Earlier this year had the good fortune to work with some very talented chefs from Venice, Italy — Ernesto, Hani, and Alessio. All of their food was perfectly prepared with frankly basic technique and their recipes were so simple that often I was skeptical that the end result was going to have complexity or depth of flavor. It’s always a valuable lesson to be reminded that the essence of great cuisine is a dedication to great product, patience, and a rigorous approach to detail, even if the recipe has only six or seven ingredients, which aptly characterizes all of their dishes.
I recommend that you ignore some common sense when making this dish. We are taught that shellfish should be quickly cooked else it becomes rubbery and tasteless. However, for this dish you cook the shrimp for an agonizing 90 minutes, and then leave the pot of cooked shrimp out at room temperature for up to another five hours (health department alert!!). Additionally, when cooking the risotto, unlike recipes that instruct you to cook risotto over medium heat for something like 40 minutes, Ernesto blasted the risotto over the highest heat possible and the risotto cooked in about 18 minutes. This method frankly blew my mind when I first made it, as it flew in the face of all I’d learned about authentic risotto preparation.
The results bear themselves out. The slow cooking coaxes a lot of flavor from the shrimp; allowing the shrimp to sit in the pot for another extended period also encourages the flavors to deepen and the shrimp to release their essential juices. The high heat method for cooking the rice also helps prevent the rice from turning too gummy, but you do have to time it well and remove the pot from the heat while it is still a little runny. The final step, whipping the butter and parmesan into the risotto right before service, surprisingly lightens the end result. If executed well, this might be the best risotto you’ve ever had. It is my favorite.
One note on shrimp: the Italians used rock shrimp, as it bore a closer resemblance to a scampi they use back at home. I found pink shrimp from Argentina to be an excellent substitute. Tiger shrimp or white shrimp are fine, although they tend not to be as sweet as rock shrimp and texturally they didn’t fare as well by comparison.
1/3 cup excellent extra virgin olive oil, plus another ¼ cup
1 ½ lbs rock shrimp, peeled and cleaned
¼ cup white onion, coarsely chopped
2/3 cup + ¼ cup dry white wine
1 clove garlic, peeled but whole
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, preferably Italian
16 ounces of Arborio rice (carnaroli rice is a good substituute)
4 tablespoons unsalted European butter at room temperature
½ cup finely grated parmaggiano reggiano, the undisputed king of cheeses
2 tablespoons finely minced Italian parsley
Combine olive oil, shrimp, white onion, 2/3 cup of white wine, garlic clove, and sea salt in a heavy-bottomed, medium-large saucepan. Turn heat to the lowest possible setting and cook the shrimp for about 90 minutes, occasionally turning with a wooden spoon and occasionally breaking the shrimp up into smaller pieces by pressing down with the spoon. If the liquid in your pot boils, your heat is too high. Remove from heat, cover loosely with foil, and set somewhere safe for at least two hours, and up to five hours. Make sure you store it safely, away from anything that might fall into the pot!
To cook risotto, remove garlic clove, add remaining ¼ cup olive oil to the pot, return shrimp to stove, and reheat over low heat until fully warmed through. While it is warming, fill another saucepan with about 2 quarts of filtered water and heat over medium heat – it doesn’t need to be boiling, but it needs to be hot. You will not use all the water.
When you’re ready, turn up heat under shrimp to high or medium-high (kinda depends on the BTU output of your range), add the rice, and sauté the rice with the shrimp for about two minutes, until each grain of rice is coated with olive oil and the natural juices from the shrimp. Begin ladling hot water one ladle-full at a time. Each time you add water, stir rice briskly with a wooden spoon until the water is absorbed by the rice. Each time you stir, scrap the spoon around the bottom and sides of pot; you want to evenly cook the rice, and simultaneously the stirring helps the rice release its starches, which accounts for the creaminess of the end result.
Continue adding water and stirring for about 14 minutes. At this point you will need to taste the rice periodically as it finishes. You want the rice to be somewhat firm in the middle, but not crunchy – a perfect al dente. Also, the risotto should appear creamy from the starches released from the rice.
At about 16 or 17 minutes add remaining ¼ cup of white wine and stir in. Cook until wine is absorbed. Turn heat off and rapidly stir in butter, parmesan, and parsley, whipping the risotto with the wooden spoon and lifting rice at each turn to aerate the risotto. Your final product should have the consistency of oatmeal, but not at all gummy. It should be luscious, with great shrimp flavor, and not too heavy.
A good risotto like this demands a simple dry white wine. Served with an arugala salad and a light dessert, you’ve got the makings of a fantastic meal!