Rice was introduced to the Mediterranean by Arabic traders who brought it from India to Sicily and Spain. From there, mostly likely Spain, the grain found its way to the Po River valley in northern Italy where the best risotto rice is still produced. The basic technique for cooking the starchy Italian rice into something akin to a porridge has been documented in Venice as early as the 14th century but legend has the classic Risotto alla Milanese having been invented in 1574. In the regions of Piemonte, Lombardy, and Veneto risotto is often eaten as a primo piatto, or first course, while in the US it is usually served as a side dish or a main course. This recipe is definitely the last and makes a filling one dish meal.
A note on the stock: risotto is never made with water but always with stock or broth appropriate to the finished dish. This recipe starts with a simple homemade stock using shrimp shells and scallop tendons that I collect in a small bag in the freezer. If you do not have those ingredient you could use store-bought fish stock or even chicken broth but be careful when adding salt toward the end because those tend to be salty.
- ½ cup shrimp shells and tails and/or scallop tendons
- ½ medium onion, chopped
- 2-inch length of carrot, chopped
- 2-inch piece of celery stalk, chopped
- 2 sprigs fresh parsley
- 1 small sprig fresh dill
- 5 cups water
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces pancetta or bacon, cut into small dice
- 6 ounces bay scallops, thawed if frozen
- 1 shallot, minced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. dry vermouth
- 1½ cup Arborio rice
- Salt to taste
Put the shellfish bits—no need to thaw them first—into a saucepan along with the onion, carrot, celery, herbs, and water. Season with a good grind of pepper, bring to a boil then reduce heat to low and simmer, partially covered for at least 30 minutes. Strain into a bowl and keep hot. You should have about 4 cups of stock.
Into a heavy-bottomed 3-quart pot, such as a small Dutch oven, over medium heat pour enough olive oil to just cover the bottom. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring often, until the fat is rendered out and the cubes are brown and crispy about 4 minutes. Remove the pancetta to a small bowl using a slotted spoon to leave behind as much of the fat as possible. Set aside.
Pat the scallops dry with a kitchen towel and add them to the hot fat. Sauté for about 2 minutes or until done. Again using a slotted spoon remove to a bowl and set aside.
Adjust the amount of fat in the pan by adding a bit of olive oil if needed. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté the shallot for 2 minutes until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant about another minute. Add the rice to the pot, raise the heat to medium, and fry, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until is becomes chalky, 2 or 3 minutes. Stir in the vermouth and allow to boil for 30 seconds then add two 2-ounce ladles of the stock. Stir constantly as the rice absorbs the liquid. When the stock is nearly completely absorbed but the rice has not dried out add more stock, a 2-ounce ladleful at a time, again stirring continuously. Repeat until the rice is just done. It should be creamy but have just a slight “bite” to it. The rice should have absorbed most of the four cups of stock. Stir in the reserved pancetta and scallops. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
Do not be tempted to add cheese! Although meat and vegetable risotti often contain cheese, those made with fish or seafood NEVER do.