Risotto al nero di seppia is a Venetian classic that combines two of La Serenissima’s favourite ingredients: rice and seafood from the lagoon. The ink – generally harvested from the more generously supplied cuttlefish than the squid that is often preferred in English versions – gives the rice a creamy, distinctly maritime richness that pairs beautifully with the sweetness of the cephalopod.
The dish’s wider popularity is, I suspect, as much down to its striking appearance as its lovely flavour: few chefs can resist the temptation of a jet-black canvas for their creative flourishes. My problem is that, whenever I make it at home, it turns out an unappetising dirty-grey colour. So, what is the secret to making risotto nero that looks as good as it tastes?
Although risotto nero in the Veneto tends to be made with cuttlefish as well as their ink, many of the recipes I use suggest squid as a substitute. This ought to be welcome news: while popular wisdom holds that cuttlefish are much cheaper, they prove impossible to come by in any of my local fishmongers, even though they are flourishing, apparently, in ever-warmer seas. I eventually find them lurking at the bottom of a capacious chest freezer at the back of a Chinese supermarket, under the label “squid”.
Cuttlefish are often said to have a stronger, meatier flavour than squid, but I think the difference is principally one of texture: cuttlefish seem to be sturdier and lack the delicately trailing tentacles that are one of the main attractions of their cousins. (The late Alan Davidson’s description of cephalopods as “like bags with heads on top and eight or 10 arms or tentacles sprouting therefrom” is apt.) After a week dealing with both, I have to admit I prefer squid, because it cooks more quickly, but use whichever you can get your hands on – it is more important that they are small and thin enough to soften in the same time as the rice (note that this is a dish in which they should retain some bite, as a contrast with the creamy risotto).
The recipe from Eataly, the global Italian food hall chain, uses prawns, rather than cuttlefish. This may or may not be a traditional variation, but it seems to make little sense. Given that risotto nero must be made with cuttlefish or squid ink, it would seem more logical to pair this with the beast that created it.
One advantage of using prawns is that you can produce a stock from the shells. This makes Eataly’s risotto sweet and nuttily delicious, although it is emphatically shrimp-flavoured, rather than tasting of cuttlefish. Italian cookery bible The Silver Spoon and Tom Aikens both use fish stock, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook suggests fish stock or water and Bruce Poole of Chez Bruce in London recommends fish stock, light chicken stock or water.
Chicken is my usual choice for lighter risottos; it imparts a savoury element without too much in the way of meatiness. Here, though, while it certainly works, giving Poole’s recipe an elegant richness, it doesn’t blend in as seamlessly as The River Cafe’s water, which yields a surprisingly punchy result. Best of all, however, is a subtle fish stock. Be sure to taste it before use, and dilute it further if it is very salty or strong, because both squid and cuttlefish have a delicate flavour.
Wine-wise, most risottos use the cool, dry whites of the north-east, although the Eataly cooking method mentions red – which is confusing, given that the ingredients list specifies white. I decide to give red a try anyway, on the basis that it might help with the colour of the dish, but the acidity of white proves more pleasing and you can drink the rest of the bottle with dinner.
The River Cafe and Poole call for vialone nano rice, which, since it gives a slightly less creamy result than The Silver Spoon’s carnaroli, is more traditional with fish and seafood. My testers enjoyed both. Arborio is definitely a poor third – less starchy and more prone to breaking, it is the most widely available of the three, but use either of the others if you have the choice.
All risottos, or at least all those I have come across, start with a flavour base of softly fried alliums. The River Cafe recommends red onion, Poole and The Silver Spoon white and Eataly and Aikens shallots; everyone but Eataly also adds garlic. All of these are fine choices, but the slightly vinous, sweet flavour of the shallots seems to have an affinity with the seafood. In any case, garlic is rarely a bad idea.
Poole and The River Cafe also add tomatoes. Despite my initial commitment to keeping things as simple as possible, I am won over: they supply a fruity acidity that complements the wine and is less strident than Aikens’s lemon juice. I also fall, unexpectedly, for their dried red chilli – after all, Venice was on the ancient spice route, albeit long before chillies made it to the old world. Perhaps more historically accurate is Poole’s star anise, but my testers found it too strong – it is complex and interesting, but a bit distracting.
Poole’s recipe includes fennel and celery, too, which are nice additions without being essential to the success of the dish. The same goes for Aikens’s thyme and bay leaf, although I like his lemon zest, which I will be using to finish the dish.
Traditionally, risotto is finished with a big lump of butter and some grated cheese, but The River Cafe reckons that, “if you have plenty of the rich, creamy ink, butter is not necessary”. Aikens seems to agree, using creme fraiche instead (but then he has cooked the rice in 75g of the stuff already), while Poole adds “slightly less than usual, as the squid ink is rich”, which is still almost twice as much as The Silver Spoon suggests. While I am not often inclined to turn down butter, in this case, looking at the colours of all the risottos I have produced, I am going to substitute extra ink – and quite a lot of it, too.
The dish needs nothing more, but Poole’s gremolata – more commonly associated with osso buco – works so well that I was forced to make more to cater for my greedy testers. If the idea offends you, feel free to skip it, but this garlic-free version adds a zesty, peppery freshness that proves the perfect counterpart to the rice.
Most risotto nero recipes follow the same method as any other risotto, with the notable exception of The Silver Spoon’s, which adds the stock in one go and leaves it to do its own thing, with decent, if distinctly less creamy, results. The difference comes in when they add the seafood: The Silver Spoon braises it for 20 minutes in wine and water before adding the rice; The River Cafe adds it just before the rice; and Poole and Aikens pop it in at the end of cooking, with Poole sautéing it first. This is why it is important to use small squid or cuttlefish – after 25 minutes of slow simmering, they will be just tender, with enough texture not to be lost in the rice, and will have given up their delicious flavour in the process.
Perfect risotto nero
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp butter
1 banana shallot, 2 round ones or ½ white onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Pinch of chilli flakes (optional)
400g baby squid or cuttlefish, cleaned (reserve any ink if you are buying them fresh), tentacles separated, bodies chopped into small rings
1l fish stock
175g risotto rice, preferably vialone nano, but carnaroli will work
75ml dry white wine
2 medium tomatoes, fresh or tinned, chopped
3 sachets of cuttlefish ink
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 tbsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat the oil and butter in a wide, fairly high-sided pan over a medium heat. Cook the shallots until soft, but not brown, then stir in the garlic and chilli flakes, if using, and continue to cook for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, put the stock in a second pan and bring to a slow simmer.
Add the seafood to the shallot pan and stir to combine, then add the rice and season. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring to coat with the fat, until the edges of the grains of rice begin to turn translucent.
Turn up the heat slightly, then add the wine and tomatoes. Cook, stirring, until most of the liquid has been absorbed, then stir in one of the sachets of ink. When this is evenly distributed in the rice, begin stirring in the hot stock, a ladleful at a time, waiting until the rice has absorbed most of the liquid before adding more, and stirring regularly. How long this will take depends on how al dente or otherwise you like your rice, but reckon on 20 to 26 minutes.
When the rice is nearly done, stir in as much of the remaining ink as you need to give the dish colour, then season to taste. Combine the lemon zest and parsley and sprinkle over the top to serve.