There's possibly nothing better to eat right now than risotto. The temperature has dipped as we hit our sneaky second winter. Truffles, a great friend to this silky, fatty dish, are in their last gasp and cheaper than you think. The classic risotto Milanese, a brilliant, rich saffron-stained wonder, is the perfect partner for ossobuco.
One problem: most restaurants aren't serving it because it doesn't travel well – and many of us fear making it, for fair reasons.
Did you see #ricegate unfold recently? A BBC presenter faced trial by internet after a scathing commentary on her preparation of fried-rice-destined grains went viral on YouTube (to be fair, it was a massacre, a gluggy mess she then drained in a colander and rinsed).
But there's nothing new about rice rage. A would-be sushi master will spend years on grains before they are permitted to touch a knife. Mister Bianco owner Joe Vargetto did what he calls military service in Milan, under the late don of modern Italian cuisine, Gualtiero Marchesi. He recalls an apprentice straining off the starchy liquid essential to a good risotto. He was walked to the door and it was promptly locked behind him.
Stories like these have shrouded the dish in mystery. But once you nail the fundamentals, a world of possibility awaits. Then again, you don't have to.
What got me thinking about the dish in the first place is that Vargetto has finally, after 20 years of threatening to, released a Risotto Pronto product he claims results in restaurant-quality risotto at home in six minutes. Game on.
Vargetto has Sicilian heritage, but after returning from risotto HQ in Milan, he promptly took out the title for Melbourne's best risotto in a Melbourne Food and Wine Festival competition. The chef has had many projects during lockdown but Risotto Pronto? This is his baby.
There are three kinds: duck, squid with inky rice, and mushroom. The packs ($33 for two serves) come in four vacuum-sealed sections: rice, already par-cooked in broth; your chosen additions, cooked and seasoned; and a staggering amount of cultured butter, parmesan and herbs to finish.
The stock is brought to the boil, the rice added and broken up. In five or so minutes the liquid thickens. Add your duck, squid or mushroom, bring it back to heat, then remove and stir in your artery thickeners for a glossy, silky finish.
Punch for punch, each holds its own against a restaurant dish. The squid luxuriating in the ink-black depths is perfectly tender and a pure taste of the ocean. The striations of confit duck maintain their integrity but lend their salty force to the grains. The king mushroom version is compensation for so many underwhelming vegetarian options of years past. In every case, a tight acidity holds it all in balance.
Taking the labour out of the dish is a revelation, but Vargetto argues too much labour is generally put in to begin with. For the sake of comparison, I wanted to DIY it and some common advice came to the surface.
Stodgy risotto? Not enough stock, or it was left too long before serving (a five-minute rest is the limit). Too "al dente"? Vargetto says crunchy rice is political torture; cook it through. Boring? It can also be too healthy. The magic level of butter is pretty arresting.
But there's good news, too. Vargetto says that while you can't ignore the dish, you don't need to stir it every second. After cooking grains to translucency in their fat base, you can add your hot stock and walk away until it's largely absorbed, checking back around the seven- to 10-minute mark.
The magic happens in these final throes. Here you add extra stock to the mostly cooked grains, teasing out the starch and creating the creamy liquor. What you're looking for is "all'onda" (on the wave), a flowing motion of rice when you move the pan.
It's a dish with endless flex: the Piemontese version with red wine subbing for stock; the coastal remixes almost verging on paella. But it also leaves poor ingredients nowhere to hide. You must also choose your weapons wisely.
The favoured grain is the short, oval, starch-bearing carnaroli (caviar of rice), but vialone nano also gets a vote. Arborio is more widely available, but the bigger grains aren't considered top tier outside the gutsier seafood rice dishes of Veneto. With most Italian restaurants operating as providores right now, there's no excuse for being without the right stuff. That wisdom extends to wine: if you wouldn't drink it, don't cook with it.
Having sweated it out over a pan for years, I took a risk on Vargetto's low-intervention method and it is a revelation, the result no less creamy for letting it be.
More so was discovering that his five-minute version actually yielded a tastier, silkier result than my own. In fact, this Sicilian's out-of-a-packet product is one of the best risottos I've had. How's that for a #ricegate?
Address 285 High Street, Kew, 03 9853 6929; misterbianco.com.au
Delivery? Pick-up available and delivery within 10 kilometres. Also coming to Mornington Peninsula.
Cost $33, serves two.
Want to learn?
Hedonistic Hiking, a gourmet walking tour company, is also sending out class kits with locally grown truffles. hedonistichiking.com.