As you may know, we left Bologna a little earlier than planned and in some haste. I had written this blog but not published it. As it turned out, the last meal I cooked in our Italian kitchen was my favourite – risotto.
I can’t leave Italy without saying something about risotto, even though it is not a dish typically served in Emilia-Romagna. Risotto is primarily a northern dish, eaten in Piedmont, Lombardy and Veneto. It tends to be thought of as an autumn/winter dish but can work successfully with any seasonal vegetables. Risotto is one of my favourite Italian meals. I learned to make it from an article in NZ Cuisine Magazine and I wrote about it in an earlier blog post from 2009. Sadly, the link to the Cuisine article no longer works but this is still my approach to risotto. I find it comforting to make and comforting to eat. If I don’t know what to cook or I’m feeling tired, risotto is the answer. The stirring is therapeutic and as I said in the earlier post, since the wine bottle is already open, pour yourself a glass. In Italy it is usually served as a primo piatti or first course. I have never followed a plate of risotto with a secondo piatti.
One of the staples in my risotto repertoire is pea and lemon risotto or, at the beginning of spring, risotto primavera. I hasten to make it clear that pea risotto is not the same as the famous Venetian, dish risi e bisi, which is always made with fresh peas and a pea pod stock, has a higher ratio of peas to rice and is more soupy. These risotti don’t pretend to be authentic but are just what I do in my kitchen at home. If you are using fresh peas, pod and blanch them before you start. If using frozen, set aside to thaw. Heat plenty of olive oil with a little butter and cook diced leek, onion or shallot with a generous pinch of salt, on a low heat, until just tender. The salt helps prevent burning. I sometimes add diced fennel too. I might brown a handful of diced pancetta before adding the onion. Turn the heat up a little and add the rice, arborio or carnaroli, and stir until the grains separate and begin to crackle. Add a good amount of white wine and stir until it has been absorbed. Begin to add hot stock, either vegetable or light chicken, a couple of ladlesful at a time. Cook on a low heat, stirring until most of the liquid is absorbed, repeating the process until the rice is just tender. I usually need 2 1/2 times stock to rice. Add the peas that you have prepared above with the grated rind of a lemon. Add the juice of the lemon, stir and take off the heat. Add grated Parmigiana, chopped parsley and a knob of butter, taste for seasoning and rest covered for 5 minutes. Stir and serve. If the mixture isn’t creamy enough add more hot stock. To make a primavera dish, use a combination of freshly podded peas, broad beans, asparagus, diced baby carrots and small zucchine. At the resting stage I sometimes replace the butter with a creamy ricotta.
I have been making a leek risotto with both rice and farro. The farro brings a wonderful nutty flavour. I use an equal ratio of farro to rice. Cook the farro according to the instructions on the packet and set aside. Follow the method above, cooking a thinly sliced leek in butter and oil then add the rice and cook using the same method until the rice is almost done. Add the cooked farro and the last of the stock and stir until the stock is absorbed. Stir in a selection of finely chopped herbs, a generous amount of ground pepper, Parmigiana and lemon juice with a knob of butter, then rest as above. This risotto should be quite creamy so add a little more stock if necessary.
My new favourite meal from our Italian kitchen is radicchio risotto . If you want a comfy wintry risotto, radicchio is perfect. Follow the method above using onion or leek as the base. When it is tender add the rice and stir until the grains separate and begin to crackle. Add a good amount of red wine, which gives the rice a beautiful darkness that matches this dish, and stir until it has been absorbed. Begin to add hot stock. About half way through add a head of radicchio, quartered, cored and cut crosswise in thin slivers. In Italy I usually use treviso radicchio, which resembles a Buddha’s hand citrus. But any of the dark red varieties will work. When the rice and the radicchio seem done, add another ladleful of stock, stir and take off the heat. Add grated Parmigiana, chopped parsley and a knob of butter, taste for seasoning and rest covered for 5 minutes. Stir and serve. If the mixture isn’t creamy enough, add more hot stock. For an additional treat add slices of smoked Scamorza cheese on top before resting. It will just melt gently. This was the last meal I cooked in our Italian kitchen and we had the leftovers the next day as we were preparing to leave. This could be the regina dei risotti.