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Cooking Off the Cuff: Risotto as the Platform for a Great Dinner

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When Jackie and I eat risotto at home -- which is pretty often -- it is usually as a standalone dish in which the marquee ingredient (such as winter squash) is incorporated into the rice. Indeed, I'd almost forgotten that one of the great classics of northern Italian cooking is braised veal shanks (osso buco) with saffron risotto. Then, I was reminded about risotto's virtues as a base for meat and its sauce by dinners in a couple of London restaurants run by my friend Angela Hartnett: Murano and its newer offshoot Cafe Murano. Murano frequently offers lightly flavored risottos accompanied by more intense braises; I think of rich shredded oxtail lurking under a pale, elegant risotto made with leeks. And from the moment the Cafe opened, in 2013, its menu has included a particularly nice version of osso buco with Milanese-style saffron risotto.

I love those dishes yet somehow never got around to making their like at home. But that changed the other week, when we had a couple of slices of leftover braised pork butt with a little of their sauce: not really sufficient for two portions of meat, but more than enough to yield a bite of pork with each spoonful of risotto. Then last weekend I cooked a few pounds of lamb neck (maybe the best braising cut of all) from our Greenmarket sheep farmer, 3-Corner Field Farm, with the express intention of serving it with risotto.

You know how to braise meat (i.e., cook a stew); you know how to make a basic risotto too -- or at least you have ways to learn. So I am going to highlight what might be different from your standard operating procedure.

On the meat, which can and should be cooked a day or two ahead of time: It must be a cut that can become fork-tender without drying out. That's why veal shanks are classic for this sort of dish: like the lamb and pork cuts I used, they have sufficient connective tissue to "melt" after long, slow cooking and bring about that gelatinous consistency you want. Among other good options would be lamb shanks, lamb shoulder, beef short ribs (or boneless chuck short ribs) and oxtail. Whatever you select, it should be well browned and braised with lots of aromatic vegetables, wine (generally white, but if red is what's handy that's fine, especially with beef) and stock. This can be chicken stock or it can be made with the kind of meat you're using - or it can be vegetable stock. If you haven't got any stock, by all means use water, but up the seasoning and add something savory such as mushrooms, soy sauce (in moderation) or even a small piece of dried kombu seaweed (kelp). Whatever liquid you use, supplement it with some tomato -- maybe half a cup of simple tomato sauce or chopped tomatoes, or a squirt of tomato paste.

Once it has become very tender -- which in an oven a trifle hotter than 325 degrees F (say, 165 C) could take a couple of hours -- let it rest in the braising liquid for half an hour before removing the meat and straining the liquid. Get rid of all those tired vegetables, but use a cooking spoon to press them firmly in the strainer to squeeze all the remaining good out of them. And use your fingers to pick the meat off the bones and break/shred it into bite-size pieces, returning them to the liquid as you work. While you're at it, scrap any particularly disagreeable globs of soft fat but be sure you're not discarding meaty bits. Refrigerate, then remove the congealed fat from the surface.

As is, with its rather liquid sauce, this would now be delicious served as a stew or with broad egg noodles such as pappardelle. But set on top of a risotto, it would turn the rice into a sort of soup. So you need to transform some (not all) of the braising liquid into something richer, denser and more viscous, about 1/4 cup per portion. The first step is simply to reduce it in a pan over medium heat. It should taste rich and have a nice dark color -- and it should possess a sauce-like consistency: just about as thick as cream, say. If it gets to the right flavor and color but remains watery, you could thicken it very, very lightly, either by gradually stirring a cornstarch slurry into the simmering liquid or by whisking in some butter. But with any luck -- and especially if you've used some sort of meat stock in the braise -- flavor, color and consistency will be achieved simultaneously.

On the risotto: This should be a simple, standard saffron-flavored risotto, like a classic risotto Milanese, but with no bone marrow or ham or any other meat. For the liquid, use dilute chicken or vegetable stock into which saffron threads have been infused: keep the stock very light, because this risotto must taste clearly of saffron and, most important, rice. Finish it, as usual, with butter and Parmesan vigorously stirred in to create a creamy consistency: also as usual, it is better that the risotto should be too loose than too stiff.

To serve, dish out nice portions of golden risotto, top each with not too much meat (reheated in the remains of its original braising liquid, not in the new richer sauce), then spoon the reduced sauce over each portion of meat. In the photographs of Cafe Murano's osso buco and even more so of my lamb variation, you'll see a lovely thread of sauce around the perimeter of the rice. This isn't clever plating; it happens automatically when some of the sauce slides over the rice. Looks great, doesn't it?

You'll have leftover meat, probably; with at least some of it you should go the pappardelle route, brightening the braising liquid with herbs and either olives or something like diced carrots, plus some lemon or orange zest if you like.

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