Thursday, May 12, 2011

Cooking Risotto with Chef Catalani at Casa Italiana

Last Thursday, I had the opportunity to be part of a cooking class at Casa Italiana led by Chef Daniele Catalani. The class, which focused on Risotto making techniques, was the third in a series offered this Spring.

Risotto, a creamy rice dish, originated in the Northern regions of Italy. Now it can be found throughout the country, with each region incorporating their own unique spin on the classic dish. During the class, we made four different variations: Risotto with asparagus and shrimp, risotto with braised radicchio cabbage, Arancini made with classic, saffron- infused risotto and finally, mushroom risotto fritters.

First, we started by learning the proper way to cut onions, at which point I learned that I had been doing it wrong. (I also found out that we can avoid tearing eyes when cutting onions if we avoid squeezing them.) We then divided the onions amongst the four pots on the stove, and poured in enough oil to cover all of the onions. I have to say that I was surprised to know you should not cook with extra virgin olive oil, due to its delicate nature and ability to burn. A vegetable blend was used to cook the onions until they were translucent.

Next we poured in the Arborio rice to the pots and let it cook just long enough to be toasted. Just enough chicken stock was ladled in to each pot, just enough to cover all of the rice. Slowly, the hard rice grain turned into a soft, creamy, consistency. The creamy nature is a result of the high amount of starch contained inside each grain of rice. Chef Catalani, a former contestant of Iron Chef America, and current owner of Toscana Café, stressed the importance of using either Arborio or Carnaroli rice to achieve this effect. Other varieties of rice simply will not cook the same.

For the basic risotto that would later be used for the arancini, A Sicilian dish that translates into little oranges, we poured about a ½ cup of saffron extract into the pot. Of course, you could also use the more expensive saffron threads. After the mixture was removed from the heat, butter and parmigiano cheese were added. It was then cooled and we used our hands to mold the rice into spheres, that we then filled with mozzarella cheese and peas, before being double breaded, and fried!

Perhaps the most helpful ingredient of any risotto dish is patience! You have to allow the risotto time to cook, but you also have to make sure it does not pass the threshold where it becomes soggy; it is a delicate balance. Make no mistake, by the time we finished cooking the regular risotto and frying the arancini and the fritters, everyone’s mouth was watering. It was worth the wait! At the end, the class sat down at the table together to enjoy our culinary creations!

The class was fun and stress free. The most important lesson that Chef Catalani passed on: there is a “right” way to make a dish and then there is your way. While the specifications you follow in your kitchen may not live up to the traditional recipe, it is all about having fun and creating comfort food that indulges our your own tastes!

If you would like to try some of Chef Catalani’s delicious risotto for yourself, you can visit his restaurant, Toscana Café in Washington D.C.’s Capital Hill neighborhood.

Find out more information on Casa Italiana’s cooking and wine tasting courses.

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