Veteran chef takes a deep look at Italian rice

Louisa Chu
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — On one of the first warm days in Chicago this spring, if you had strolled by the outdoor tables at Quartino, you would have seen pizzas sliced and pastas twirled.

If you’d ventured inside, you might also have spotted founding chef and partner John Coletta, who opened the Italian restaurant on the Near North Side 13 years ago, leading the way to the upstairs balcony since it was bathed in rare spring sunlight.

But it seemed almost too warm for his trim sport coat and impeccably polished shoes, and I asked to move back inside to the quiet bar. I needed to better hear why he’d written his new cookbook, “Risotto & Beyond: 100 Authentic Italian Rice Recipes for Antipasti, Soups, Salads, Risotti, One-Dish Meals, and Desserts.” Published in March by Rizzoli USA, the beautiful hardcover was co-authored with Nancy Ross Ryan and Monica Kass Rogers.

“Rice really doesn’t get its due,” said Coletta. Partial proof of that claim could be his first book: “250 True Italian Pasta Dishes: Easy and Authentic Recipes,” released nine years ago.

“When we think of Italian rice, the first thing that comes to everyone’s mind is risotto,” he added. “Whatever happened to a frittata with rice? Whatever happened to rice croquettes? Whatever happened to rice salad? Rice gelato? What about when we take a chicken breast and fill it with rice then roast it? What about all those wonderful dishes that are approachable and accessible?”

Personally, I think making risotto, with its long stirring time, is one of the greatest pleasures in cooking, and kind of hate so-called quick and easy recipes, but Coletta is much more understanding.

“The common risotto technique is a very laborious process,” he said. “First you make the sofrito, then you toast the rice, then you moisten it with wine and then you begin slowly adding a little bit of broth. You cook, you stir, and then 18 to 20 minutes later, the rice dish is ready.

“That’s very difficult at home because it’s one single person in the kitchen most of the time. It’s very challenging to bring a meal together.

“In ‘Risotto and Beyond,’ I’ve put together a preparation for risotto-making, or just rice cooking, where you can boil the rice. You take the rice, you put it into a pot with three times the amount of liquid and then it simmers slowly. In 10 minutes, it’s ready. All of that attention can then be utilized to prepare other things. We want people to spend their time celebrating their friends, their families.”

Said Coletta, “You can have a great rice experience with a soup, with saffron and shrimp. It can be spectacular and doesn’t require any more effort.” Indeed the cover recipe is rice soup with shrimp and leeks (minestra di riso con gamberetti e porri), a crustacean-crowned golden bowl filled with plump, soft grains.

While the chef may be forgiving when it comes to your technique, his knowledge of rice is precise.

“When people think about Italian rice, the first word that comes to mind is arborio,” said Coletta. “Arborio is probably the most plentiful, the most bountiful; I believe up until 1945, it was the only rice grain that was being produced in Italy. Today, we have a total of 145 different species of rice, and each one has a specific, purposed usage.

“So if I’m making a seafood risotto, I would reach for vialone nano. If I was making a soup, I would reach for arborio. If I was making a wonderful porcini risotto, I would reach for carnaroli. Each one of these rice species lends itself to a specific style of cookery.

“It sounds like it’s made up, but it isn’t,” he said laughing. “Risotto made with arborio isn’t terrible, but its purpose is better suited for a soup.”

While I’ll always crave deep-fried arancini, the most surprising recipes in Coletta’s book were the stunning rice salads. Nothing like cold buffet-bar pasta salads, the molded creations stand as centerpieces that celebrate the grain.

“Most everyone in northern Italy, I want to say at least once a week in the summertime, is going to have a rice salad with grilled or roasted vegetables,” said Coletta. “If you’re in springtime, it’s going to be asparagus and maybe some fava beans and peas.”

They’re eaten at room temperature with vegetables that may be marinated, or dressed simply with fresh lemon, herbs, a drizzle of superior extra-virgin olive, freshly ground sea salt and black pepper, said Coletta.

“All of a sudden, an ordinary experience becomes extraordinary.”

Rice Salad With Fresh Brook Trout and Asparagus

From “Risotto & Beyond” (Rizzoli, $37.50) by John Coletta.

Prep: 1 hour

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 8 to 10 servings

For the rice

11/4 cups vialone nano or superfino rice

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cubed

1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Finely grated zest of 4 lemons

8 asparagus spears, woody stems and papery scales discarded, blanched and very thinly cut on the bias to make 11/2 cups

1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt

1/2 teaspoon finely ground white pepper

For the trout

31/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound boneless, skinless trout fillets, cut into 2-inch pieces

2 ounces (1/4 cup) dry Italian white wine

Sea salt and finely ground white pepper

For the asparagus relish

9 asparagus spears, woody stems and papery scales discarded, blanched and cut into 1-inch pieces

31/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Finely grated zest of 4 lemons

Finely ground sea salt and white pepper

Make the rice: In a medium heavy-gauge saucepan or pot over medium heat, combine 41/4 cups water, the rice, butter and salt. Stir until the water comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a simmer, stirring until the rice is tender but not mushy and has absorbed almost all of the liquid. This should take about 16 minutes from the simmering stage.

Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in the olive oil, lemon zest and asparagus. Season with the salt and pepper. Transfer the rice salad mixture to a 2-quart round mold (or bowl) you have sprayed with nonstick cooking spray or bushed with olive oil. Smooth the top and press down lightly. Set aside.

Make the trout: Meanwhile, in a large heavy-gauge nonstick skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Being careful not to crowd the pan, add the trout pieces in batches, increase the heat to high and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, turning once. As each batch is fried, remove to a paper towel-lined plate and keep warm. Once all of the trout is fried, lower the heat, put in the white wine, place all of the fish back in the pan and cook for 1 minute more. Remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.

Make the asparagus relish: In a small bowl, combine the asparagus, olive oil and lemon zest and toss. Season with salt and pepper.

Unmold the rice salad mixture onto a large, round platter. Arrange the trout and the asparagus relish over the mound.

Note: Asparagus spears have paperlike scales. For best texture, remove these with a paring knife and discard.

Nutrition information per serving (for 10 servings): 323 calories, 25 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 38 mg cholesterol, 13 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 11 g protein, 307 mg sodium, 2 g fiber