Making Risotto in a yellow kitchen

I’m making risotto because I’m thinking of my mother.  Yes, Risotto alla Milanese, the way she, my modenese mother made it.  She didn’t cook it often, since it was a bit more time-consuming than the quick sauces she’d fix for dinner, on her way to (or back from) work.  You’ve got to prep ahead of picturetime to make a good risotto.  The key? Really, really flavorful, rich, homemade chicken stock.  No, I mean it, don’t bother to make risotto if you don’t have the real thing – no canned, boxed, commercial knock-offs here.  Yes, I’m very opinionated, but I know what I’m talking about. Besides, guys, what’s the big deal about making fresh chicken stock? All you need is a whole chicken, some celery, a carrot, an onion, a handful of fresh parsley, maybe a tiny clove of garlic, some salt and a potful of water.  That’s it.  It cooks itself, you just keep an eye on it, making sure it stays at a comfortable simmer, partially covered.  And, Voilà, you’ve got your chicken broth for your risotto (or for a lovely chicken soup with pastina); and you can use the boiled chicken to make a wonderful chicken salad, with some mayo, a dash of Dijon, chopped celery, fresh cilantro (my idea, love cilantro), tiny bit of minced onion, a squeeze of lemon, a spoonful of sweet relish and you’re good.  There, bonus recipe! Okay, back to the main course.  I’m melting butter in a pot, before I throw in very thinly sliced onion, watching it turn a pale gold, exuding that fragrant aroma that only onions sautéing in butter are capable of.  It smell like comfort, my childhood’s yellow Formica kitchen, my mother stirring semi-patiently, talking to herself sometimes, others, listening to me reciting passages from Carducci orLeopardi’s poems, which I was expected to memorize.  La donzelletta vien dalla campagna…Yeah, Il Sabato del villaggio – masterpiece.  Look it up. picture(Okay, at the time, I didn’t appreciate it…) In the back of the stove, a large pot of chicken soup is quietly simmering; on the counter a bowl of Arborio rice is waiting its turn – plump, pearly grains, large, trained to absorb all the goodness of the broth, to expand and become meltingly tender, but not (never) soggy.  Yes, Arborio is the rice of choice here.  There are other, more expensive, types of Italian rice perfect for this dish, but Arborio is easily found even in supermarkets and works fabulously.  Allow me to be opinionated once more: never use long-grain rice! You’ll only get a mushy, unattractive mess, a porridge-like concoction.  Allora, when the onions are ready, pour the rice in and stir it  quickly, coating all the grains with the melted butter.  Then (now the tedious part), pour two ladleful of broth in, and stir till it’s absorbed.  And yes, keep going, two ladlefuls, stir, repeat.  For about 25 minutes, though it might take longer.  Okay, so it’s a labor of love.  Stir for a minute, will you? my mother would say.  And I would, not happily, but I would (are you coming back?).  I was not interested in food and such, when I was a teen, that’s for sure.  Boys, blue nail polish and miniskirts, yes; the culinary arts, no. However, the mixing and blending of the “secret” ingredient, well, that I liked.  Not so secret, really, just unusual.  I’m talking about the saffron, the wonderfully exotic spice that colored the rice a sunny, daffodil yellow.  My mother used the powdered saffron that came in tiny envelopes, and so do I.  I would gently dissolve the precious powder with a little chicken soup in an espresso cup, and watch in amazement as the liquid turned a deep orange, sparkling like a topaz.  And it was that bright orange that turned the dish that special yellow, that exotic flavoring that would designate the risotto alla milanese.  Stir, stir, feed it soup and wine; stir, stir, add a handful of savory Parmigiano Reggiano; stir again, then turn it out onto a shallow serving platter, a steaming, creamy marvel of Northern Italian creativity, the grains proudly swollen, yet al dente, the flavor like nothing else.  Risotto.  I love it.  Thanks for the memory, mamma.  Click here to make yours!

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