Pressure Cooking : The Great Risotto-Off

Want risotto? You can spend 30 minutes stirring and stirring, slowly adding boiling broth, then stirring some more, and turn out some fine rice. But do you really want to do all that work? One of the best-kept cooking secrets is that many Italians make five-minute risotto in, yes, a pressure cooker.

Some traditionalists scoff at this quick and easy method. A few simply roll their eyes. One hard-nosed pragmatist challenges me to a risotto cook-off.

She points out that the broth for risotto needs to be hot and added slowly to the rice. Constant stirring, she says, is necessary to keep the rice from sticking and to keep the grains separate. Besides, she continues to lecture, a hand-stirred risotto takes twice the broth pressure cooking does, so it has to be more flavorful. "Making risotto in a pressure cooker," she insists, "just won't be the same."

I don't argue. I'll have my say later.

At the big risotto-off, we decide to make squash risotto. We first peel and dice the squash, chop the onion and grate the cheese. Then we go to our stations.

Mine is the kitchen chair. I sit down, cross my legs and watch as my challenger, the hand-stirrer, begins sauteing onions. She stirs in the squash. As she continues stirring, I lock my hands behind my head and dream about what a perfect setting this would be if only I were smoking a cigarette and sipping a dry martini. But since I don't smoke and there's no gin in the house, I set the table instead. My challenger demands a clean spoon and more hot broth. I return to my chair and fidget until it's time to start my risotto--20 minutes after my hand-stirring competitor.

When my vegetables are sauteed and the rice is translucent, I add the broth, lock the lid and plop back down in my chair. My challenger stirs away.

Five minutes later, the timer dings. I release the pressure and stir the risotto to incorporate the squash. My challenger wipes her forehead as she incorporates the last of her broth. We both stir in Parmesan cheese and then stand over the stove and taste, straight from the pots. Both versions are moderately soupy but still slightly chewy.

"Mine's richer," says the hand-stirrer. I'm not so sure. We decide to do a blind tasting. This time the versions are indistinguishable. My challenger admits defeat.

Maybe this wasn't a scientific study. But even chefs in Italy can't agree on how to make risotto.

At the very least, we learned the pressure cooker makes it possible to prepare an elegant dish in a matter of minutes.

After the cook-off, the side of the stove-top used by my friend the hand-stirrer is crusted with slopped broth, dried rice and bits of vegetables. Where I cooked there is not so much as a grain of rice. We agree: If there is one reason to buy a pressure cooker, it's risotto.


1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, finely chopped

Salt, pepper

12 ounces unpeeled kabocha squash, seeded and cut into chunks or other winter squash

1 cup arborio rice

1/4 cup dry white wine

2 1/4 cups chicken stock

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley

Heat oil and butter in pressure cooker over low heat. Add onion, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring until onion is tender and begins to turn color, about 3 minutes. Add squash and continue cooking over low heat 1 minute. Add rice, stirring constantly until grains are opaque and coated with oil mixture, about 1 minute. Add wine and chicken stock.

Lock lid in place. Place over medium-high heat. Bring pressure up to high. Cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Quick-release pressure by running cold water over lid. Remove lid and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until desired consistency and squash is pureed. Stir in Parmesan cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with parsley.

Makes 2 to 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

671 calories; 1,320 mg sodium; 26 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 101 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 2.94 grams fiber.

* RISOTTO: Recipe on H19

* Glazed French earthenware from Cassis & Co., available at Cinzia, Santa Monica.

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