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The Risotto Guru

The perfect risotto is about one thing – learning from failure

Photograph by Twenty20

Gurus don't usually announce themselves. You wouldn't expect that the driver who picked you up in Piedmont, Italy, would be a guru.

I asked Angelo where he is from.

"Vercelli."

Vercelli may mean nothing to you. If you are not on a quest, like me, all you may know about Vercelli is that it is a medium-size city in the Po River Valley. But to one who is searching to understand the mysteries, "Vercelli" means much more. It means carnaroli. It means, to a lesser extent, arborio. It means, in short, risotto. The best rice and the best risotti in the world come from Vercelli.

For over 10 years, I have been trying to make the perfect risotto. Italians make it look easy: you sauté some onions in a little butter or olive oil, toss in some rice, glaze it, add a splash of wine, then broth, one ladle at a time, stirring until the rice absorbs or your arm gives out. When it's almost ready, you throw in a few condiments (mushrooms, shrimp, asparagus, fresh peas, pancetta, whatever) and grate a little cheese on top at the end. Voilá. Risotto.

But risotto can go terribly wrong. You could use bouillon cubes instead of real stock and produce gruel that tastes thin and metallic. You could cook it too long and make glop. You could use old wine that had turned bad and wind up with risotto that tasted like old wine that had turned bad. You could add the wrong cheese, and it would come out stringy. You could, as most restaurants do, cook it halfway, then fire it up before serving it, ruining its consistency.

Risotto is all about learning from failure.

Risotto is a practice, one that requires patience, letting go of regrets about past attempts and expectations of the future. To make risotto, you have to be in the moment. You have to be alive to the ingredients, and wait while their true natures are revealed. Risotto is egoless. To the degree that you have mastered risotto — and there is no perfection, only striving — you have mastered yourself.

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That's why I had long been searching for a risotto guru. Now that I'd met someone from Vercelli — my culinary Mecca — I could barely contain my excitement.

"So," I asked Angelo, nonchalantly. "I guess you must eat risotto if you are from Vercelli."

He took his hands off the wheel for a moment to give me one of those fond Italian gestures that means, Of course, you idiot. The car swerved and he righted our direction just in time to avoid an oncoming car.

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"So I suppose you make a pretty good risotto yourself," I ventured.

Angelo shrugged. "There are very few things in this world that I can say I am competent at," he said. "Risotto is one of them." But he could take no credit — it was all due to his grandmother, who learned to make risotto from his great-grandmother, and so on, back to whoever in the Po Valley first had the wits to stir the rice and let the broth absorb slowly, releasing the creamy starch, instead of just putting the pot lid on and letting it cook.

For the next half hour, I peppered him with questions about the whole process. Do you use butter or oil in the soffrito (the sauté with the onions)? It depends. Red onions, white onions, or leeks? Again, it depends — but he tends to use scallions. Scallions? Really? Then I wracked the Italian side of my brain and realized: scalogni. Shallots. My next risotto nearly destroyed by one of those linguistic falsi amici, or "false friends."

After the soffrito is nice and golden, you add the rice. Angelo uses only carnaroli rice, a short-grained rice that is more absorptive even than arborio, which is acceptable and more commonly used. Using any other kind of rice, Angelo said, is barbaric.

Then comes the wine, to sfumare the rice. This is the first time I have heard this verb particular to risotto, a whole verb that means infusing the rice with wine. I would run around for weeks afterward singing (to the tune of "Volare") "Sfumare, oh-oh-oh-oh."

But which wine? Angelo shakes his head. Have I learned nothing? It depends. If you are making a delicate risotto with zucchini flowers, would you use red? Of course not. Quail risotto? Barbera. White beans and sausage? Red.

OK, now we have sfumated the rice. It is time to add broth. The broth must be hot. If you have cold broth, it will make glue.

"Che schifo," I said. How disgusting. He nodded. I was catching on.

But what kind of broth? Chicken? Beef? "I suppose it depends," I said.

He nodded. They have very good veal in Piedmont, so in general, he uses veal broth. With a lighter risotto, he might use chicken — but actually, no. He would use capons.

Capons.

Yes. Capons are roosters with no palle, so they develop without sex hormones, which give the meat a vaguely nasty taste. Capons are more flavorful than hens, because the flesh is a little more fatty.

I do not know where to get capons. It was becoming clear that my risotto was going to cost as much as flying to Italy. I asked if I could get away with putting a chicken carcass in water with some celery, carrot and a bay leaf, boil it up, call it stock, and use that for risotto. When I tell people in the States that I make my own stock, they are impressed. Angelo gave me a look that said, You poor Americans.

I asked him about contorni, the stuff you put into risotto. "There are so many risotti that this discussion could go on for the rest of our lives," he said. "We're almost there."

I had only a few more minutes to get answers to some essential questions.

Al dente or creamy? Al dente — chewy in the center of the rice! Cheese? A good Parmigiano-Reggiano, or even better, a Sardinian pecorino. A little cream at the end? "Anyone who adds cream to risotto doesn't know how to make risotto."

We came in view of the hotel. I wished I could watch my guru make risotto, but I knew that was unlikely. I did actually hint about that, in case he wanted to invite me over for dinner. "Ciao, ciao."

As I got out, he said, "There is one secret ingredient."

I raised my eyebrows. I knew better than to ask outright.

"Passion," he said.

For everything I had learned from Angelo about risotto, I realized that all I knew about risotto was how little I really knew.

Laura Fraser is the author of the memoirs "An Italian Affair" and "All Over the Map" and editorial director of Shebooks.net, the new publisher of short e-books by and for women. Excerpted from her Shebook, "The Risotto Guru."

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