Risotto is one of the staples of northern Italian cooking, nowhere more so than in Lombardy. Here is the risotto that typifies the cooking of Milan, the capital of Lombardy region and the economic and financial capital of Italy.
This risotto follows the classic method for making risotto, which we have gone over before, but it has two defining ingredients that give it its special flavor and character. As many of you will already know, it is flavored with saffron—which gives it a beautiful gold color—but perhaps fewer people know that in a true risotto alla milanese, the soffritto must include beef marrow. The marrow lends a beefy background flavor to the dish, as well as a subtle richness and unctuousness. The ingredient is so characteristic of the dish that I have seen this risotto listed on menus in Milan as risotto al midollo, the word ‘midollo‘ being Italian for bone marrow.
Ingredients (for 4-6 people)
400g (7 oz.) rice for risotto (arborio, vialone nano or carnaroli)
40-50g (1-1/2 or 2 oz.) bone marrow, removed from the bone (see Notes) and finely chopped
1/2 onion, finely chopped
40-50g (3 Tbs.) butter (plus a bit more for the mantecatura)
A splash of white wine
1 liter (1 qt.) broth, or q.b.
A pinch of saffron
50-60g (2 oz) grated parmesan cheese, plus some more to serve at table
Make a soffritto by sautéing the onion and marrow in the butter. When the marrow has melted and the onion is well wilted, add the rice and let it ‘toast’ in the soffritto without browning. Add a splash of white wine and let it evaporate.
Proceed with the risotto in the usual way—with one little catch: While the rice is simmering, take your saffron and simmer it very gently with a ladleful of broth so it releases its flavor and color into the broth. Then, either about halfway through the cooking process, or if you prefer a more assertive flavor, about 5 minutes before the rice is done, add the saffron and its broth into the risotto. Continue to cook as usual.
Risotto alla milanese is usually served all’onda, which is to say, rather more loose than firm, so begin the final enrichment, called the mantecatura in Italian, while the rice is stlll fairly brothy. Add the cheese and, if you like, a dab of butter for extra richness (never cream!) to the rice, then stir to toss the rice around vigorously for about two minutes. (Skilled risotto chefs are a marvel to watch as they work the rice, they toss the rice into the air while they stir—not something I’ve tried at home., though.) If you like your risotto a bit firmer, let it sit, covered, for a minute or two before serving.
NOTES: All bones have marrow, of course, but there are particular good marrow bones (also often called soup bones) that you can buy sawed in half to expose the marrow, like these:
To prepare bone marrow for use in risotto, I like to simmer the marrow bones for just a minute or two to loosen the marrow a bit. Then, using a small spoon or knife, scrape out the marrow from the bone. Depending on how long you’ve simmered the bone, the marrow may also just slip out on its own.
Now for those of you who may be a bit squeamish about bone marrow, it can be left out of the dish, adding perhaps some additional butter during the mantecatura to make up for it. What you will have made is more properly called risotto allo zafferano rather than a true risotto alla milanese—but it will still be delicious!
Saffron, as we all know, it very expensive, but a little goes a long way. It is sold in threads (the stigma of the crocus flower) and also ground into powder. Avoid the powder if you can. It melts more easily but it tends to have a rather faded flavor. A powder also allows for extraneous ‘filler’ or substitute ingredients. With the threads, you can be sure you are getting the real thing.
As for the rice, we’ve covered the three main varieties before: arborio, the most common and usually least expensive of the three, will work fine, but for this dish I would prefer Carnaroli, although many recipes call for vialone nano, which is an excellent risotto rice from the Veneto. For details, check out my post on the Italian Pantry.
There are some subtle variations to this dish you can try as you like: The broth is usually a rich beef broth, but you can equally try a mixed meat broth, a chicken broth or a vegetable broth. Some cooks use shallots rather than onion, a variation that I find particularly nice. And some avoid making a soffritto, putting the shallot or onion into the simmering rice and removing it before serving, which they claim make the risotto lighter. The famed Milanese chef Gualtiero Marchesi calls for making the onion soffritto separately, adding white wine to it, and allowing the onion to simmer until creamy. The onion cream is added at the very end of cooking to add ‘acidity and aroma’. An intriguing idea, but one that I have not yet tried.
Risotto alla milanese is an ancient dish, with its origins going back to the Middle Ages, although the modern recipe apparently only goes back to the early 19th century. (See this article for a brief history.)
Risotto alla milanese is perhaps most commonly served together with ossobuco, as a piatto unico—one of the very few examples of rice being a ‘side dish’ in traditional Italian cookery. But it is equally good as a primo, followed, say, by a cotoletta alla milanese or perhaps a brasato.