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Risotto alla Milanese, or saffron risotto, is an Italian side dish made with Arborio rice, which when cooked becomes sticky and creamy. It is traditionally served alongside osso buco. The addition of saffron, an expensive spice made from the stigmas of crocus flowers, gives the dish a bright yellow color. Any kind of vegetable is good with risotto, and many recipes call for mushrooms. When cooking saffron risotto, it is important to keep stirring so the creamy starch of the rice may separate from the grain.
Saffron is the costliest spice because of its scarcity. The stigmas of a particular crocus flower are harvested by hand and either sold whole or powdered. There are only three stigmas in each flower, and one ounce (28.35 grams) of saffron requires about 14,000 stigmas. The spice has a strong taste described as honey-like or earthy, with a subtle bitter undertone that can overwhelm a dish if too much is used. A pinch is more than enough for most recipes.
The red stigmas of saffron diffuse into a beautiful golden-yellow color, a desired quality that enhances saffron risotto. The rice takes on this pleasing hue, making the dish attractive to look at as well as flavorful. Arborio rice has a shorter grain than other types and contains a high concentration of starch, which gives it a distinctive creamy texture when cooked. Peas, mushrooms, and legumes are often added to risotto, as is seafood.
Proper preparation of risotto begins by cooking onions in fat then coating the rice without browning it, called “toasting.” Spice would be added at this stage for saffron risotto and wine if it is one of the ingredients. The rice is then simmered slowly in a ladleful of broth at a time, waiting for it to be absorbed before adding more. It must be stirred constantly to release the starch into the liquid, giving it the characteristic creamy texture. Parmesan cheese is often added at the end, along with butter, and the rice is ready when it is tender but al dente, or firm to the teeth.
Good saffron risotto, like any risotto, cannot be rushed. Since the preparation may take 25 minutes or more, restaurants often prepare it until the rice begins to soften, and then cool it in the refrigerator until an order is placed. Then the chef will complete the risotto to order using some of the remaining broth that has been held back. Risotto can be pre-made using this technique up to three days ahead, but it tastes best when freshly prepared.