One of the most important grains across the planet is rice. From Asia and Africa to the Americas rice is a staple in everyday cuisine and the sustenance of millions of people around the world. In Europe it takes on its own form, like the Dutch Rijsttafel, an invention from the Netherlands’ colonial past, or the delicious Italian risotto. The latter, well known worldwide, is mostly made in the north of the country because the plains near the Po river are where most Italian rice is grown. Thought to be an import from India and a delicacy for the Ancient Romans, it has been cultivated on the Italian peninsula since the 15th century.
The Po River Valley is a fertile environment for growing rice and was the subject of a poignant film, Riso Amaro or ‘Bitter Rice’ (1949) about the lives of the rice pickers there. Because of this agricultural gift, one of the main dishes for most families in the region has been based on this important grain.
Risotto, besides being an accompaniment to high-end dishes, is also a thrifty and relatively quick way of whipping up a meal with ingredients kept on hand. For me it is the perfect Sunday night go-to when I haven’t been able to get to the market. All that is needed is rice, some good broth (which I keep frozen), white wine, onions, parmesan and anything else that might be in the fridge, freezer or cupboard, from radicchio, sausages to dried porcini mushrooms.
In Milan, one of the most characteristic dishes, Ossobuco, which is stewed veal shins, is unthinkable unless served on a plate alongside classic risotto alla Milanese. This is my own personal recipe, which has been fine-tuned over the years. While the process is tricky, mostly because it’s about the stirring, it’s well worth the effort. My solution is to invite everyone into the kitchen and share the energy.
Risotto alla Milanese – Yields portions for 4/6 people
½ cup per person of Arborio, Carnaroli, Vialone or another medium/short grain rice
1 large yellow onion, or 2 small ones, finely chopped
White wine to cover the rice
Good beef or vegetable stock
Bone marrow, butter or olive oil
½ tsp or more (to taste) of saffron threads soaked in a little water (keep the water!)
½ cup Parmigiano cheese, grated
2 tbsp butter
Melt two good portions of bone marrow (the equivalent of butter or olive will do) in a large pan, add onion and stir.
For the classic Milanese recipe, bone marrow is used to start cooking the rice because of its fat content, its incredible flavor, but also because of the Ossobuco that it might be served with later. Makes sense, no?
After the onion has become translucent, add the rice and continue stirring until it has been well heated (2 minutes or so). Add wine to cover, and keep stirring.
Once the wine has been absorbed, start adding broth every few minutes to keep the rice moist, stirring constantly for the next 10-15 minutes.
Test the rice to see if it is still al dente then add the saffron, its soaking water, some butter, another ladle of broth and the grated Parmigiano cheese. Stir and cook another minute or until the butter has melted (if necessary, add more broth as the rice will continue to absorb liquid off heat, and risotto should never be dry; a beautiful yellow, saffron color, yes). Turn off the heat and let the rice riposare, rest for a minute.
Then, serve the rice on a plate and cover it with the beautiful Ossobuco made earlier with all its luscious juices. And eat it like a real Milanese.
Elizabeth Janus is a passionate traveller, and makes it a point to peruse the farmer’s markets in every place she visits to get an immediate pulse of the city. For the last decade, she has been guiding discerning clients on food adventures at farmer’s markets, speciality shops and into her home for unique Italian meals to experience Italy as an Italian..