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Risotto allo Zafferano (Saffron Risotto)

This risotto gets its deeper color from the combination of saffron and homemade vegetable stock made from veggies, mushrooms, and onion skins.

Risotto allo Zafferano is the vegetarian version of Risotto alla Milanese—or “rice in the Milan-style”—which is made with beef stock, marrow, lard, and saffron. It is often golden to bright yellow in color.

The first time I ever tried Risotto allo Zafferano, it came from a box—but it sure didn’t taste like it! The quality was superb and the rice was delicious and perfectly cooked. I bought it at a supermarket I used to frequent when I lived in Italy. It was so good that when I returned to the U.S., I packed up several boxes of Risotto allo Zafferano (and dozens of other Italian treats) to enjoy later.

It didn’t take me long, however, to polish off all of my saffron risotto. I craved it but I had to put it out of my mind because back then, world foods weren’t as readily available or cost-effective as they are now. But a few years after my return, I went to a new market and saw a jar of saffron sitting on a shelf. The saffron wasn’t too expensive. So, I bought it, played around with it (carefully, of course, because saffron is still pricey) and developed my own version of Risotto allo Zafferano.

All I can say is: it’s better than the box!

By the way, risotto is easy to make but it does take a while to cook (15 to 20 minutes). You add a ladleful of stock at a time and stir it often until the rice has absorbed the liquid. You don’t have to be constantly stirring but you also don’t want to abandon it either. If you’re bored, do something else in the vicinity of the stove—like cut a tomato for a salad or wash a dish—while the absorption is going on!

3 – 4 cups low-sodium or homemade vegetable stock

1 heaping teaspoon of saffron threads (2 good pinches)

2 TBS unsalted butter

1 small shallot peeled and minced (about 1 TBS—you can use the same amount of onion instead)

1 cup Arborio rice

½ cup white or sparkling wine like Pinot Grigio or Prosecco

Salt & pepper to taste

1 cup grated Parmigiano reggiano or other Parmesan cheese (reserve a few TBS for garnish)

In a large pot, add the vegetable stock and saffron. Turn the heat on low.

Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Melt the butter. Add the shallots and cook for one minute or until translucent. Add the rice and stir until the grains are well-coated with the butter.

Add the wine and stir for a minute or until most of the wine is evaporated. Add 2 ladlefuls of warm stock and stir until it is absorbed. Continue adding the stock a ladleful at a time and stirring until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid and is tender but not mushy (about 15 -20 minutes). Stir in the Parmesan cheese bit by bit.

Add salt and pepper to taste. Top with the reserved Parmesan cheese and serve immediately.

Don’t Freak Out!

1) A note on rice. Arborio rice is an Italian short-grain rice that works well for risotto because it keeps its texture while releasing its starch to make the risotto naturally creamy. It is available in most supermarkets and currently costs $3.25 for one pound.

Actually, Carnaroli rice is even better for making risotto but you may have a more difficult time finding it. I definitely wouldn't substitute long-grain rice for risotto--it will be mushy rather than chewy and not at all creamy.

2) Make it meaty. If you want to make the traditional Risotto alla Milanese (instead of Risotto allo Zafferano), substitute a low-sodium or homemade beef stock or broth for the vegetable stock and the same amount of beef lard for the butter. There are two things to keep in mind, however. Canned or boxed beef stock and broth usually contain yeast, so if you are allergic to yeast, make your own. Also, if you use beef stock, lard, and Parmesan cheese, the risotto will not be kosher, if that is a concern.

Another meaty alternative is to serve the Risotto allo Zafferano with sautéed or seared scallops, calamari and/or shrimp. This version is not kosher either!

3) Make it vegan. Substitute 2 TBS neutral-flavored oil (canola, grapeseed or vegetable) for the butter and use either vegan Parmesan cheese or stir in a few TBS of vegan cream cheese.

4) You may have heard that leftover risotto is not good. I disagree. I reheat it with a bit of water (or if you have any leftover saffron stock, even better) on low heat and stir until the water is absorbed. You can also reheat it in the microwave with a splash of water. Just cover it with a damp paper towel, cook for 30 seconds, stir, and return to the microwave for another 30 seconds.

You can also use leftover risotto to make arancini (rice balls)—recipe coming soon! Or form the risotto into patties and sauté in olive oil until they are browned on each side and serve as a side dish (they'd be delicious topped with mushroom, beef, or chicken gravy).

5) Make it non-alcoholic / halal. While the alcohol from the wine evaporates, you can simply omit the wine from the recipe. If you want to brighten the flavor of the risotto, add a pinch of fresh lemon zest.

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