Milan, the biggest city in Northern Italy, is famous for fashion as much as for a mouth-watering risotto. “Risotto alla milanese” is a golden-yellow, amazingly creamy dish, whose main ingredients are Carnaroli rice and a good quality saffron.
According to a legend, the traditional recipe was born in 1574, it seems, thanks to a Master glazier who was working for the construction of the Duomo (Milan Cathedral). One of the glazier’s assistants was nicknamed Zafferano (the Italian term for saffron) because he was used to add a little amount of yellow dye in every single paint mix he prepared, so much often that one day the Master, as a joke, told him that sooner or later, he would have put yellow dye even into risotto. And that’s what happened! On the day of the Master’s daughter wedding, the 8th of September, Zafferano asked the cook to add some saffron to the rice he was preparing for the banquet. The result was surprisingly amazing, and everyone attending the feast fell in love with that unusual flavour.
On that day, the same man who was contributing to the construction of the main symbol of Milan, the Dome, laid the groundwork for the creation of another Milanese distinctive product, too. If this legend tells the truth, Milan has two reasons to be grateful for to that young glazer!
Risotto alla milanese, or risòt giald (yellow risotto), as people from Milan call it, has then evolved day after day into the authentic recipe that we know today, which includes another characteristic ingredient: beef marrow. The flavour of this ingredient can be too strong for some palates (mine included), so most people don’t use it. The result is great anyway, but it is not to be confused with the original Milanese one!
How to make a great saffron Risotto
The recipe that follows explains how to make the most popular version of saffron risotto. It is one of the most common ones in Italy, as it is quite quick, compared to other risotto recipes. However, as every risotto, it is quite a complex preparation which will need all your attention to be put on it for about 30 minutes. The mouth-watering outcome will be totally worth your time.
The most important thing to keep in mind when making saffron risotto, in my opinion, is the quality of raw ingredients, most of all rice and saffron. The former, and this is true for any risotto, should be a good quality Carnaroli, Vialone Nano or Arborio rice, which are the perfect varieties for this cooking technique. I personally prefer Carnaroli rice, whose grains, when cooked, keep their al dente texture but still release a good amount of starch on their surface, which is fundamental to get a nice and creamy risotto.
If the quality of rice confers the right texture to this dish, there is no question that what determines its flavour, other than its colour, is most of all saffron. This is why it’s essential to choose the best saffron you can find. I know, it’s expensive and not always easy to find, according to the country you live in, but if you use a low quality saffron, the result will definitely not be the same. I would put a few saffron threads in almost every dish I prepare. I suppose that Zafferano could easily be my nickname, too!
Ingredients (serves 4)
- 1.5 to 2 litres, (6 to 8.5 cups) beef broth
- 120 gr butter (or 1/2 cup, or 4.2 oz)
- 1 medium onion, minced
- 350 gr Carnaroli rice (or 1.7 cups, or 12.35 oz)
- 150 ml white wine (or 0.65 cup)
- 120 gr Parmigiano Reggiano, grated (or 1 cup, or 4.2 oz)
- 20 to 25 saffron threads – or 1 to 2 saffron envelopes, according to your taste.
After preparing your beef broth, keep it boiling in a pot, as you will need it to simmer continually throughout the preparation process.
Mince the onion with a knife, very thinly.
If you are using saffron threads, put them in a small cup and pour over them about 4 tablespoons of boiling broth and leave saffron in infusion for at least 10 minutes; if you are using saffron powder instead, simply dissolve it into a small amount of broth, and set apart.
In a casserole, on a low heat, allow 70 gr of your butter to melt. Gently sauté the minced onion into it, stirring continuously, until it becomes transparent, slightly golden. You don’t have to fry it: what you’re looking for is soft, golden onion.
Now, turn up the heat and put your rice in the casserole. It is the first phase of your risotto preparation: tostatura (toasting), and it’s essential to preserve the compact texture of your rice. Allow your rice to toast for about 3 minutes, always stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is transparent and slightly brown.
Pour the white wine over the toasted rice, give it a stir, and allow it to simmer until reduced, or until you don’t smell alcohol evaporating anymore.
It’s now time to add your boiling broth. Start adding a few spoonfuls of it to your rice, give it a stir, cover with a lid and lower the heat again. From now on, you will need to add liquid to the rice everytime you realise the previous one has been completely absorbed.
Beware not to add too much broth at the same time, to avoid overcooking, since you have to be sure that when the rice is al dente, not much more than the right remaining quantity of liquid is in there. You will need to continue adding broth and waiting for it to be absorbed for about 15 to 20 minutes, according to the cooking time specified on the rice package.
Give the rice a stir occasionally, but leave it alone when not needed. Stirring it too often can even be counter-productive. But still beware the rice doesn’t stick to the casserole, adding liquid as soon as needed.
About 5 minutes before the rice is done, add the broth in which you have infused -or dissolved- your saffron. In case you are using saffron threads, do not throw them away after infusion! Of course, put them too into the risotto, as they will continue releasing flavour and colour directly in your casserole.
Gently stir the rice until it is completely coloured by saffron and taste it. Even if the broth provides the right amount of saltiness sometimes, you will probably need to add salt, to taste. Do not oversalt, since you are going to add Parmigiano Reggiano eventually.
As soon as the rice is al dente, it comes the time for the most delicate phase of your preparation process, mantecatura. Turn off the heat and add the remaining butter (50 gr), and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano, then start tossing risotto by moving the casserole, as showed in this video. In case you don’t feel confident in doing that way, stir it with the wooden spoon until the butter is dissolved. The perfect wooden spoon for risotto has a hole on it, in order to assure the most appropriate stirring technique at this step.
If needed, add a spoonful of broth during mantecatura, until you get the perfect risotto texture, that is called “all’onda” (onda is the Italian word for wave), meaning that when tossed, the rice has to be fluid enough to behave like a wave, with grains being held together by the starch, but still loose, not solidified in a single mass.
You are now ready to experience the great flavour of this yellow creamy dish… And be grateful to the Master glazier’s assistant for this goodness!
- Prep time: if you have broth available already, you will need about 10 minutes to prepare ingredients and 30 minutes to cook your risotto.
- Yield: serves 4
- Tips: among all other secrets to make a good risotto, the most important is to dedicate all your attention to its preparation. Forget the telephone ringing. You just NEED to stay close to the stove and look after your yellow creature!
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