Italian chef Carlo Cracco needs no introduction. Veneto born, he worked with Gualtiero Marchesi and Alain Ducasse before making a name for himself in various restaurants before venturing on his own and opening various restaurants including his flagship Ristorante Cracco restaurant in Milan. When you think about Italy and its food, the first thing that comes to mind wis certainly pasta. But risotto would come a close second. Carlo Cracco grew up in a region famous for its Vialone Nano rice variety but when he moved to Milan he learned that the preferred rice was the Carnaroli.
At a recent master class with Carlo Cracco, he revealed all his know how on how to make a great risotto as well as preparing two recipes to showcase how to prepare the perfect risotto.
It was part of a series of events being organised by the Belgian-Italian Chamber of Commerce as part of the True Italian Taste project.
“A risotto is a recipe that is unique in the international panorama. It is not easy to make but it is also creative because it has evolved from being a soup into being something completely different. While with pasta there is a certain tradition, with risotto you can be more innovative because Italians are more open to change and new ideas. There is no rule book for risotto,” the Italian chef said.
Today Italy is the largest producer of rice in Europe. “When we think of rice we normally think of Asia but the reality is that to make a risotto you need one of the many varieties of rice grown in Italy. You cannot make a risotto with Japanese rice because it does not have the starch found in Italian rice,” said Cracco.
The Italian chef explained that the secret to making a perfect risotto was to balance ingredients. “The cooking is crucial. In Italy when we say that pasta or rice needs to be al dente, it is not because we want to serve it hard but rather because this is the best way to digest it. It is because this is the optimal way to cook the rice,” he said.
When cooking risotto, Carlo recommends that the rice needs to constantly boiling. “One of biggest mistakes is to not keep the rice on a boil because this not only slows down the cooking but also does not allow the starch to come out and is therefore very visible in the final result.”
Another mistake to avoid is to not give importance to what Italians call mantecatura which refers to the finishing process of mixing the pasta or risotto with the sauce and cooking water to create a perfect emulsion. “This is the last thing that needs to be done but it is maybe the hardest. Like meat, a risotto needs to rest but it cannot cool down otherwise it is impossible to correct. This is the process of adding butter or olive oil and parmiggiano reggiano before plating,” he said.
Carlo believes that rice is a symbol of the biodiversity that exists in Italy. “Rice came from Asia but thanks to our biodiversity, our culture and knowhow, farmers have managed to create something a completely different rice which also gives us a completely different recipe to what can be found elsewhere.”
A case in point is the Risotto Milanese which hails from Milan. The main ingredient is ‘saffron’ which is cultivated everywhere but the best one comes from Altopiano di Navelli in Aquila because of the altitude where it is grown. The story, and Carlo doesn’t know whether it is true or not, is that this dish came about as a mistake. An artisan who was using saffron for colour while working on the Milan cathedral decided to add the saffron to a rice dish for his daughter’s wedding to create this opulent feeling. It became known as the Risotto Milanese.
Normally risotto is prepared with a broth, a chicken stock, a vegetable stock or a meat stock. However, Carlo cooked his risotto with peas and raw prawns with water rather than a stock. “Water is a pure ingredient and therefore enhances the purity of the risotto,” says Carlo. “If you want to enhance the flavours of the ingredients and have a balanced taste boiling water works perfectly well,” he said.
Risotto with peas and prawns from Santa Margherita
The first recipe Carlo prepared was a twist on risi e bisi or rice and peas. He used carnaroli rice, olive oil, shallots, yellow tomatoes, peas, butter, lemon, the prawns from Santa Margherita in Ligura and Parmigiano Reggiano.
He chopped the shallots really finely. He added the butter and cooked the shallots. When this was done, he added the rice and toasted it until it became translucid. The butter and shallots should not brown but should remain transparent. This is a very important building block of the risotto and is one which will create the flavour in the end result.
Once the rice is toasted he added white wine. Sometimes, a good quality white wine vinegar is used but when this happens it is to add acidity and replace the white wine. In this case, the vinegar is added at the end of the process rather than after the rice is toasted.
Once the wine evaporated, Carlo added fresh peeled peas and started to cook the risotto. To this he adds boiling water. At this stage he also adds the yellow tomatoes which are grown in his ‘azienda agricola’ or farm. While the rice is cooking he cleans the prawns which come from a reserve and which are found at a depth of around 120 metres. “We are lucky to be able to find such produce but if you cannot find something similar, either use a local crustacean ingredient or else eliminate it as Gualtiero Marchesi would recommend,” Carlo said.
He cleans the prawns, butterflies them and then adds olive oil, lemon zest and pepper and keeps them aside to garnish when the rice is ready.
It will take between 12 to 14 minutes for the rice to cook. He says that to know whether the risotto is al dente or not the rice should find a tiny grain when halved. Once the risotto is ready, he removes it from the heat and then adds olive oil (around 1 tablespoon), a handful of Parmigiano Reggiano and mix. To add freshness he chops three to four leaves of mint very thinly then finishes it off with the raw prawns.
Rice pudding with coffee and milk
For the second recipe, Carlo used Vialone Nano rice. He boiled half a litre of milk together with 30 grams of coffee, star anise and a handful of cardamon seeds. As soon as the milk boils, he switches off the heat and lets the flavours infuse into the milk for around 15 minutes.
Carlo filtered the milm and then cooked it with some added water and the infused milk. Unlike the risotto which needs to be al dente, here Carlo is looking for a creamy texture so the rice needs to be cooked really well.
“This is a dish that reminds me of my childhood. It is what we used to eat at home at my grandmother’s house and my mother.”
He said this dish can be served hot, warm, at room temperature or even cold. It can be topped with cherries or any other fruit. In this case he used powdered coffee.
All photos by Marco Poderi Studio