Many diners in Italian and other Mediterranean restaurants have enjoyed a creamy side dish called risotto for decades. A basic recipe can be modified to accommodate any number of spices, vegetables or meats. But what exactly is it — a creamy form of rice or pasta?
The answer is a form of rice, although not the familiar grain rices found in Asian cooking. True risotto is created from one of three forms of rice found in Europe: arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano. Of the three, arborio rice is the most commonly used variety for this dish.
To confuse matters a little, there is also a form of pasta called orzo which looks like grains of rice. Orzo is also used as a flavorful side dish in Mediterranean cuisine and prepared with many of the same spices and vegetables as risotto. The difference is that properly cooked risotto becomes a creamy blend, while orzo tends to maintain individual grains similar to cooked Asian rice.
Risotto is actually the name of the finished dish, not the rice itself. To prepare it, a cook must first obtain a generous supply of arborio rice. Arborio rice is more of a barley grain than a type of traditional white rice.
Unlike in Asian rice dishes, the rice is not boiled in water. It is first placed in a skillet containing olive oil. The cook must keep stirring the arborio rice through the oil until it becomes tender and starchy. Next, some form of meat stock is slowly added. This is done in small batches, with stock being added as the stirred arborio grains absorb the liquid.
After 20 to 30 minutes of nearly constant stirring, the rice should be ready to serve. Ideally, it should creamy, oozing onto the plate much like a lava flow, not thick like mashed potatoes. Creating a perfect dish takes some practice, but there are instant mixes that purport to cut preparation time significantly. Risotto takes time to prepare properly, but the results are usually worth the effort.