Question: I am looking for good, super flexible budget-friendly things to cook while sheltering at home. A friend mentioned risotto. My store was sold out of the usual rice to make it. Can I make it with other rice? What other things can I substitute? There are only two of us, so what can I do with the leftovers? – Anne C., Defiance, Ohio
Answer: Risotto sounds posh, but it’s a great value food and offers a splendid way to use up leftovers or clear out the fridge. It’s also a dish you can make almost entirely from your pantry. All you need is an onion, rice, some kind of flavorful liquid, vegetables and some cheese, but all of these things lend themselves to substitutions.
To this basic recipe you can add virtually anything – a handful of leftover vegetables, shrimp, chicken, sausage – whatever you’ve got that you don’t want to waste. I once made a smashing risotto with leftover fixings from a pizza-making party.
In theory, water can stand in for stock, but it doesn’t yield the same flavor or silky texture. Toasting the rice in the fats without any liquid is a key step as it helps determine the final texture of the rice. Be sure to warm up the stock; adding cold stock to the hot rice will cook the outside of the rice, but not the inside, resulting in a hard, unpleasant texture.
This basic recipe makes a pot with enough to serve four to six servings for about a $1 each.
- Rice and what to substitute
Traditionally, risotto is made with Arborio rice, a high-starch short-grain Italian rice. There are a number of other Italian risotto rice options, including Balda, Carnaroli and Vialone Nano.
However, you can use almost any kind of rice for risotto. I once showed up to teach a class on a risotto at a cooking school only to find the place had been cleared out all of it. The class of ten was split up into pairs, so I pulled out three types – a medium-grained brown, Chinese black Imperial and traditional sushi rice. I also selected pearled farro and quinoa, both ancient grains. All the dishes worked out fine, even if their texture and flavor were not the same as traditional rice. After that experience, I tried making paella with different types of rice when I didn’t have traditional short-grained Valencia-style rice on hand, and they all worked out fine, too.
The best substitutions: High starch short-grain and medium-grain rice are your best options, such as Valencia-style paella rice, sushi rice such as Calrose (don’t rinse it first), English pudding rice, other short- to medium-grain white rice, short- and medium-grained brown rice, quinoa, barley and pearled farro.
Avoid these substitutions: Long-grain brown rice (takes too long to cook), extra-long white rice such as Basmati, wild rice of any kind (it’s a grass, not a rice), parboiled rice (Uncle Ben’s or Minute Rice).
The stock is what flavors the dish, so the better whatever liquid you use will yield superior results. Chicken stock is the standard and if you’ve got it, great. If not, consider making a vegetable stock out of what vegetables you’ve got on hand. You can also boost or make a “stock” by adding a few dried mushrooms or my long-time fave rave, Star porcini bouillon cubes. In a pinch, you can certainly use bouillon. I’m a major fan of I’m partial to Better than Bouillon, especially the beef options as they lend a lot of flavor and can stay in the fridge for a year or more. If your plan is to include shrimp to your finished dish, take the shrimp and toss them into the liquid to boost the flavor. One of my favorite risotto tricks is to use a leftover corn on the cob from a barbecue. I shuck off the corn and then throw the cob into the stock.
Traditionally, risotto begins with sautéing chopped onion in oil or a combination of oil and butter. No onion? You can use chopped leeks or celery. Neither? Fear not, all will be well. Just skip to the rice step.
- Sweating the rice
To the warmed oil or oil/butter in the pan, add the rice or grains. The goal here is to coat each grain with fat and heat it throughout. In traditional risotto, you want to cook it for at least a minute, perhaps two, over medium-high until it starts to turn a bit translucent.
After sweating the rice, a splash of white wine is added. This will “swell” up the rice and lends both flavor and texture to the finished dish. Some people, especially those who don’t drink wine regularly, prefer to use white vermouth. Vermouth is a great pantry staple as it lasts much longer than open wine and lends a similar dry acidic flavor. If you’re avoiding alcohol, you can use water for this step. If your final dish will lend itself to lemon, a cup of water with a splash of lemon juice works fine, too.
- Ladle stock into rice and stir
This is the time-consuming part of risotto, but it is not difficult. Ladle in about a half cup of warm stock, then stir. And keeps stirring – almost constantly – for about 20 to 25 minutes. You can chat, listen to TV and, if you feel confident, cook or prepare the vegetables that you’re going to add to the dish. This is not the time to otherwise multitask. As the liquid gets absorbed and the rice appears almost dry, add more. Keep the liquid warm but not boiling. If you run out, add warm water. You’re aiming for the rice to have a nice bite, a recognizable shape but without any crunch.
- Add your vegetables or other ingredients
Stir in your ingredients. Long live leftovers! Cooked meats and vegetables should be chopped into bite-sized pieces. Just toss them in and stir. Then, add salt. Stir and taste.
- Add oil or butter and cheese
Most risotto recipes call for adding butter to the end of the dish. You can also just use olive oil. Typically, risotto is finished with a dose of Parmesan cheese. None on hand? Try adding a bit of chevre or even grated Swiss cheese. Just think about what you’ve got and whether it will taste good with what you’ve put into your risotto. No cheese at all? Consider simmering some milk or half and half so that it reduces and thickens. You can add a bit of garlic to it for extra flavor.
- Add something green as a garnish
Traditional risotto calls for adding a handful of chopped parsley at the end. I tend to scour my fridge and see what greens need to be used up. Add parsley if you’ve got it, but you can also use arugula or spinach. I’ve even taken the last of a marinated kale salad, chopped it up and stirred it in.
- Taste again and adjust as needed
Does it “need something?” Try adding a bit of hot sauce or dried herbs or even a tiny splash of lemon, lime or vinegar for a hit of acid.
- Risotto-stuffed chicken breasts: Stuffing a chicken breast is a great way to make your meat supplies go farther. Flatten a breast by banging it with a small pan, place the risotto in the center, roll up and secure with toothpicks. Coat with breadcrumbs if you’ve got them. Bake at 350F/175C for 20 to 25 minutes.
- Risotto patties: Roll into balls them flatten into patties. Coat with breadcrumbs. Bake at 350F/175C for 8 minutes per side until slightly golden. Serve as a side dish.
- Cheese-stuffed risotto balls: Roll the risotto into balls and stuff the interior with a good melting cheese such as shredded mozzarella. You’ll only need a tablespoon of cheese per ball. Bake at 350F/175C for about 15 minutes until the cheese melts. Let cool slightly before serving.
- Risotto-stuffed mushroom caps: Remove the stems, stuff caps with risotto and top with a bit of cheese. Bake or microwave until hot.
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1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 cups aborio or other short- to medium-grain rice
½ cup white wine
6 to 8 cups chicken stock, heated
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 ½ tablespoons butter or olive oil to finish
Small handful chopped parsley
- In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter into the olive oil. Add the onion and cook until translucent. Add the rice, stirring to coat with the oil until the rice is hot, pearly white but not brown, about two minutes. Stir in the wine and let it reduce by half, about two minutes. Add one ladle of warm stock, about ½ cup, and stir until absorbed into the rice. Repeat this process for about 20 minutes, then taste a grain of rice. It should offer slight resistance when chewed. If it seems too hard, add 1/4 cup more broth and continue cooking for another few minutes until broth has been absorbed. Remove pot from heat and let it sit about two minutes. Stir in the cheese and butter, then parsley and add salt and pepper until it taste good to you.
Risotto with Mushrooms, Chicken and Lentils
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
- 2 cups arborio rice
- 1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
- 6 to 8 cups chicken stock, heated
- 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
- 1 tablespoons butter (to finish)
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 cups cooked chicken cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1.5 ounces dried mushrooms
- 4 ounces fresh mushrooms
- 1 cup cooked lentils
- 2 ounces fresh arugula or parsley
- Reconstitute the mushrooms in about 2 cups warm water for at least 15 minutes until mushrooms are softened. Drain, reserving the liquid. Chop the mushrooms into bite-size pieces. Set aside.Follow the standard risotto recipe, and toss in the thyme when cooking the onions. Substitute two cups of the chicken stock for the liquid from the mushrooms. After the last two ladle of stock is added, stir in the mushrooms, lentils, thyme, cooked chicken and arugula to heat through. Add the butter and cheese, and add salt and pepper until it tastes good to you. Serve warm.
This post was originally published in 2009. It has been updated.