A red plate and a large heart cutter transform this dish from an ordinary risotto to a special one for Valentine's Day. An artichoke risotto is one of my favourites, especially when topped with some crisp fried artichoke and guanciale strips. Guanciale is what I use in place of pancetta, because it always seems to be tastier, probably cured for longer. In Bologna excellent guanciale is easily available and I keep a good sized chunk to hand: it is one of my "never-without" ingredients.
Which rice for risotto? In Italy it is either the elongated and elegant Carnaroli, which you can see on the left above or Verona's smaller, rounder, whiter Vialone Nano on the right. Why not Arborio? Carnaroli and Vialone Nano have a higher amylose content than Arborio so they absorb more liquid without becoming sticky. In addition, rice labelled Arborio may legally contain other related rice varieties in Italy, but if it is labelled Carnaroli or Vialone Nano it cannot legally contain any other variety but the one on the label. I use both Carnaroli and Vialone Nano, with a slight preference for V. N. which cooks faster than Carnaroli, being a smaller grain. Arborio is fine too, much better to use Arborio than to try to make risotto with long grain rices: a fail from the start, the texture and consistency will never be right.
To make an artichoke risotto for two you need:
175 g (1 cup) risotto rice
2 small artichokes
25 g (1/8 cup) of guanciale or salt cured Italian pancetta
the top part of a small leek
3 tablespoons EVO oil
750 ml (3 3/4 cups) of vegetable stock made placing a leek, a carrot and a small onion in cold water, bringing to the boil, then lowering the heat and simmering for 60 - 90 minutes
Please don't use a stock cube here, a good risotto depends enormously on the quality of the stock that the rice absorbs
half a glass of dry white wine
25 g (1/8 cup) unsalted butter
50g (1/4 cup) Parmigiano-Reggiano
For details of how to prepare the artichoke see the recipe Heart on Hearts
Note - Risotto is a precise term. It describes the procedure, the steps that need to be taken, for a dish made with rice to qualify for the name Risotto. Rice dishes cooked in other ways may be wonderful but if this procedure is not followed, to call them "risotto" is both inaccurate and confusing.
Here's a link to an article discussing the "to stir or not to stir" debate, a debate that exists outside Italy only.
Place the stock to warm up. Slice the leek. Cut 6 or 7 thin strips from the guanciale and dice the rest.
In a small deep pan, place the diced guanciale and 1 tablespoon of the EVO oil on medium low heat and leave for the cured pork to render its fat, then tip in the sliced leek and 1 tablespoon of water. The guanciale is salt cured and pepper coated so I do not add salt and pepper.
While it is softening grate the cheese. Dice the butter and place in the freezer. Listen out for the soffritto of leek and guanciale and from time to time add a tablespoon of water so the leeks wilt without frying.
Drain a few of the artichokes slices, shake off excess water and flour lightly. Set aside for now, along with the strips of guanciale.When the leek is completely soft as below, scrape it up and set aside for the moment while you "toast" the rice. This is the first important step in making a proper risotto, the "tostatura". The aim of this procedure is to coat each separate grain of rice with a film of fat, so that each grain will be separate within the creamy liquid you should have when your risotto is finished.
Only if you have not got enough fat left in the pan from the guanciale, place the second tablespoon of oil in the saucepan and tip in the rice. Stir to coat and cover each grain of rice until the rice becomes quite opaque and makes a rustling kind of noise as you stir.
At this point add the wine, turn down the heat and stir until the wine has evaporated. You can set your timer at this point - 16 minutes for Vialone Nano, 18 for Carnaroli- and now you start adding the stock which should be hot. If it isn't hot you will simply slow down the process.
Add enough stock to cover the surface of the rice with a veil of liquid and add the remaining drained sliced artichokes. Though all the recipes say you should not add more stock until the first amount has completely evaporated I try to keep a veil of liquid above the rice at all times, as below, or even a little more:
The thinking behind the traditional injunction is to stop you from forcing the rice to absorb more stock than it can hold, splitting the grain, but this is a risk only in the last few minutes of cooking. Besides, rice grains that are dry are going to take longer to cook than rice grains that are fully covered in liquid, so you have to work harder at turning the rice over and over. I add more hot stock, about half a cup at a time, when there is still this much liquid left:
I also break with tradition by adding a tablespoon of the grated cheese at the midway point, which makes the final risotto creamier still, a tip I picked up from an Italian chef.
At about two thirds of the way through cooking, I place a little pan over medium low heat with 1 tablspoon of olive oil to crisp up the guanciale slices gently while continuing to stir the rice. When the guanciale is ready, I turn the heat up and fry the floured artichoke slices, the second part of the crisp garnish. Both go onto absorbent kitchen paper and can wait in a warm place.
Keep stirring and adding liquid the while, and also from time to time break open a grain of rice to check how the cooking is going. The timing I gave you is pretty precise but it does to some extent depend on how high a heat you have under the risotto and the stock, and the kind of pan you are using. If it looks like you may not have not enough stock, top up with hot water before you run out.
When the timer rings or the rice is cooked - which means the rice grains have lost the chalkiness of the centre while still retaining a noticeable, firm bite - it is time for the final and also key step. This is called "mantecatura" from the Spanish for butter: Lombardy, one of the home regions for risotto, was ruled by the Spanish from the late part of the fifteenth century to the end of the seventeenth.
Get the butter from the freezer, take the risotto off the heat, and with a wooden spoon and with some speed whip in first the butter, then the grated cheese. You should have a good amount of creamy liquid - if you haven't add a little more stock. No photo of this stage as you need to be quick with this step.
Always serve risotto on flat plates so it can spread out and cool without cooking any further. Traditionally you give the plate three thumps from below with the top of your closed fist so that it spreads out to fill the plate - if it doesn't, it is too dry. Not for Valentine's though, for today just place your heart mould on your (ideally red) plate and fill it with the risotto, the only thumping today will be that of your hearts.
Top with the fried artichokes and crisped guanciale sticks and serve at once with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano to grate over at table.
Yes you do need to cook and serve, it cannot be done ahead, but if you've got the soffrito and everything else ready in advance, then you can sip on Prosecco and chat in the kitchen for the 16 minutes it takes to cook the risotto with love and attention.