I have a culinary confession to make. It’s nothing terrible—I’m not talking about serving Spam at Thanksgiving or passing off a cake from the local bakery as my own. No, I’m talking about the fact that I really stink at making rice. In fact, I am a complete bust at the process from start to finish. And wait, the confession gets even worse. I’ve actually purchased (in bulk from Costco), and used, Minute Rice. I’m not proud of it, but you do what you have to do to survive.
Ok perhaps I’m exaggerating just a bit, and I have gotten better lately with practice because one kid has been asking for rice at every meal here lately. He claims his rigorous soccer practices require more carbs. But the thing is I can’t maintain consistency. Some nights I nail it; other nights there’s a hissing, foaming, overflowing covered pot on the stove that looks like a white volcano.
And with this in mind, you will certainly ask me, “what were you thinking,” when I tell you that this past weekend I decided to make shrimp risotto. Yeah, go ahead and shake your head in disbelief. I did.
Rice could possibly be the most popular food in the world. And while many folks may associate rice with Asian cuisine, it is the Italians who I think have really perfected it with risotto—literally “little rice” in Italian. For thousands of years rice has been the understudy in Asian cuisine. But in Italy, she has become the quickly rising star. If plain old white rice were a car, it would be a Chevy to risotto’s Ferrari.
Three different types of rice are used for risotto: arborio, carnaroli, and vialone nano (which sounds like a character from The Godfather). According to Larousse Gastronomique, these grains are “characterized by high absorbency and a firm, but ‘clinging’ texture” which are “ideal for achieving a moist, slightly sticky risotto in which the grains retain their separate identity with a little bite.” That sounds like a good description of Rome!
To make risotto requires a certain degree of patience, which I confess (again) is something that I lack. And while there are as many risotto recipes as there are Italian grandmas, there is little variation in the preparation. The rice is first toasted on low heat in a pot with a little olive oil, butter, or both. Hot stock is added slowly, sometimes spoonfuls at a time. The rice is stirred frequently and quickly until the stock is absorbed. A little more stock is added, and the process begins again. After forty-five minutes, you have a creamy sauce with rice just slightly al dente.
It may have been beginner’s luck, but I nailed this risotto. And based on past experience with plain white rice, this should have been a disaster. But maybe I wasn’t giving the understudy her due. After all, an understudy does sometimes perform and shine. Anthony Hopkins was an understudy to Sir Laurence Olivier and got his big break when Olivier came down with appendicitis during a production of August Strindberg's The Dance of Death.
Good rice is harder than I thought, and making risotto—something that I had not tried before and, thus, garnered more of my attention—made me realize that. I may be getting carried away here, but making rice could be a metaphor for our lives. We rush through things. We take things (and people) for granted. Life is not Minute Rice. It requires slowing down; it requires attention. Friendships, families, and marriages take time. They also take patience and the knowledge that, like a boiling-over pot of rice, they’re imperfect and messy.
Love and chaos. Maybe that’s why the Italians do rice so well.