What To Serve With Risotto? [Dishes, Appetizers and Desserts]

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to try risotto, true slow-cooked, lovingly attended, and gently stirred risotto, you understand the cult of personality that has developed around this traditional Northern Italian rice recipe. The finished dish, though humble in appearance, is lavish with its taste.

With just four ingredients, rice, flavoring (usually butter and cheese), vegetables, and broth, the starchy grains are transformed into a toothsome, creamy consistency that is luxurious in taste and texture.

Nothing should stop you from embarking on a wonderful journey of discovery with this beautiful Northern Italian dish. With a little practice and patience, risotto can be easily mastered. It is just one of those dishes you have to try a few times yourself to teach yourself the moves and sounds and smells and textures. 

But with just four simple ingredients, the question always comes up, what should I serve with risotto? Is it the main course or a side dish? Is it a weeknight dinner or reserved for elegant dinner parties? The answer to all these questions is yes. This is why everyone loves putting risotto on a dinner party menu.

What To Serve With Risotto

Risotto pairs perfectly with vegetables and make an ideal vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free course. It also goes well with protein, and you can pair it with fish, pork, poultry, and meat. You can serve risotto simply with just parmesan cheese or elevate it to 3 star Michelin status with the additions of truffles and exotic shellfish.

Depending on the occasion, risotto can be a main course, side dish, or even a bed for the main course.  In a word, it’s versatile.

And though risotto can pair with just about anything, for your two bookend courses, the appetizer, and dessert, serve something chilled or room temperature with plenty of crunch and color.  

Is Risotto A Main Dish Or A Side?

And variety is what risotto is all about. Think of risotto as the Northern Italian equivalent of pasta. As you can create a multitude of dishes with pasta, so can you with risotto.

Depending on what’s in your pantry and refrigerator, you have many choices. You can highlight risotto as the main course with protein or vegetables or make a smaller and simpler serving for a first course.  

Vegetable Risotto

One of the things I like about making risotto is that I can always find a few vegetables in my refrigerator perfect for this dish. Mushrooms, of course, are the classic vegetable pairing with risotto, but others, such as butternut squash, asparagus, peas, and zucchini, are also a delicious choice.

Mushroom Risotto

Most cookbooks have a least one version of risotto with mushrooms. Mushrooms give this vegetarian meal a substantial and meaty flavor. And because mushrooms come in such a wide range of tastes and textures, you can serve the same dish over and over and with a different result each time. 

For a simple everyday risotto, add sauteed white or brown mushrooms. Look for fresh seasonal wild mushrooms like a chanterelle for a special occasion.

If you don’t mind spending a little extra for a 3-star experience, freshly shaved truffles give the dish an ethereal and earthly perfume. The taste is rich and balances the creamy risotto.

Butternut Squash Or Pumpkin

Another good choice for risotto, but much easier on your pocketbook it winter squash. Roasted butternut squash or pumpkin, cubed and seasoned, can be added to the cooked risotto.

For a vegetarian or vegan main dish, you can roast a large slice of squash and present it on a bed of risotto. A little sage would be a nice spice to add to this hearty winter dish. 

Asparagus

However, for a lighter spring dish, look for fresh green asparagus. You can saute or grill them with a bit of olive oil, rosemary, or thyme for maximum flavor. Then cube them and add the asparagus to the finished risotto.  

Zucchini

Another good vegetable with thyme is zucchini. Whether you choose green or yellow is up to you. Just cube and sautee it, and like the asparagus, add it towards the end.  The flavor and texture will be a nice contrast to the velvety risotto.

Peas & Lemon

But if you don’t have any fresh vegetables, try peas. I always have a bag of frozen petit pois (small sweet french peas) in my freezer.  A handful or two at the end is all you need for a delicious weeknight dinner.

Add a teaspoon of fresh lemon zest for a little extra flavor to brighten up the creamy flavor. Not only are the colors beautiful, but the lemon helps all the flavors burst forth in each bite.

Saffron

But if you want to try the most classic and most colorful risotto, then try risotto Milanese.  This iconic risotto dish has an unusually large quantity of saffron and gives a glorious gold color to the rice.  And best of all, you can make it vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free without any substitutes.

Protein With Risotto

Though risotto is a perfectly fine main course as a vegan or vegetarian dish, it also pairs nicely with proteins like seafood, pork, and chicken. Because risotto is eaten in all of Northern Italy, there are a variety of regional recipes of seafood risotto along with sausage, pork, prosciutto, and poultry.

Seafood

Seafood, especially shellfish like shrimp and scallops, goes well with the risotto. Shellfish tend to be sweeter than fish, but both make a nice pairing with risotto.  

For fish, serve it separately, on its own plate. The flakey texture of the fish will be lost in the creamy grains of risotto.

For shellfish, a classic pairing is scallops. For the main course, I like larger scallops sauteed in a very hot pan with butter to caramelize the outside of the scallops without overcooking the inside. Three or four pieces per person are enough.

If you’re serving the risotto as an appetizer, then fresh bay scallops are a good choice. Just make sure you cook them separately and add them at the end. If you overcook your shellfish, it will be especially noticeable next to the velvety risotto.

Pork

Pork is a popular choice to serve with risotto. Depending on your preferences, you have a lot of options. However, I wouldn’t directly add pork to the risotto. It’s too dense and would compete with the more delicate bite of the risotto.

You can serve the pork as its own course after the risotto or on a smaller plate at the same time. Pork loin, chops, or even sausage links make for a delicious risotto dinner.

If you want to serve the pork in the risotto, I would recommend ground sausage or prosciutto. For the sausage, crumble it, cook it and drain off the juices before mixing it with the risotto. For the Prosciutto, you can chop it and add it at the end.

Poultry

Proscuitto is not the only smoked meat that goes well with the risotto. In fact, smoked poultry of all types would be incredibly delicious in risotto.

In most grocery store deli sections, you can also find selections of whole smoked chicken and turkey breasts.  Gently warm it in a pan and shred it before adding it to your finished risotto.

However, for an everyday meal, don’t rule out plain chicken or turkey. They also make a wonderful side dish with risotto, especially when added to any of the above vegetable risottos.

Appetizers And Desserts

Risotto is so adaptable; it’s an ideal main course for a dinner party. It works with foods from all seasons and for all occasions. So if you’re serving risotto for a dinner party, you might wonder what to serve as an appetizer or dessert. You have a lot of options, but keep it simple, colorful, and crunchy for these two courses.

Appetizers

Because you want to highlight the creamy, smooth texture of risotto, you should start with a first course that leans to the crispy side. Salad is always a good choice. Its bright green lettuce is a perfect backdrop for a variety of colors and additional crisp flavors.  

Dessert

And keep the contrast going with dessert. A crispy dessert will give your meal a well-rounded feel with the softer risotto. And added color will give your courses a visual distinction from the creamy risotto.

An easy and favorite Italian dessert is granita. To make it, freeze your favorite fruit juice in a pan. Then with a fork, grate it, almost to the texture of a snowcone. When you’re ready to serve it, place these sparkling ice crystals in your favorite bowl and serve with a plate of your favorite Italian cookies.

Is It Risotto Or A Rice Dish? 

But when it’s time to serve the risotto, how do you know you’ve made risotto and not just a puffed rice dish with Northern Italian short-grain rice? This has been the primary concern or even angst by risotto purists over the past ten years.

This very question has earned risotto a reputation as the single most difficult dish for chefs. In cooking magazines, newspaper food columns, and international reality cooking shows in the UK and Australia, it’s the risotto that “does them in.”

Even one show labels the risotto challenge as the “Dish of Death.” And time after time, professional chefs are thwarted by the seemly simple instructions of stirring slowly and gently until done.

And though I enjoy watching these cooking challenges and reading articles on food, I believe the risotto mystic is unjustified. Risotto, after all, is really a technique more than anything. First, it’s about gentle stirring and slowly adding broth, so the rice absorbs the liquid and doesn’t get waterlogged and basically explode.

Finally, there’s the finishing step, quickly adding cold butter and shredded parmesan cheese (the flavor) for the tasty and silky smooth finish.

Maybe the first few times you make risotto, you might make a few mistakes, and your rice will puff. Or maybe you want to branch out with the Arborio rice and make risotto cakes and risotto rice balls. That’s OK. It will still be a very tasty rice dish. 

A risotto that doesn’t pour perfectly as seen on TV is still incredibly delicious and just fine to serve. Don’t worry about having the perfect risotto. And with a delicious appetizer and dessert, all you’re remember is the great conversation and time enjoyably spent with friends.

Bowl Or Plate?

But how will you know that your risotto is on the right track? One of the indications is that you will need to serve it in a bowl and not a plate. When the risotto has absorbed all the liquid, it will still have a creamy consistency, much like porridge.

The risotto rice too, will have maintained its shape. And you will be able to pour the risotto into a bowl. The motion of the rice from the pan to the bowl should be a continuous flow like a wave, nothing lumpy or bumpy.

Then, the risotto will continue to flow and take the shape of whatever vessel you’ve put it in. So if it’s on a plate, then it will fill the entire base of the plate. Unless you’re plating just a small amount as a bed for other items, it would be best to put risotto in a bowl.  

Can I Freeze Risotto?

The question of freezing risotto comes back to the same question, is it risotto or a rice dish? Yes, you can freeze risotto. But when you defrost it, the risotto will no longer have that creamy, pourable texture.

It will, however, be a very delicious rice dish and a great backstop for those busy days you need to get dinner on the table quickly.  

Final Considerations

With all these ideas for what to serve with risotto, there has to be a perfect pairing for your family or next dinner party. Risotto can be as simple as a few vegetables or elaborate as an exotic truffle dish.

For protein, you can add shellfish, sausage, or prosciutto directly to the risotto. Or you can pair a side of risotto with poultry, pork, and fish for a multicourse meal.

Remember, one of the tricks to a risotto menu is making sure your appetizers and dessert have a lot of crunch and color. It will highlight the velvety texture of the risotto and give your entire meal a sense of balance.

But most importantly, the next time you make risotto, be sure to serve it with a side of confidence and a smile.  As long as you cook the rice through, no matter what you pair it with, you’ll dinner will be off to a beautiful start and, more importantly, an enjoyable time with friends and family.

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