We can’t travel these days, but the memories enliven a dull evening and give me hope for a brighter future for all of us. I don’t know about you and your family, but since the beginning of the Coronavirus we have been spending more time in the kitchen and trying recipes we haven’t cooked in years.
Last night I made risotto that brought up reminiscences of my one and only trip to Italy. There are many lasting memories; but Padua, Italy, makes me think of risotto. It is a medium-size town, not on many tourist itineraries. The first evening we cruised the little town for an inviting looking trattoria for dinner.
That night I enjoyed a risotto creamier than I’d ever had before, but that was not what left the lasting memory. I innocently asked the old “nonna”, the cook and perhaps owner, “Your risotto tasted deliciously rich. Do you add cream to it?” The fire in her eyes would melt butter and that look will never fade in my mind’s eye. Instantly, I became the stereotyped, uncultured, clueless American tourist. I suppose my question was a little insulting. Removing the plate from in front of me, she grumbled an indignant reply.
But I still think, to this day, that my question was legitimate! And that perhaps the added cream was her shortcut version. In all the cookbooks I’ve ever read, not one risotto recipe uses cream. Risotto’s richness of flavor and texture comes from the starchiness of the rice and slow cooking in a flavorful broth. I am not an expert on the cooking of various regions of Italy so it’s possible I could be wrong about this.
What is a risotto you might ask. It is Italian comfort food. Stay with me here and I’ll give you an easy way to make risotto.
What magnetically drew me to Padua was a Christmas book that I bought my children many years before, called The Glorious Impossible by Madeleine L’Engle. The book shows/tells the life stories of Mary and Jesus through the paintings of Giotto. They are reproductions of the 39 sequential frescoes he painted on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
The Scrovegni family were notoriously deceptive moneylenders. At that time, early 1300’s, the Catholic Church allowed wealthy people to expiate their sins by doing things to benefit the church—to basically to buy their way out of their misdeeds/sins.
The family spared no expense. They commissioned the already famous Giotto to paint the inside of their chapel. Giotto’s style of painting was revolutionary. This was pre Renaissance. He painted realistic characters and emotions—three dimensional humans with faces expressing compassion, grief, doubt. Once he came on the scene, the two dimensional, wooden style of medieval painting suddenly fell from favor.
Since my teenage years I had rebelled against my “churchianity” upbringing, but the fresco of Mary holding her dying son as he was taken down from the cross brought on a surprising cascade of tears like snowmelt on a spring day. Cheeks drenched and thoroughly embarrassed, I couldn’t stop myself.
I walked through the chapel with my jaw dropped open. There is a certain stillness in Giotto’s paintings—a heartfelt understanding of being human. Every fleshy arm, every shaft of light turned in the direction of Mary and Jesus. For me, it created a moment of connectedness that softened, maybe even re-arranged the mental judgments I had made.
So back to my “risotto revelations”. It makes a simple but elegant meal. Risotto takes a little more time than using a rice cooker, but is definitely worth it.
Risotto requires using Arborio rice, a short grain variety grown primarily in Italy and Spain specifically for paellas and risottos. Short grain rice tend to be more creamy. There are other varieties but Arborio is most available in the U.S. Once I tried substituting a less expensive short grain brown rice as was suggested in a cookbook, but it wasn’t all that satisfying. In this situation I would spend the extra money for Arborio. Vegetable or chicken cubes for the broth work fine, but never buy Knorr brand—too many additives, MSG, and a flavor over dependent on salt. Most health food stores offer a better alternative (or be ambitious and make your own).
Just about anything can be added to a risotto. Our favorite summer version contains cut up tomatoes, basil and a can of white beans (drained and rinsed). Or a spring version might include cut up asparagus, grated lemon peel, parmesan, and maybe some red pepper for color. Shrimp is great too.
I once used a red wine instead of white. The flavor was just as good, but the rice had the color of dried blood—visually unappealing! I won’t do that again. Italian women often keep an old stub of parmesan in the refrigerator. They add it to the risotto as it simmers to deepen the flavor; then remove whatever is left when the rice is cooked.
If you are vegan, skip the parmesan but perhaps add herbs to enhance the flavor like marjoram and sage or basil and tarragon depending on other ingredients. Wine deepens the flavor but is not essential if you prefer not to use it, though alcohol evaporates in cooking. As an alternative, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar added at the end of cooking will also give that touch of acidity to deepen the flavor.
I am taking this basic recipe from The Art of Simple Foods by Alice Waters. It’s a good foundation recipe though I’ve made a few of my own changes. Enjoy!
Two tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
One small onion, diced fine
One and half cups Arborio rice
Five cups chicken or vegetable broth
One half cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper (depending on saltiness of your broth)
One tablespoon butter
One third cup grated parmesan cheese
Grated lemon peel or a little saffron (optional)
In a separate pan, bring to a boil the broth and then turn to a low simmer. Melt the butter or olive oil in a heavy bottomed 2 ½ to 3 quart saucepan. Add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the rice, stirring now and then, until translucent, about four minutes. Do not let it brown. Pour the wine over the rice and stir again. Add a cup of the warm broth and continue stirring. When the rice starts to get thick, add additional cup of broth. Keeping the rice on a gentle simmer, add broth each time the rice absorbs most of the liquid and stir occasionally. I usually add the vegetables/tomato about half way through the cooking process. Continue until the rice is tender but still has a firm core, maybe 25 to 30 minutes.
Add the parmesan cheese and optional butter. Stir vigorously for a couple minutes to develop the creamy texture; then let the rice sit for a few minutes before serving.