Arlecchino. Pantalone. Pulcinella. Carnaroli.
One of these things is not like the others.
The popular characters of the Commedia dell 'arte, Italy's reigning comedy improv for the past five hundred years, might tickle the funny bone, but only carnaroli tickles the taste buds.
Along with its supporting cast (arborio, baldo, and vialone nano), carnaroli plays one role in my pantry.
One starring role -- in dozens of risotto variations.
Carnaroli, a relatively new short-grain rice hybridized in the 1950s, comes from Novara and Vercelli, two towns between Milan and Turin in northern Italy. It grows nearly twice as tall as the other rice varieties, making it difficult and expensive to harvest. (Be sure that the carnaroli you buy is from Italy, as it's now being grown in other countries, such as Argentina.)
Classified as a superfino because the grains are longer than 6.4 millimeters, carnaroli can absorb a staggering amount of liquid, swelling to three times its size. High in amylopectin (one of two components of starch), carnaroli produces a very creamy risotto, which is one reason chefs prefer it. The other reason is that it's a bit more forgiving; there is a longer time between when carnaroli is just cooked, and when it morphs into something you'd use to mortar a brick wall.
When you're cooking with short-grain rices, note that the proportion of liquid to rice is approximately 4-to-1, compared to the 2-to-1 ratio for cooking long-grain white rice. If you can't find carnaroli, substitute arborio, which is available in most supermarkets these days (sometimes marketed as risotto), or any other short-grain variety.
Then, take a bow. Carnaroli, the star of the pantry, will make you a star in the kitchen.
Risotto alla Milanese
The ultimate, classic risotto, made with so few ingredients that each one needs to be the best you can afford. Once you understand the method of risotto, you can make it with anything you find in your pantry. Serves 4 as a main course, 6-8 as appetizer.
7 cups chicken broth (homemade stock or low-sodium store-bought)
1/2 cup water
1/4 tsp saffron threads
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup finely minced onion
2 cups carnaroli or arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/3 cup parmigiano-reggiano cheese, grated
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Bring broth to a boil in a large pot and set aside at a simmer on the stove. Boil 1/2 cup water and pour into a glass measuring cup; add saffron threads and set aside. Heat oil in a large, deep skillet. Add onion, and sauté until soft but not brown, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the rice, making sure to coat each grain, and let toast for just a minute. Remove pan from heat, and stir in the wine. It will bubble up, so keep your distance! Return the pan to the heat. When the liquid is absorbed, begin adding broth, 1 ladleful at a time, letting each bit of liquid be absorbed. After 2 cups are added, stir the saffron water into the rice. Continue adding broth, reserving 1/4 cup at the end. Remove from heat. Add butter and cheese, and stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Add in reserved 1/4 cup broth and stir to desired creaminess. Season to taste with black pepper, and serve immediately.
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