When dining in Venice, I like to sample the traditional rice (riso) , dishes which are available on restuarant menus in fascinating variety.
A cereal grass believed to have originated in India, rice was brought by Arabs from the Middle East to Spain and its popularity spread to Italy during the 12th century. By the 1500s rice was being successfully cultivated in the north beside the river Po, and since then the Piedmontese grain has been internationly renowned for its superior quality.
Although Italian rice dishes are generally associated with the cuisines of Lombardy and Piedmont, rice has been a staple food of Veneto since Venice ruled the rice-growing areas. When Venice flourished as a thriving merchant city official banquets given in the luxurious Doge's (Duke's) palace featured delicate and subtly seasoned dishes made with local foods and imported seasonings. Outstanding among them were rice creations that have long dominated the notable Venetian cookery.
Typical of the rice dishes is risotto made in numerous variations with the other ingredients integrated into the cooking of the rice. In Venice risotos are cooked all'onda , rippling or on the waves, a reference to the dish's liquid consistency which the Venetians consider appropriate for thier city of the sea.
Risotos are made with Italian rice which has short, rounded, fat, grayish white grains that are very starchy. They have the capacity to absorb the cooking liquid properly and while they remain separate they are also soft and creamy. Venetians prefer them cooked al dente , to the point of being tender but still firm to the bite.
There are several types of Italian rice. They are seldom sold in American supermarkets but can be bought or ordered from Italian or specialty food stores. The most commonly available is that marketed under the Arborio label.
To make a risoto the rice is first gently sauteed in butter to coat the grains until golden. Then a hot liquid, generally a rich broth, and sometimes white wine, are added gradually, about a cup at a time. As the dish cooks over medium heat with lively simmer and frequent stirring the liquid evaporates and is absorbed by the rice. But at no point should the dish be allowed to dry out completely. The result should be moist and creamy and is best served at once or after a few minutes whether as a first course, an entree or a late evening meal. Risotos are flavored with or served with freshly grated parmesan cheese.
A diverse selection of seasonings and foods may be cooked with the rice to create flavorful dishes, Seafood is the most common addition and there are risotos featuring mussels, fish, clams, scampi (shrimp), lobster, eel, caparozzoli (similar to baby clams), a mixture of shellfish, or squid whose ink colors the rice black.
Just about every kind of vegetable from asparagus and fennel to pumpkin and zucchini may go into risotos, as may chicken, meat, game and local sausage. Special versions are Risoto di secole (made with scraps of meat from roast veal or beef bones) and Risoto In Capro Roman (made with mutton, tomatoes and wine).
Rice is also cooked in broth with other foods such as vegetables, seafood, meat or grapes to make thick soup-like dishes. The most famous version is risi e bisi , rice and green peas, that is considered by Italians to be a soup but is thicker than soup and is served with a fork rather than a spoon. This is a Venetian specialty dating back to the days of the Doges and is made, according to Venetians, only with the young, fresh and tender peas available in spring.
Given below are recipes for Venetian rice dishes that can be made with American short or medium-grain rice if the Italian is not available RISOTO CON ZUCCHINI (4 to 6 servings) 3 small zucchini, 1 pound 5 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup minced onion 1 or 2 cloves garlic, crushed 1 cup short or medium-grain rice 4 cups hot chicken broth or water 1 cup chopped fresh parsley Salt, pepper to taste 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Cut stem, from zucchini. Wipe dry and slice thinly. Saute in 2 tablespoons heated butter in a large skillet until golden, 2 or 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add and het 2 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add onion and garlic and saute until tender. Do not brown.
Add rice and saute until grains become golden.Add 2 cups broth or water and cook over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionlly, 10 minutes. Add 1 cup broth, zucchini, parsley, salt and pepper and continue cooking until almost all liquid is absorbed. Add remaining 1 cup broth and continue cooking until rice is just tender, stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter and cheese and serve at once while moist and creamy. RISI E BISI (4 servings) 1/4 cup minced smoked fatty ham or prosciutto 1 medium onion, peeled and minced 4 tablespoons butter 1 cup short or medium-grain rice 1 1/2 cups fresh green peas or frozen petits pois 4 cups hot rich chicken broth 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Saute ham and onion in 3 tablespoons heated butter in a large saucepan until onion is tender. Do not brown. Add rice and peas and saute until grains become golden, about 2 minutes. Add 2 cups hot broth and cook over medium heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes, until almost all liquid is absorbed.
Add 1 more cup broth and continue cooking until almost all liquid is absorbed. Add remaining 1 cup broth and pepper and cook a little longer, until rice is just tender. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon butter and cheese and serve at once while moist and creamy. SHRIMP RISOTO (4 servings) 1/4 cup butter 1/2 cup minced onion 1 cup short or medium-grain rice 1/2 cup dry white wine 3 cups hot rich chicken or fish broth Salt and white pepper to taste 1 pound uncooked shrimp, deveined and shelled 1/8 teaspoon saffron, powdered or crumbled (optional) 1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan or skillet. Add onion and saute until tender. Do not brown. Add rice and saute' until grains become golden. Turn heat to high and pour in wine. Cook, stirring, until most of wine has evaporated. Add 1 cup hot broth, salt and pepper.Lower heat to medium and continue cooking uncovered, stirring occasionally. Add broth a cup at a time and continue cooking.
Meanwhile, saute shrimp in remaining butter in a skillet until pink, a few minutes. Steep saffron in a little hot water.
When rice is almost cooked and still moist and creamy, stir in shrimp with drippings, saffron and cheese.Mix well and leave on stove just long enough to blend flavors. Serve at once.