Wednesday, 05 June 2013

Risotto di Frutti di Mare

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Seafood Risotto made easy and delicious. Warning: do not click while hungry.

Who would have thought that the day you move house you can also make a dish as splendid as Risotto di Frutta di Mare? It sounds exotic, it sounds luxurious and it sounds very, very time consuming. Still, this is precisely what I did, only yesterday. Sure, it was not a monumental move that I was embarked upon, more a minor relocation of a small holiday house. All the same, it was not without its complexity and I found the process of preparing the risotto to be especially satisfying, calming and decidedly practical, as it also provided a delicious luncheon dish within an hour.

I had been going about a few daily errands when I spied the local fisherman’s van in the piazza. Resplendent with the freshest display of glistening whole fish, scampi, prawns, mussels and pippis; I could not contain myself.

When I ask friends who love cooking to name their favourite stand by dish, it is invariably either an omelette or a risotto. This is because both dishes, in their most basic form, only require a few ingredients that are easy to keep on hand. In both cases it only takes a minute or so more to integrate other ingredients, creating a more elaborate dish.

For a risotto, it is well within the realm of reason to only use flavourings of butter and cheese. A risotto may be cooked with meat, vegetable, fish or chicken stock, or even water. Additional ingredients may include chicken, duck, game, lobster, mussels, prawns, mushrooms, truffles, goose or chicken livers, artichoke hearts, peas or aubergines - just never together!

It is for the simplicity and broad appreciation of a well-made risotto that I encourage you to master a Risotto di Frutti di Mare. After this, any amount of other risotto dishes may be improvised. The principals of making the different risottos are much the same. The most elementary of them is to keep it simple. The next is that you must only use round grain Arborio rice from the Italian region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. This is fundamental to achieve the creamy consistency unique to a risotto; use some other rice and I can assure you, you are not making a risotto (no matter what that guy says in his $10 meal recommendations for Coles).

Risotto di Frutta di Mare is a classic shell fish risotto of Venetian origin. It distinguishes itself from a Risotto Milanese (and many other risottos) by having more liquid. This does not make it a soup and, while it is served in a shallow bowl, it is still eaten with a fork. Risotto Milanese differs from other risottos in that it is the only risotto served as a side dish - most commonly Osso Bucco.

The finesse and character of a Risotto di Frutti di Mare comes from the quality and flavour of the shell fish stock in which the rice is cooked. For a truly authentic flavour you need to make your own stock. It only takes a few minutes, is not complex, and when doing so you can assure yourself that you have extracted every last bit of value from the shell fish you bought. The prawn and or lobster flesh are cooked separately and added to the risotto just before serving. The option of flambéing these in brandy before adding them to the risotto can make this a very special dish indeed.

Do not allow yourself be hurried when making risotto; it takes all the pleasure out of it. Have someone make it with you if you can and enjoy a glass or two of wine and a chat. Allow just under an hour from start to finish, though the stock may be made in advance if you prefer. Serve as a starter to be followed by another course otherwise it is eaten purely on its own, following an antipasto or salad.

Risotto di Frutti di Mare

Ingredients Serves 4 - 6 people

  • 1kg green lobster or medium to large size green prawns
  • 500g small black shiny mussels (or a few extra prawns)
  • 2 brown onions
  • ½ small stick celery
  • Sprig of parsley or thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed, skin on
  • 200ml white wine
  • 400g Italian Arborio rice
  • 4 litres water
  • 180g butter approximately
  • 75 ml brandy (optional)
  • 2 - 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese



Prepare the stock

  1. Clean the mussels.
  2. Remove the lobster and or prawn meat from the shells. Set aside the uncooked flesh; cut into generous pieces.
  3. In a pot of 5 - 6 litre capacity, place the celery, garlic, herbs and one of the onions (roughly chopped, skin on). Next layer the lobster and prawn shells and then the mussels on top (for easy access). Add the wine and the water. Bring to a steady simmer. Remove the mussels with a slotted spoon as they open and set them aside in a bowl.
  4. Allow the stock to continue simmering while you remove the mussels from their shells. Remove any scum that rises to the top of the stock pot. Set the mussel meat aside, if you are not using them right away, cover with cling film to stop them drying out.
  5. Strain the stock through a colander into a basin and discard all the solid material.
  6. Use either a fine strainer or ideally some muslin placed inside a colander to strain the stock back into the cleaned stock pot. Discard all solids.


Prepare the Risotto

  1. Bring the stock to a simmer and keep at a simmer on the stove.
  2. Select a heavy based shallow pan or pot to cook the risotto. For this quantity of rice a 30 cm diameter is a good size. Place the pan over low heat and melt about 2 tablespoons (⅓) of butter. Add a small finely chopped, peeled onion and gently cook this until it is translucent but do not allow it to brown.
  3. Add the rice to the butter and onion, and stir it around (ideally using a wooden fork) until the rice absorbs the butter and becomes shiny. This may take 3 - 5 minutes. Take care that the rice does not stick to the pan. Keep the pan over a low flame for the duration of cooking.
  4. Add a large ladle of simmering fish stock to the rice; once this is absorbed, add some more. Stir the risotto carefully each time you add more stock and keep the pan on a low flame. Pay attention though and take care that the rice does not stick to the base or sides of the pan. Keep the heat low and do not be impatient.
  5. Check the rice for doneness as you cook. You are not required to use all of the stock, just enough to achieve a creamy, soft, consistency. Do not season the risotto until all of the ingredients have been added.
  6. In the meantime, heat a little butter in a small pan and add the raw lobster and or prawn meat. Toss it quickly in the hot butter, just a second or two as it will continue cooking in the risotto. If you wish, pour over about 75 ml brandy, set it alight and continue cooking for a minute after the flames are out. Add the mussels and their juices to the pan.
  7. At the very last minute, as soon as the rice is just ready* add the shellfish and all the buttery juices, stir around lightly, incorporating a good lump of butter and 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

*The risotto is nearly ready when on the bite, it has no crunch sound but remains firm when you bite down on the grain.

This article refers to information by Elizabeth David from her books ‘Mediterranean Food’, ‘Italian Food’ and ‘Summer Cooking’. In these books, first written in the 1950s and 60’s she makes reference to two restaurants in Venice where she especially enjoyed Risotto di Frutta di Mare. They are da Romano’s on the island of Burano and Cipriani’s Locanda on the island of Torcello. Both are still operating and I plan to book as soon as I can get to Venice.

Sunday Relish

Elizabeth Peddey (aka Sunday Relish) has been The Tribune’s food expert since 2009. She also consults in Meal and Pantry Planning, Food Shopping and Entertaining and offers Cooking Classes. Email: Ph: 0419 505 438.