Saffron risotto always reminds me of Sergio, a creature of habit with a structured routine that budges for no one, and this is never truer than when it comes to food. This has proven charming and endearing on most occasions, difficult to navigate on others. He is happiest and most comfortable when eating somewhere he knows and the best example of this is in his birthplace, Milan. I’ve only ever been to Milan with Sergio. My favourite time was at the end of a trip with two friends where we’d travelled the length of the country by train, last stop Milan, before flying home.
We trundled out of the carriage, dragging rucksacks behind us, before spotting Sergio at the end of the platform, dressed immaculately in his suit, come to pick us up. He grabbed our bags without hesitation and paced ahead, leading the way. I knew exactly where he was going. The staff knew him, of course, taking his jacket and leading him to the table he always sat at. Without asking, they bought bottles of sparkling water and wine, but no menu. We were having what Sergio was having, and that was what he had every day. Plates of affettati misti to start, grissini for nibbling alongside, both leading up to his favourite risotto alla Milanese – the real reason we were there.
Perhaps Milan’s most iconic primo; more often than not, you’ll find it paired with ossobuco – veal shanks braised in wine, broth and aromatics. The risotto I’ve given below is not this, but the distinct flavour of saffron will forever take me back to that restaurant with Sergio, his eyes wide with expectation as he asked, ‘Have you tried?’ With something this good, I don’t blame him for sticking with it.
Photography: Sophie Davidson
For the fennel
1 large fennel bulb, about 300g
extra virgin olive oil
80ml white wine
80ml chicken or meat stock
pinch of chilli flakes
For the risotto
1 big pinch saffron strands
1 litre chicken or meat stock
2 banana shallots, or 1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
40g salted butter
320g risotto rice
160ml white wine
60g Parmesan, finely grated, plus more to serve
Preheat the oven to 190°C fan.
Trim the fennel of the tough outer layer and the stalks and discard.
Slice lengthways into wedges about 1cm/½in thick. Oil a griddle pan and grill the slices of fennel on both sides until charred – this could take up to 10 minutes. If you don’t have a griddle pan, simply brown on both sides in a frying pan. Transfer to a baking dish with the wine, stock and chilli. Put in the oven for 35–40 minutes, until soft and the liquid has evaporated.
Crush the saffron strands between your fingers and put into a small bowl with 4 tbsp water. Whisk to combine. The water will turn a lovely yellow colour.
Heat the stock gently in a pan and keep it warm as you start on the risotto. Put the shallots or onion, extra virgin olive oil and the 2 tbsp butter into a wide pan with ½ tsp salt. Cook over a medium-low heat for 10–15 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the rice and lightly toast for a couple of minutes, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until the grains are glistening. Add the wine and stir, letting it evaporate, before adding a ladleful of the warm stock. Stir the risotto continuously, allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next ladle. It should be simmering gently; if it is too vigorous, reduce the heat a little. Continue like this, stirring and adding stock bit by bit, until all of it has been used up and the risotto has been cooking for around 18 minutes. Pour in the saffron water and continue stirring for another couple of minutes, until the rice is tender but retaining a little bite. Add the 40g butter and the Parmesan to the pan and beat into the risotto – it should be a very creamy, runny consistency.
Taste the risotto, adding another ½ tsp salt if it needs it. Pour onto warmed plates, dusting with more Parmesan. Finish by arranging a few slices of fennel on top and serve immediately.
Stagioni translates from the Italian as ‘seasons’, something we’re definitely on board with. Olivia’s first cookbook is based entirely around that — contemporary Italian cooking through the year, from winter through to spring. Her food is comforting and nourishing, and beautifully served. It’s a perfect guide to Modern Italian food. Extracted from: Stagioni: Contemporary Italian Cooking to Celebrate the Seasons by Olivia Cavalli (Pavilion, HarperCollins Publishers). Image credit – by Sophie Davidson.