Issue No. 88: Carnaroli rice

What’s the best rice for risotto? If you ask that question in the US, you’ll probably hear it’s Arborio. But if you ask an Italian expert, odds are they’ll say Carnaroli. Both Arborio and Carnaroli were first grown in Italy in the middle of the 20th century, but Arborio was exported way sooner. By the time Carnaroli growers started trying to export their rice, Arborio’s reputation was already set. It’s our loss; the Italians are right.

Why is Carnaroli better?

Most rices contain a mix of two starches: amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin breaks down easily during cooking, making for creamy or sticky textures. If you’ve had northern Thai or Laotian sticky rice you’re eating rice that’s all amylopectin. Amylose is sturdier and stays separate when cooked. Basmati and jasmine rices have a lot of amylose.

Carnaroli and Arborio have a mix of amylopectin and amylose. When you look at a grain of Carnaroli rice, you can actually see both of them. The grains are oval, plump, a pearly white color that’s nearly translucent at the edge and opaque in the center. The amylopectin is the translucent part. The amylose is the white interior. Both starches are key to risotto. The amylopectin dissolves in the cooking liquid and makes the dish creamy. The amylose keeps the grains intact and keeps it from becoming mushy. The more amylose the rice has, the more liquid it can absorb before it overcooks. Good risotto is made with broth, so the more liquid it absorbs, the more flavor it has. Arborio has about 13% amylose; Carnaroli is about 24%. Arborio will become oversaturated and mushy more quickly, while Carnaroli will take on more liquid—and more flavor—while maintaining its toothsome texture. If you tried to make risotto with a regular long grain rice from the grocery it would still be a good dish with a lot of flavor, but it wouldn’t exactly be risotto because it wouldn’t have that trademark creamy texture.

Our Carnaroli rice comes from an 800 year old abbey.

Lucedio Monastery was built in the late 1100s by Cistercian monks that arrived from Burgundy. It still stands today, a few miles northwest of the town of Trino in Piedmont, Italy. Almost a thousand years ago the monks leased the land from ancestors of the same family that owns it today.

Rice has been grown at Lucedio since the very beginning. The monks brought it with them, and they first grew it in the abbey’s garden in the cloister. Initially they used the rice for medicine, but by the end of the 13th century they grew it on a large scale for food, too.

Today Lucedio abbey is a national monument in Italy, which means that the ancient buildings have to be preserved and nothing “modern” can be added to break up the scenery. It makes for a beautiful space. Walking through it is like stepping into a postcard: your footsteps echo through the stately halls with their gleaming stone floors, tan brick walls, and vaulted ceilings arching upward from stout columns. The preservation also means that even though the abbey is a working farm, it doesn’t much look like one. There’s no silo to hold the rice after it’s harvested. Instead, the rice is stored in the old dormitories at the back of the abbey. As late as the 1950s, those buildings used to house the seasonal workers who would come to help with planting and harvesting. These days, though, the heavy lifting is done with machines and the buildings house grain.

Drive from Milan to Trino and you’ll pass rice paddy after rice paddy.

Nearly all of the rice grown in Italy comes from this region, in the valley where Lombardy and Piedmont meet. To the north are the snow capped Alps. Throughout the spring, the snowmelt drains down South to the Po river, the artery that feeds the thirsty farms.

Of course any farm needs a good source of water, but it’s particularly important for rice. When the rice is planted in the spring, the paddies are typically flooded. The shallow layer of water helps keep the baby rice plants warm during cool spring nights, and it helps to drown out any plucky weeds. In order to cover all the plants evenly, the paddies must be perfectly flat—otherwise the water will pool in some places and leave others bone dry. In mountainous rice growing regions, like many places in the Philippines and China, that means carving terraces into mountainsides. Around Trino, the land is fairly flat to start, making it easier to create flat paddies.

Cook Carnaroli low and slow.

You can boil this rice like any other. But as I was told when I visited Lucedio abbey, if you boil Carnaroli, you’re missing the point. It will still be good—it’s creamy, with a gentle nuttiness to the flavor. But turning it into risotto is what takes it to another level.

To make great risotto, great rice is only the first step. You’ll also want to avoid water. Since you use roughly four to six times as much liquid as rice, its flavor makes a huge difference. Use the best tasting liquid you can find—I recommend homemade chicken broth, plus a splash of good white wine. While you cook the risotto in a large pot, keep the broth simmering in a second pot, so that each time you add a bit more broth to the risotto you keep the cooking even by maintaining a steady temperature.

Since risotto is so warm and hearty, you might think of it as a winter dish. I say why limit yourself—it can be fantastic any time of year. I’ve had amazing asparagus risotto in the springtime, bright and fresh with asparagus broth and small nibs of asparagus stalks. I love a warm, sweet and savory squash risotto in the fall. And even in summer, it’s a fantastic place to highlight the beautiful vegetables of the season. To get started, here’s a recipe that’s good any day.

Risotto with Fontina Cheese and Wild Mushrooms

Excerpted from Zingerman’s Guide to Good Eating by Ari Weinzweig

2 1/2 cups boiling water
1 ounce dried chanterelles or porcini mushrooms (1 cup)
1 quart chicken broth
2 tablespoons butter or delicate extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup Italian short-grain rice, preferably Carnaroli
1/2 cup dry white wine
4 ounces Fontina Val d’Aosta cheese, rind trimmed, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
Chopped Italian parsley or arugula—optional
Additional butter to blend in at the end—optional
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Sea salt
Black pepper, freshly ground, to taste

In a large heatproof bowl, pour the boiling water over the dried mushrooms. Soak, covered, for 20 minutes. Strain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid. Rinse the mushrooms, give them a rough chop and discard any tough stems. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and set aside.

Pour the strained mushroom liquid into a large saucepan along with the chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a medium summer.

In another large saucepan, heat the butter or oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft, 3 to 4 minutes until golden (don’t brown or the onion will become bitter).

Add the rice and stir well. Saute for 2 minutes, or until the rice is hot and shiny. Add the wine and stir until it has been absorbed by the rice.

Add 1/2 cup of the broth and stir until absorbed. Repeat, adding broth 1/2 cup at a time, until the rice is almost al dente at the center, about 15 minutes.

Add the mushrooms and Fontina and stir until the cheese is melted, 1-2 minutes. Add the parsley, if using, and stir well again. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente, about 18-20 minutes from when it first went into the pan.

Add a touch more butter or oil if you like and a final 1/2 cup of broth (if you’ve used up all the broth, you can use hot water instead). Stir and remove from the heat. Let stand for 1 minute. Add the salt to taste.

Serve warm, not hot, in warm bowls. Top with grated Parmigiano cheese and a generous grinding of pepper.

Serves two as a main courses or four as an appetizer