Guest post by Anthony Damelio (we call him Tony), Sharon’s fiancé.
I love making risotto: not just the possible ingredients or the finished product but also, and perhaps most importantly, the process. Growing up, I watched my father prepare it often for formal occasions and normal dinners alike, and so I make it as much as possible, especially when a special meal comes around.
One time, though, my penchant for risotto failed me miserably. I was living with six others in Tucson, Arizona, and it was late June in the desert—not a cool place to be. My housemates and I had a special meal to prepare for the new pastor at our church who was coming over. I scanned the pantry shelves, found some Arborio rice that needed to be used, and remembered an online recipe I had seen for strawberry risotto. Since we had some frozen bags of ripe strawberries, I thought I’d had a divine revelation: a fruity yet savory dish to be served on a hot desert evening.
Wow, was I wrong. Being a devotee of good risotto, I was appalled at the finished product. It was lacking in depth, the strawberries were flavorless and out of place, and the hot rice didn’t exactly soothe our sweating foreheads. It wasn’t a bad recipe, per se; the dish just tanked, especially alongside some other significant lapses in culinary judgment (ask me later about the gooey, poorly fried okra). Needless to say, I was embarrassed.
Part of me was so ashamed because I love making risotto for other people, something almost hard-wired into my culinary limbic system. When I was growing up, my father would often start the risotto process just as guests began to arrive, so that he could entertain in the kitchen. My dad, a gregarious Italian-American, loves to cook with and for people, especially Italian-inspired food. For him, risotto was a great way to keep the party going around the stove while he continued to cook. Plus, risotto doesn’t require much technical prep or complicated presentation work.
The actual hard work comes from sticking to the process, something my father reveres. To start, he makes sure the extra virgin olive oil is hot and then begins sautéing his onions. Right before they caramelize, he adds the garlic and the rice (to toast it), before deglazing with a good splash of white wine. Then, making sure the stock is ready to go, he adds it one ladle at a time. (Sometimes I get lazy and add two at a time so I can run do something else around the kitchen, but usually my father is more patient). At this point, there’s no turning back. You have to keep stirring constantly so the rice doesn’t stick. Usually he would press me into service at this point, making sure I wouldn’t stop stirring. You have to resist the urge to turn the heat up and rush it; the rice will do its magic—give off that lovely creaminess—and will be ready with its last touches of Parmigiano and a pad of butter.
When you’re finally done stirring and you taste the first bite, you can always tell a risotto that’s been tended with care and love. I’ve made many different risottos in my life; and though I’m always eager to try new ingredients, my strawberry debacle haunts my culinary dreams, chastening any bold plans I might have. Thus, I often fall back on the timeless ingredients—seared shrimp, champagne, simple saffron—though my favorite is wild mushroom, made with dried mushrooms and saffron broth. But no matter the ingredients, I always try to model my father’s techniques, both in the dish and with the guests.