Since our first exploration of risotto decades ago, we have experimented with lots of variations of familiar themes, often without any consultation with our numerous cookbooks devoted exclusively to risotto or even to the web. Once you have gotten the hang of doing a simple risotto, it is easy and natural to improvise based on what's on hand in the kitchen, but it is even more rewarding to target a particular idea, plan ahead to have the ingredients on hand, and do a special risotto. We must confess to having been somewhat slowed down in our risotto habit by the increasing awareness of complex carbs in the new century, since arborio rice is a refined rice product, but still the combination usually with fresh veggie ingredients more than compensates for its drawbacks, we hope. This carb question led us to a farro (almost "spelt") substitute for arborio occasionally, but the "farrotto", while much more nutritious, just lacks the creamy texture that makes risotto such a compelling comfort food.
Many risotto recipes call for chicken or meat stock, as in fact does our original narrative on this topic, but as flexitarian part time vegetarian wannabees, we (bob) adopted the rule that veggie broth will always substitute these other choices. Why not keep something vegetarian if there is no reason to corrupt it? (Vegan is another story, a road we are not willing to go down.) We usually look for no MSG low sodium condensed veggie broth, either in gum-like cubes, or in granular form, or sometimes in liquid concentrate, which we add to water from a boiling teapot. Controlling the salt input yourself is probably a good idea since it is hard to subtract but easy to add to taste or conscience. And MSG gave us bad vibes from its reputed corruption of Chinese-American restaurant cuisinewe prefer not to take chances (just say no!).
One of the first special risottos we tried was strawberry risotto, after actually trying it in Rome in some trattoria in the early days of our youth. Later this opened us up to the idea of purple rice (blueberry mushroom risotto), another berry even less expected in a savory rice dish, accompanied by an effective flavor enhancer (the mushrooms), which we (at least bob) think(s) is among the most flavorful and comforting creamy risotto dishes in our repertoire. A visit to the island of Ponza near Rome awakened us to another mushroom affinity: risotto with radicchio and mushrooms. Another visit to the Caribbean turned us on to leeks, so we experimented with asparagus leek risotto. Of course asparagus risotto itself is a classic which we often do without having ever recorded a specific recipe other than this recent variation: white asparagus risotto with truffle salt (or mushroom risotto with truffle salt (or soycutash risotto without)); in fact it is so simple you really don't need a recipe. Another special risotto uses one of ani's favorite Italian ingredients that is available only seasonally in Italy (late spring, early summer) and requires special effort to acquire in the USA: risotto ai fiori di zucca (risotto with zucchini flowers). That was particularly memorable. But then so was beet risotto / farrotto, especially for the bright beet coloring as striking as the color of blueberry risotto, not to mention the distinctive taste that is surprisingly tasty. Less colorful but also attention getting was the recipe inspired by a family favorite, Armenian cauliflower rice pilaf: roasted cauliflower risotto. Too bad the cauliflower is so much less nutritious than broccoli, which just doesn't hit the spot like cauliflower with rice.
One of the ordinary and more common recipes found in many books is spinach risotto, which we tried with one of those plastic bags of prewashed baby spinach that popped up everywhere this century, and recently while browsing one of the big Italian cookbooks on the tall book shelf of our cooking library, a spinach and gorgonzola recipe popped out at us, to which we added white mushrooms, and conveniently relied on already crumbled gorgonzola from Trader Joe's. Gives a nice alternative flavor hit if you like blue (or green) cheese. And of course everyone who has heard of risotto should recognize risotto milanese: saffron (zafferano) flavored and yellow colored rice, to which you can also add mushrooms (we do) or even shrimp (asparagus too!): asparagus shrimp risotto. The saffron we have on hand from many years of importing shocking numbers of Italian supermarket purchased packets of the stuff for our close Iranian friends. Sometimes it even comes with mushroom flavoring! Like the veggie cubes with funghi that we most recently purchased from our preferred Rome supermarket near Piazza Bologna. Of course the Spanish also have a saffron rice that is perhaps more well known: paella, which influenced us to try a paella-like risotto.
The leeks made their way into a few other versions as well: risotto with leeks, mushroom and chicken, spontaneous risotto, and aduki beans etc risotto (mushrooms too), and even a root veggie we often walk past at the supermarket: turnip risotto, or another maligned veggie, yellow squash (we always go for the zucchini!): refrigerator leftover vegetable risotto. Another bean recipe: risotto e fagioli (beans and rice?). A trial recipe that somewhat disappointed our preliminary expectations was ripped off recipe for pumpkin squash sage risotto. We eventually bought the small risotto book from Williams-Sonoma where it caught our eye, but it just joined the rest of the risotto books on the shelf. So many risotto variations remain for us to exploreif only we were not so lazy! We should definitely make a point of having a new recipe in mind from our library on a regular basis. After all, time is running out. Like the 25 years of Bon Appetit magazines from our first subscriber issue in February 1983 which finally we are now disposing of after a cursory leafing through, harvesting a few pages along the way. Accumulation of stuff just becomes a burden after a sufficient time passes. Good thing people have an expiration date, or we would have choked up the planet by now.
This year an ingenious idea appeared in the NYTimes (Faith in the Kitchen alerted us to this in a daily email): for better nutrition without sacrificing creaminess, mix in healthier grains with arborio rice, simple. Thanks to Tara Parker-Pope: Wholesome Risotto With Whole Grains, Recipes for Health, NYTimes, September 7, 2012. We tried it immediately and it worked! We had some black rice we had scored in Rome a year and a bit earlier that was not yet gone, so we tried a black and arborio recipe from Tara. Next we adapted one of our one favorite risottos: with shrimp and asparagus (we threw in some sautéed chopped baby bellas for an extra flavor hit). For the whole grain we had just discovered a terrific quick cooking Italian whole grain mix at Costco. Ani, the team risotto expert by now, used 1 c arborio and 1/2 c whole grain mix while bob was playing professor at an early evening test review session, getting the ratio tilted in the wrong direction (fractions are not her strong point), but nevertheless a good start. Since we have 3 lbs (less 1/c c) of the stuff on hand now, we will undoubtedly have many more chances to experiment.