(CNN) — Of all the classic Italian dishes to try, risotto alla Milanese is a stunner -- and the good news is that it isn't hard to create outside of its namesake Milan.
That is, of course, as long as you can get your hands on saffron, the expensive spice that gives Milanese risotto its signature golden hue.
Risotto alla milanese with Parmesan cheese and fresh basil.
As chef Cesare Battisti explains to Stanley Tucci in "Searching for Italy," saffron found its way into the luxurious rice dish, thanks to artistic inspiration. During construction on Milan's Duomo, saffron was used to color the cathedral's stained glass windows.
"The story goes that one day they were pranked by being fed rice as yellow as the windows they made," Battisti tells Tucci.
Why rice, and not pasta? "Because Italy is split in two," Battisti explains. "The south is very warm, and wheat grows there, (but) the north is rainy and has got marshes, so rice grows here."
Stanley Tucci learns the tale behind this classic Milan rice dish.
Battisti showed Tucci how he makes risotto alla Milanese at his restaurant Ratanà, but if you're not in that neighborhood you can always try this recipe from Tucci's 2012 cookbook at home.
"My introduction to risotto was my mother's risotto Milanese," Tucci writes, "but I have (chef) Gianni Scappin to thank for showing me the finer points of the art of making risotto, beginning with shopping for the correct rice. I look for brands marked superfine Carnaroli. If that is not available, I buy a superfine Arborio rice or Vialone Nano rice, both of which may be found in most supermarkets."
Tucci says there are two important steps to remember when making risotto:
"First, before adding any liquid, make sure to heat the rice well with the onions that are cooked until softened," he writes. "This will seal the rice grains and helps to keep them from overcooking. Second, test the rice for the desired texture after it has cooked for 12 to 15 minutes. Risotto may be served al dente, with a slight crispness to the bite, or with a softer consistency -- the choice is yours. ... Just don't overcook risotto or it'll turn into paste."
8 cups hot chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon powdered saffron, or 20 saffron threads
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup coarsely chopped onions
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1. Measure out ½ cup of the hot broth, stir in the saffron and set aside. Keep the remaining broth warm in a medium-size saucepan set over medium-low heat.
2. Melt two tablespoons of the butter in the olive oil in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until they have softened but not browned, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat with the butter, oil and onions. Add the wine and cook, stirring continuously, until the wine evaporates, about 1 minute. Stir in the saffron broth and cook, allowing the rice to absorb it, about two minutes. Add the remaining broth ½ cup at a time, stirring after each addition and allowing the rice to absorb the broth before adding more. Cook until the rice is tender but al dente, about 15 to 20 minutes. You may have broth left over. Remove from the burner and stir in the remaining two tablespoons of butter and ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.
"It is traditional to serve risotto alla Milanese with osso buco," Tucci says, but "it may also be served as a first course before chicken or other veal dishes."
And if you're in the mood for wine with this meal, Tucci recommends a medium red.
Stir in mushrooms
Tucci suggests adding dried porcini mushrooms for another layer of flavor. Here's what you do:
1. Soak 1 cup chopped, dried porcini in 1 cup warm water.
2. After the saffron broth has been added to the rice, strain the mushrooms through a fine-mesh sieve, reserving the liquid.
3. Stir the mushrooms and the strained liquid into the risotto, allowing the rice to absorb the liquid before proceeding with the rest of the recipe.
Leftovers? Make cakes
Grab an egg, olive oil and some bread crumbs to turn your Milanese risotto into risotto cakes. Tucci recommends serving these for lunch "on top of a green salad, or for brunch with fried eggs." Here's what you do:
1. Add an egg to the leftover risotto and enough bread crumbs to form a soft dough. Shape the risotto into patties about 3 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick.
2. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the risotto cakes.
3. Cook until warmed through and golden brown on both sides, about 8 minutes altogether. Serve immediately.