock like chicken to a fishy one. Don’t use stock cubes unless you can find very low salt ones, instead try the liquid stock you can buy from supermarkets, or better yet make your own. It’s also important to make sure that the stock you use is hot- keep it on a low heat at the back of the hob. You’ll also need rice- Arborio or Carnaroli are two common options, and my preference is for the latter as its slightly higher starch content results in a creamier finish.
The beginning to most good risottos is a shallot or two cooked gently until softened but not coloured. Next add the rice and some salt, and cook for a minute or so. Now use your ears: once you hear the rice gently cracking in the pan, you can add the first lot of liquid. Since the rice has a creamy flavour and texture, a little acidity is nice. Most often white wine is added at this stage. Let it boil and reduce down till the pan is dry, and stir the rice regularly.
When I started making my first risotto at the restaurant, I was told off for treating it too gently. “Don’t flirt with it, fuck it” is some of the best advice I’ve had. Add your first ladleful of hot stock, and then using a plastic spatula, push and pull the rice around the pan. Don’t stir it gently, the aim is to beat the starch out of the rice and into the stock, thickening it and creating the creamy texture required. Once all the liquid has been absorbed, add the next ladleful and repeat. When the rice is cooked, it should be soft but with the tiniest bit of bite still remaining. At this point add equal parts butter and (unless making a fish risotto) parmesan to the rice, and check the seasoning. It’s not a bad idea to under season before adding the parmesan, as it’ll add saltiness.
For garnish, you have a huge amount of options. Add a tablespoon or so of vegetable puree (pea or butternut for example), chopped fresh herbs, sautéed pieces of vegetables or cubes of cheese- taleggio or gorgonzola both have nice melting properties. Nuts are good too: walnut and blue cheese is a classic combination, chestnut and pumpkin works as well. If you’re not vegetarian, a little crispy bacon on top, or some fried chorizo mixed through can add a further depth of flavour and a little texture. Finish off with flavoured or extra virgin olive oil, and freshly grated parmesan. When you plate, feed the risotto into the centre of the plate. If the consistency is right it should collapse and cover the plate. If a restaurant ever serves you a dry risotto in a tower in the middle of the plate, send it back and order something else.