Another Risotto alla Milanese story goes that the golden touch to the rice was inspired by a 16th century Belgian master glazer, who was working on the stained-glass windows of the Duomo. The glazer became famous for using saffron to create golden colors. When his daughter was married in 1574, his apprentices, as a joke, made a dish of rice colored with saffron for the celebration. Apparently, it was a hit with the wedding guests, and Milanesi have loved it ever since.
And now it appears, set simply before me by a kind waiter. Each glowing golden grain is separated, as proper risotto should be, steaming with warm and rich parmesan-scented flavor. At the first heavenly bite my insides swell with gratitude.
I've made risotto at home in Los Angeles, but it's never been this good...what am I missing? I seek someone to hand over the secrets. Days later, chef Clara Raimondi opens her apartment door and I'm welcomed by her beaming smile and one of life's most comforting aromas: meat broth cooking. "That broth is one of the secrets of risotto," Clara says, "I started making it at seven this morning."
I'm immediately in love with Clara. She's created this class, Cook in Milano, to offer lessons in her gracious apartment, a trolley ride away from the Centro Storico. She exudes elegance even in a simple chef's jacket and slacks. Her English is perfect, which she credits to spending a year in New York as a high school exchange student. Now she's in her 40s, married and the mother of two teenage boys, happy to be sharing her culinary passions and expertise with students from all over the world, who are visiting or living in her native city.
"It all started with my nonna," Clara says, pointing over her kitchen sink window to a terrace nearby, where her nonna lived. "She was a great cook, I loved spending time with her by the stove."
By Clara's side, I get the secrets of risotto making, as she ticks off three reasons why mine has never tasted as good as what I've experienced here in Milan. "There are three essential rules," she begins: "First, the meat broth, which must be made that morning or the day before. Second, veal marrow, which you scoop from one of the shins, and melt with the butter to start the risotto process. And finally, you must use the right rice: carnaroli."
Carnaroli, Clara explains, has a higher starch content than other rice varieties, so it can absorb more liquid, and its long grains remain separate when cooked—in contrast to sushi rice, which sticks together. To get even more carnaroli specific, she holds up a pretty blue can of Acquarello. It's a specially cultivated brand from the neighboring Piedmont region, where the Rondolino family have developed ingenious methods of growing, aging, refining, and enriching this rice to make it extra-healthy. Top chefs from all over the world use their rice and the family stands by their claim: "With Acquerello your risotto and other rice dishes will always be perfect."
"I don't want to sound like a commercial, but I must tell you what they say is the truth," says Clara.
Courtesy of Cook in Milano
I trust this woman completely, and throw myself into the class to create a typical northern Italian meal. Along with risotto, we make the classic Milanese accompaniment, ossibuchi—braised veal shanks, sauced with gremolada, a savory parsley/lemon mixture. "Risotto is the very last thing," Clara tells me. "When I have a dinner party, there are always prosecco and appetizers in the kitchen so guests can join me as I cook, and then we serve immediately."
Clara stands beside me at the stove, as I stir the rice and add the broth, she instructs, "Make the wave," or as the Italians would say, risotto all'onda. In other words, I'm to keep stirring and adding liquid so the rice keeps flowing, never drying out or sticking to the pan as it cooks. Halfway through I add saffron, and that glorious golden color emerges.
The final step is mantecatura—swirling butter and cheese into the risotto after it's taken off the heat. It feels as though we're making magic, a bouquet of intoxicating scents encircles us: broth, butter, parmigiano...
The table is set with linens embroidered by Clara's mamma, a Barolo wine is poured. We toast, and then—silence, as we take our first bites of steaming risotto.
Sighs of pleasure ensue, golden contentment fills me, as my Gray Grand Dame transforms to...click, click, CLICK. I've arrived in Milan at last.
Susan Van Allen is a writer who specializes in Italian travel. She's written 3 books about it: 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go, 50 Places in Rome, Florence, and Venice Every Woman Should Go and Letters from Italy, as well as many stories for radio and print. See www.susanvanallen.com
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