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The Rice is Right

adapted from Sally Schneider's column “Well–Being,” Food & Wine, October, 1999

For many years, arborio virtually defined for Italian rice in this country, and it appeared in every recipe for risotto. Like most American cooks, I used arborio happily, thinking it up to any rigorous Italian’s standards. It wasn't until I spent time with a rice grower in Italy that I came to understand that arborio belongs to a broader category of rice’s with many varieties, each with it’s own possibilities.

Contessa Rosetta Clara Cavalli d’Olivola farms four such rices — Vialone Nano, Carnaroli, Baldo and Arborio — at Principato de Lucedio, her 12th century estate in Piedmont. All four have a high starch content; as they simmer, the starch binds with the cooking liquid to produce the creamy texture that risotto is known for. When I tasted her rices side by side, their unique qualities became apparent, as did the fact that some were better than other for making classic risotto. [See below.]

What is remarkable about the Contessa’s rices is how delicious and fragrant they are. This is due in large measure their quality and freshness. Following the harvest in October, the rice is carefully sorted and only the plump, unbroken, uniform grains make the cut; in fact, only about 15 percent of all the rice the Contessa produces bears her estate’s name. Using rice of exceptional quality and choosing the variety best suited to a particular recipe — whether it’s for risotto, risotto cake or rice pudding — is especially important in lowering the fat in classic recipes.

NOTE: Recipes for many different risottos, risotto cake and rice pudding can be found in A New Way to Cook.

Click the image to read a companion recipe, Paella with Shrimp, Mussels and Saffron