How to make a basic risotto

A few years ago, my younger daughter sent me a link to a Kickstarter campaign launched by actor Griffin Dunn, nephew of Joan Didion. His project was a film about his well-known aunt. I donated $100 and my thank-you gift was a collection of Didion’s recipes, some handwritten, some typed, some photocopied from books. A recipe for chicken hash has writer Liliian Hellman’s name written alongside, suggesting it is her recipe. The recipes were arranged seasonally, with Alice Waters’s coleslaw in the summer section.

The campaign was successful and the documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” was released in October 2017. What a satisfying thrill it was to have participated, albeit in a minuscule way.

Among the recipes and lists of guests she entertained is a simple recipe for risotto, written in her own hand, which is not all that easy to decipher. The writing looks a bit like mine when I am scribbling as I cook. She leaves out both steps and ingredients. Perhaps she simply jotted down certain steps and quantities and left out everything she knew by heart. That has been, for centuries, the way home cooking has been passed from one generation to another.

The standard of written recipes now is precision. Is that ¼ teaspoon or ⅓ teaspoon, students have asked me in cooking classes. I always try to shift attention from such details to the overall action, as the best way to cook is to understand ingredients and techniques so we don’t have to open a book or search the Internet when we cook. Yet here I am, writing detailed lists of ingredients and precise instructions. I submit to the ways of our current world.

So, on to risotto. I think of it as a pantry dish, something we all should be able to make on a moment’s notice from ingredients we have on hand. I’ve made it a few times with nothing more than olive oil, Italian rice, salt, water, cheese and pepper. This is my pantry version, with several variations.

Basic Risotto, with Variations

Serves 5 to 6

6 cups meat or vegetable stock, preferably homemade, plus more as needed (see Note)

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

2 shallots, minced

Kosher salt

2 cups Vialone Nano, Carnaroli or Arborio rice

1 cup dry white wine or dry red wine

¾ cup (3 ounces) freshly grated Vella Dry Jack, Estero Gold or similar cheese

3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

Black pepper in a mill

Bring the stock to a boil in a medium-size saucepan and keep it at a low simmer.

Heat the oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and saute until translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Season with salt. Stir in the rice and cook, stirring all the while, until the grains turn milky white, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the wine and stir continuously until it is completely absorbed.

Add ⅓ cup of the simmering stock and cook, stirring, until the liquid has been almost completely absorbed. Continue adding the broth, ⅓ cup at a time, and stirring constantly over medium heat until it has been absorbed, about 16 to 18 minutes total. Add the cheese and the parsley, taste, correct for salt and season generously with pepper.

Divide among individual soup plates and enjoy right away.

Note: If using either highly concentrated stock or canned broth, use just 2 to 3 cups and add water to reach the full amount. Chicken stock and duck stock are the most flexible, but beef stock works beautifully, too.


• For Meyer lemon risotto, use white wine. After the final addition of stock, add the grated zest of 2 Meyer lemons, along with about ¼ to ⅓ cup fresh Meyer lemon juice, to taste. To gild the lily, fold in the segments, with membranes removed, of 1 lemon. Taste and correct for salt, which balances acid.

• For mushroom risotto, saute about 6 ounces of mitake mushrooms in butter. When they’re fully tender, season with salt and pepper. Fold into the risotto with the parsley.

• To add greens to a risotto, saute them first in olive oil, add salt and garlic and fold into the risotto with the cheese. Spinach, if the leaves are small, doesn’t need to be sliced or chopped, but chard and Lacinato kale should have their tough stems removed and their leaves cut into ½-inch-wide crosswise slices. Add with the cheese.

• Adding chicken livers sauteed in olive oil and finished with a generous splash of Marsala is a classic Italian version of risotto. Add just before serving.

• For traditional Milanese risotto, add about ½ cup of poached bone marrow and a few saffron threads that have been soaked in a teaspoon of hot water for a few minutes. Stir the saffron in at the last minute.

When you feel comfortable making risotto, you can move on to two variations, both which need to be made several hours in advance and chilled. One option is risotto cakes, and my version is quite simple. I form balls about the size of a tennis ball or a bit smaller, pressing the risotto together tightly. Then I saute them in butter or olive oil and flatten them gently as they cook. They make a delicious side dish or lovely main course, topped with a warm vinaigrette or simple tapenade.

The other option is arancine, the stuffed risotto balls ubiquitous in Sicily. They are delightful, but it takes confidence to make them and I don’t recommend them for beginning cooks.


Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer

Simple Risotto (see recipe, above)

3 pastured eggs

4 ounces prosciutto, small dice

Zest of 1 lemon

¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley

Kosher salt

Black pepper in a mill

8 ounces bocconcini (small mozzarella balls)

3 cups fresh breadcrumbs, lightly toasted

Olive oil, for deep frying

1 bunch Italian parsley, large stems trimmed away

Make the risotto at least 3 hours before you start the arancine; it can be made several hours or even a day in advance.

Put the chilled risotto in a mixing bowl. Crack 1 egg into a small bowl, beat it well and tip it into the risotto; mix thoroughly.

Put the prosciutto, lemon zest and parsley into a bowl. Add a generous pinch of salt and several turns of black pepper. Toss together thoroughly.

Drain the bocconcini and set in a small bowl.

Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper.

Use a scoop — a No. 18 ice cream scoop is ideal — to gather up a ball of risotto and set it in the palm of your hand; they should be about the size of a pingpong ball. Make an indentation in the center, add a bit of the prosciutto mixture and press in a boconccini. Fold your hands around the rice to make a round ball that completely covers the filling. Set on the baking sheet and continue until all have been made. This will work best if you keep the palms of your hands clean and damp.

Crack the remaining eggs into a small but wide bowl and beat well. Put the breadcrumbs in a second bowl.

Dip a rice ball in the egg, turning it to coat it evenly, and then turn it in the breadcrumbs until there is an even layer of breadcrumbs clinging to it. Set the ball on the baking sheet and continue until all have been coated. Refrigerate the balls for 30 minutes.

Pour about 3 inches of oil into a deep pot and set over medium heat until the oil reaches 365 to 370 degrees.

Using a slotted spoon, lower the rice balls into the oil, one at a time, waiting a few seconds between each addition so the oil returns to the proper temperature. Don’t overcrowd the pan.

Cook until golden brown all over, turning the arancine now and then so they cook evenly. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked arancine to absorbent paper to drain. Continue until all have been cooked.

Spread the parsley over a serving platter, set the arancine on top and enjoy hot.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Salt & Pepper.” Email her at

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