Risotto alla Milanese
Rice in the East
The veneration that Asian peoples have for rice is demonstrated by a multitude of religious rites. In Japan, special rice varieties were cultivated for the holy spirits. In southern India, the man who must cut off the first ears is appointed by the religious head of the community, and before the harvest a solemn ceremony is held.
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Rice in the West
Rice was called the treasure of swamps, since it grows on marshy lands. In the West, there are very few rice rituals, such as throwing it to newlyweds. Instead, as a food, rice is used in a great many ways, from salads to appetizers, from risotti with meat or seafood to delicious snacks.
The risotto recipe was finally born in 1829, when chef Felice Luraschi described in detail. His recipe included coded 3 basic steps: roasting the rice with butter and onion, then cooking adding the broth little by little, and the final mixing to serve it soft.
Among them there was one known for his extraordinary ability in measuring out colors. His secret was adding a pinch of saffron to the ready dough. And because of his habit, he was known with the nickname of "Saffron". Mastro Valerio was not unaware of this trick of his most promising disciple, but always pretended to know nothing, though he used to tease him saying he would eventually put saffron in the risotto as well!
One day, after many years of teasing, the young man decided to play a trick on his master, whose daughter was to be married. He bribed the cook and sprinkled a little yellow powder in the risotto for the wedding dinner. Imagine the amazement of the diners at the table when a pyramid of yellow risotto was served! Some took courage and tasted, and then another, and another, and in the blink of an eye the huge mountain of yellow rice disappeared: the "risotto alla milanese" was born.»
History of the Recipe
During the 14th century rice was cultivated extensively in the Naples area. From there, thanks to close family and political connections between the Aragonese and Viscontis, followed by the Sforzas, its cultivation moved to the north of Italy, and was extremely successful in the marshy ground of the Po Valley. Early 14th-century cookbooks offered a great many dishes based on rice. Biancomangiare, by Anonimo Toscano, describes recipes base on rice, or rice flour, cooked with milk, sugar, spices and colored with saffron and egg yolk.
One century later Bartolomeo Scappi spoke for the first time about a Rice Dish in the Lombard style, a boiled rice prepared in layers with cheese, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, cervellata (a typical sausage) and capon breasts. The yellow color was given by the cervellata, a kind of salami, colored and flavored with saffron. Also the Rice and Farro Soup recipe speaks of rice «cooked in broth, seasoned with yellow cervellate and after cooking, mixed with beaten eggs, grated cheese, pepper, cinnamon and saffron.»
In these recipes the term risotto was still completely unknown, and the current technique of slow-cooking the rice adding broth gradually was still unknown, since every recipe starts with boiled rice. Only at the end of the 18th century Milanese rice, as it is known today, took shape. The anonymous author of Oniatologia (= food science) titles one of his recipes How to make a rice soup Milanese-style, where rice, boiled in salted water to which a piece of butter when boiling, is seasoned with cinnamon, grated Parmesan cheese and six egg yolks, so as to obtain a beautiful yellow color.
Antonio Nebbia in his Cuoco Maceratese introduces a revolutionary method: he suggests leaving the rice to soak in cold water for two hours, then frying the rice in a little butter and adding cabbage broth.
A more complete preparation appears in the early 19th century, in the anonymous Cuoco Moderno printed in Milan in 1809, where the recipe Yellow Rice in a Pan suggested to cook the rice, fries previously in a sauté of butter, cervellata, marrow, onion, gradually adding broth where saffron had been dissolved.
And finally the classic recipe was described by Felice Luraschi, a celebrated chef from Milan, who printed in his Nuovo cuoco milanese economico, 1829, a recipe titled Risotto alla Milanese:
«Cut one onion with a crescent knife, add some beef marrow and a little butter, toast and sieve everything, put the needed amount of rice, a little saffron, a little nutmeg, and cook it by adding a good stock from time to time, when half cooked add half a cervellata sausage, let it cook, put the grated cheese and serve.»
Compared to today's recipe, just wine is missing. At the beginning of the 20th century, Pellegrino Artusi in his classic La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene, provides two recipes for the Risotto alla Milanese, with and without white wine. In the first recipe he does not mention ox marrow or other fats; in the second, which he says is «heavier in the stomach but tastier», marrow and white wine appear. He had in fact realized that this fat made the dish stick to the palate, therefore a touch of acidity was needed to de-grease the mouth and give strength to the risotto. Finally, in recent times Gualtiero Marchesi, the founder of the New Italian Cuisine perfected the recipe, advising to proceed as follows:
«Toast the rice in a little butter, start cooking with broth, then add saffron; meanwhile, melt the onion separately in a little butter and white wine, add very cold fresh butter, in order to obtain a smooth cream. Stir the risotto with this butter when cooked.»