In 1993, I took my PhD comps, exams not designed by our faculty as an exercise in building self esteem. To celebrate my passing (the exams that is; I’m obviously still alive), Steve bought me a copy of Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a wonderful cookbook, and the one for which, were it stolen, I would probably commit violence.
Over the years, I’ve made many things from Hazan’s cookbook, which in our house is simply referred to as “Marcella.”
Risotto with sausage is one of the first recipes I made from the book, and, along with her pear tart, one of my go-to recipes. (Another early recipe, pork Modena style, I made for a while, but I taught Steve the recipe and he has made it ever since.) I make this risotto once or twice a year, only in the colder months, but I no longer closely follow the “Marcella” recipe.
Risotto has a reputation for being difficult, but it only needs a bit of attention. Don’t believe the alarmists: the risotto will neither explode nor become poisonous if you blink. True, if you attempt an episode of “Desperate Housewives” in another room while the risotto cooks in the kitchen you’ll have a culinary disaster on your hands, but you can indeed look away, take a sip of something, or retrieve something from the pantry. The recipe below is written to be as simple as possible.
Anyway, this has become comfort food–good for winter evenings, especially for watching tv or a movie. Watch the wine and sausage you use. If the wine is sweet, the risotto will be too; if the sausage is flavorless or too spicy, you’ll end up with something very different from this. Most of all, make sure that you use rice meant for risotto, Italian rice with a special extra coating of starch. Regular rice will not absorb enough liquid to become risotto. (The easiest to find in the Unites States is Arborio; others are Carnaroli and Vialone Nano.)
This is stick-to-your-ribs food in the best possible way.
- 5 cups beef stock, preferably homemade (If you use canned, use only one can and make up the difference with water)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons. butter, divided; 1 tablespoon. should be allowed to come up to room temperature.
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 1 pound mild Italian sausage, sliced into ⅓ inch pieces
- ¼ cup dry white wine
- 2 cup arborio rice (or other Italian risotto rice)
- black pepper to taste
- ½ cup grated parmesan
- salt if needed
- In a saucepan, heat the beef stock until it reaches a steady simmer.
- In a dutch oven or other sturdy, broad-bottomed pan, heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter until foaming (but not smoking). Add onion and cook until it is soft and translucent.
- Add the sliced sausage. Cook until browned on both sides.
- Add the wine. As it cooks down, scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any cooked-on brown bits of onion and sausage.
- When the wine has cooked off, add the rice. Toss thoroughly to coat in the oil and onion mixture.
- Add about ¾ cup of the simmering stock. (This is about two ladles worth if you use a standard ladle.)
- Stir immediately and thoroughly. And keep stirring thoroughly. This process serves several purposes: it keeps the rice from scorching anywhere in the pan; it distributes the stock through the rice. The varieties of rice used for risotto become dense enough in a recipe like this that the liquid will not easily distribute itself if you don’t stir.
- Hint (for this step and most of the next ones): You can’t add any stock while cooking risotto until enough of the previously added stock has been absorbed, BUT with a mixture like this, how do you know? Here’s my trick: using a wooden spatula (or spoon, but I nearly always use a wooden spatula), push aside the rice in or near the center of the pan: if the risotto rushes back in to fill the gap you’ve made, you are nowhere near needing more stock; if the gap fills soon, but not swiftly, you’ll need to add stock soon, but not too soon. If you make the gap in the risotto, and the risotto simply stands where you’ve left it, you need to add more stock immediately.
- Once you’ve realized that you need more stock, add one full ladle. Again stir it in thoroughly and immediately. It may seem that you’ll need to add stock again more quickly since you’ve added half as much, but this is not true. The rice absorbs the stock and after it’s initial absorption of the larger amount, it can take on less stock quickly. You have to do this by observation. Apply my trick from above—only add more stock when the risotto stops moving.
- This is not really a separate step, but it may help to list it separately. Keep adding stock, and applying the trick from step seven above, until you only have one or two ladles of stock left in your saucepan. At this point, taste a bit of the rice. The rice in risotto should be firm (al dente), but if it has a stiff, chalky center, it is not ready. After each new ladle full of stock is absorbed, taste again—the dish is done when the rice is firm (not mushy) but there is no longer a chalky texture in the center. It is not impossible that you will run out of stock before your rice is quite ready—if this happens, quickly add water to the saucepan and turn up the heat. When it begins to bubble gently, begin adding it to the risotto as if it were stock.
- When the rice is done, remove the pan from the heat. Add a few good grindings of black pepper, the parmesan, and the remaining butter. Stir until the butter is melted and everything is combined well.
- Serve as soon as possible on plates or in bowls. Let everyone sprinkle on extra parmesan to taste.