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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Risotto alla Paesana, a/k/a Kitchen Sink Risotto

There comes a point where everyone has too many vegetables in their fridge and no idea how to use them.  Or maybe that's just me.

Until the much-discussed but not-progressing partial kitchen remodel happens, I have my current refrigerator, which I colloquially call "The Vegetable Murderer."

When we receive our CSA box every other Wednesday, it's always a scramble to use everything in the box before the Murderer gets to it.  I'm always looking for recipes to prevent mass vegetable homicide.

This risotto is adaptable to the vegetables that are gasping for survival in your refrigerator, or better yet, those you've found at your farmer's market or received in your CSA box.  In my case, the vegetables on which time was ticking were zucchini, mushrooms and celery.

Like many Italian specialties, this recipe involves very little meat.  Pancetta is the traditional ingredient, but since I bought some wonderful savory salumi at our local cheese store on Sunday, I used this instead.  If you can find Da Vino salumi, I highly recommend it.

The key to this risotto--and all risottos--is to take your time.  In homage to the Supremes, you can't hurry risotto.

Whatever you do, I beg of you, please do not skip the step of browning the rice--it adds an extra toastiness to the final product.

Risotto alla Paesana, a/k/a Kitchen Sink Risotto
Adapted from CIA Italian Cooking at Home

1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. olive oil
2 oz. pancetta or salumi, sliced into small strips
3/4 cup chopped yellow onion
2 celery stalks, sliced
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 1/4 cups pearl or Arborio rice
2 quarts chicken broth, warmed and sitting on a burner on low
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups peas, either fresh or defrosted frozen
1 cup zucchini
1 cup sliced mushrooms
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan

Heat all of the olive oil in a large pan (I used a Le Creuset casserole) over medium heat.  Add the salumi, onion and celery.  Sauté for approximately five minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for another minute.

Add the rice and stir until it is coated with the oil and toasty, which should occur within two minutes.  Add a pinch of salt and taste--the broth will add lots of salt later, so be sparing with the added salt.

Add the bay leaves and enough broth just to cover the rice.  Stir frequently, until broth is absorbed.  Add the mushrooms.  Keep adding broth by cupfuls as the previous addition evaporates, stirring constantly to ensure that the rice is not sticking to the pot.

While the rice is cooking, warm a large skillet and add two tablespoons of butter.  Add the zucchini and peas and sauté for approximately three minutes, until the zucchini is lightly browned.  When the vegetables are cooked, remove them from the heat and set aside. 

When the rice cannot absorb further rice, stop adding broth and add the zucchini-pea mixture.  Remove the risotto from the heat and stir in the last two tablespoons of butter and the cheese.  Stir until combined--the mixture will be a bit stiff, but this will make the risotto creamy.

Makes six to eight main-course servings.  David said this was "the best risotto" he'd ever had, but then he's biased.  We served the risotto with collard greens sautéed in olive oil and tossed with balsamic vinegar.

Wine pairing:  I recommend a full-bodied Italian white.  We had timorasso, which we bought in Pollenzo during our vacation this past spring.  Alternatively, pinot grigio or arneis would be delicious.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Looks like....Bittersweet Chocolate and Sea Salt Shortbread

My mind is in the gutter. 

David and I were invited to a BBQ on Saturday afternoon.  We awoke to a typical gray day with sprinkling rain and sighed.  Or rather, I sighed and headed for the kitchen to think up something to take to the BBQ.  I found the recipe, put the butter out to soften (but not ooze, see here for the dangers of that) and figured that chocolate would make even the most water-logged Alaskans feel better.

Now, I'm not a chocolate person, but if I'm going to have it I want it to be bittersweet and tempered with either heat or salt.  These cookies call for deep, dark chocolate mixed with sea salt--an irresistible combination.

After everything is combined, you'll roll each half of the dough out into a long cylinder.  Here's where the mind in the gutter comes in:
Yes, I am baking in my bathrobe.  And you don't?
I called David in and asked what he thought the dough looked like.  He thought an oosik, and brought out his walrus oosik (they sell them in lots of Alaska Native craft stores) to make a point:
Hmm.  Point well taken.
I thought it looked more like--ahem--something that I won't be photographing anytime soon.  Draw your own conclusions, as I don't want to put you off your food.

This recipe makes about fifty small cookies, enough for a crowd.  They practically beg for a cup of coffee or strong tea.  And wouldn't you know it, by dessert time at the BBQ the sun came out.  I believe there was cheering.

Chocolate and Sea Salt Shortbread Cookies
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

1 3/4 cups plus 1 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 tbsp. baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, 60-70% cacao, chopped into small pieces
1 egg
1 tsp. good-quality vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. sea salt (my favorite is this one)

With either a hand or a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar for two minutes on medium speed, until pale and creamy.  Sift together the cocoa, baking powder and flour and add to the butter/sugar mixture in three batches with the mixer on low speed.

Add the chopped chocolate, vanilla and sea salt and mix until just combined.  At this stage, the dough looks a little like Coco Pebbles--don't worry.  Add in the egg and mix until just combined. 

Lightly flour a work surface.  Take half the dough and roll out into a long, even cylinder approximately one inch in diameter.  Repeat with the other half of the dough and wrap each separately in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate the rolls for at least an hour, or until very firm.

While the dough is refrigerating, line two baking sheets with parchment.  When the dough is almost ready, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

After the dough is fully refrigerated, remove each roll from its plastic.  The dough is stiff and prone to crumbling, so use a large sharp knife for cutting into rounds.  Cut each roll into rounds approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Place the rounds on the baking sheets, keeping about one inch of space between them.  Bake for 15 or 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets from front to back midway through.  When done, the cookies will be cooked through but still soft. 

Cool the cookies on wire racks;  they will firm as they cool.

Makes approximately fifty cookies.  They store well overnight in an airtight container.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Italian Wedding Soup: Minestra Maritata

So why exactly is it called Italian Wedding Soup? 

If you have the sort of mind like mine, where you have to know these sorts of things, it's because the ingredients go so well together that they are said to be married, or maritata.  I love the idea of a traditional soup eaten at Italian weddings, but sadly that's a no-go.  Too bad:  I had a wonderful image of a raucous Italian wedding party, sitting on a hillside near a vineyard, doling out ladlefuls of this soup.  Sigh.

As the weather gets rainier and we slide toward fall, my thoughts turn naturally toward steamy, chunky bowls of soup.  What--yours don't?  This soup has the added advantage of being chock-full of vegetables and reasonably healthy.  Even my toughest critic, Ingrid, seated herself at the table in anticipation.

No, she doesn't get to eat people food, but she thinks she should.
Another advantage of this soup is that it goes together fast, making it perfect for a weeknight.  It was also a great excuse to use two of my favorite ingredients, fresh Italian chicken sausage and pepperoncini peppers.

Minestra Maritata
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine
1 bunch Swiss chard
1/2 head Napa cabbage
2 celery stalks
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 bay leaf
1/4 tsp. dried red chile flakes, or 1 small red pepperoncino pepper
1 lb. fresh chicken sausage, chopped into small chunks
6 plus cups of low-sodium chicken broth
Optional:  good-quality parmesan for grating

Start a large pot of water boiling with a pinch of salt.  I recommend using a stockpot or other heavy-bottomed pot.

Slice the stems away from the leaves of the Swiss chard.  Roughly chop both the leaves and the stems, but keep them in separate piles because they have different cooking times.

Roughly chop the Napa cabbage into small chunks and set aside.  Dice the two stalks of celery.

Once the water is boiling, add the chard stems and cook for 5-6 minutes, or until firm but not tough.  Remove the stems with a wire strainer or a slotted spoon, drain and set aside.  Then add the chard leaves, and cook for a scant 3 minutes until just wilted.  Lift those from the water with the same strainer, drain and set aside.  Finally, add the cabbage and cook for 3 minutes.  Likewise, lift the cabbage out of the water, drain and set aside.  The cooked vegetables are combined from this time forward, so you can have them all together.

Drain the pot and give it a rinse.  Put it back on medium heat and add all of the olive oil.  When the oil is warmed, add the celery, garlic, bay leaf and red pepper.  Stir occasionally until the garlic is just golden and starting to soften.

Add the chunks of sausage and stir until browned and they renders their fat.  Then add the greens and 4 cups of chicken broth to start.  If your soup, like mine, looks like more stew than soup and you want a brothier mix, add stock to the desired consistency.  Taste the soup to see what it needs:  I added a sprinkle of fresh-ground black pepper.

Cook for 5 minutes and remove from heat.  This is especially good if served in warm bowls with a sprinkling of good parmesan melted over it.

Serves 4-6 as a main course;  up to 8 as a first course or appetizer. 

Recommended side:  Sauteed zucchini with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper.  I also made "croutons" with chunks of two-day old, toasted baguette.

Suggested wine pairing:  Rosé, gewurtztraminer, or bone-dry riesling.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Kale and Cannellini Beans, Two Ways: A Love Story

It's August in Anchorage, which means one thing:  rain, rain, and well, more rain.

The rain took a very brief hiatus on Sunday, just long enough for me to do the half-marathon with my training partner, Paul.  We had a personal best time, the sun was shining and everyone felt a little bit better about living in Alaska in August.  Until yesterday, that is, when the clouds and rain moved back in.

On the plus side, there's nothing like an Alaskan August to get you thinking about fall foods, including serious dark leafy greens.  I've already posted photos of the kale and white bean bruschetta from last Friday, but the classic Italian combination of cannellini beans and Tuscan kale is also fantastic as a side dish.  I even made a sandwich with a piece of fresh baguette from my favorite artisanal baker, leftover salsa verde (recipe here) and some fantastic parmesan.  It sounds strange, but trust me, it was crunchy, chewy and somehow soul-satsifying.

Basically, this is a dish that can turn into a soup, a side dish and an appetizer.  If you used canned white beans, you can skip the first step.

Tuscan Kale and Cannellini Beans
Adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2010

1.5 cups dried cannellini beans, rinsed and picked over
1 cup chopped yellow onion
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 dried bay leaf
1 tsp. salt
4 cups Tuscan kale, stems removed
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
4 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Red pepper to taste

Put beans in a large pot and cover them with cold water, bringing the water to at least three inches over the beans.  Bring the pot to a boil and let it boil briefly, about a minute.  Remove the pot from the heat, put a lid on it and let the contents sit for an hour.  Then, drain the beans, return them to the pot and add an additional eight cups of water, along with the onion, garlic and bay leaf.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer until the beans are tender but not mushy.  This should take approximately an hour to an hour and a half. 

While the beans are cooking, destem and roughly chop the kale.  When the beans are ready, add salt and kale and cook for an additional four minutes.

Drain the pot and transfer the beans and kale to a large serving dish, and the boiling liquid can be kept if desired to add to stock.  Add the oil, lemon juice and red pepper--I used tiny dried Italian peppers labeled peporoncini, and I would start with one and add another if I wanted more spice.  Gently combine the ingredients and add additional salt if necessary.

Serves up to 12 as a side dish, but I recommend setting aside some for the bruschetta:

White Bean Bruschetta with Kale
Adapted from Bon Appetit, November 2010

1/2 good-quality baguette, cut into 1/2 thick slices
1 garlic clove, halved
Extra-virgin olive oil
1.5 cups of the kale and cannellini mixture from the above recipe

Cut the baguette--I prefer diagonal slices, which also has the advantage of leaving the ends to snack on while cooking.  Rub the bread slices with the cut side of one of the garlic clove halves.  Brush the bread with the olive oil and toast under the broiler until just golden.

Top with the kale and cannellini mixture and serve.  Makes twelve appetizers.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

In the Kitchen with David: Pasta with Sardines and Currants

My husband wooed me with cooking.  He insisted on cooking for me on most of our first dates, after which I gained about ten pounds (OK, that and an incipient thyroid condition caused the weight gain, to be fair). 

Even though I shoo him out of the kitchen most nights, David is a great cook.  So last night, after working for a full day, standing in three separate lines for an hour to pick up my bib for tomorrow's half-marathon and running errands on the way home, I was more than happy to not cook. 

One of David's great skills is making homemade pasta.  We have an old-fashioned, hand-cranked pasta maker, the backs of our dining-room chairs serve as drying racks and the flour goes everywhere.  This isn't a tidy process, mind you, but I'm not complaining.

An action shot of David cranking the pasta (yes, deliberately blurry--he was working that machine).
In keeping with the Italian food in our house of late, David made a Sicilian-style pasta with chunks of sardine, currants and fennel.  We also had bruschetta topped with a sauté of kale, white beans, lemon juice, sweet Washington onions and olive oil:

But the pasta is the main story:  savory, sweet and salty--a perfect combination for a rainy Friday night and not a bad start for carb-loading for tomorrow's race.  You don't have to make your own pasta, but it sure doesn't hurt. 

I was initially skeptical about the big chunks of sardines--but this pasta was wicked good.
 David's Pasta with Sardines and Currants
Adapted from

1 large fennel bulb, with fronds and stalks removed (reserve fronds for garnish)
1/8 tsp. crumbled saffron
1/2 cup dried currants
1/2 cup dry white or rosé wine (David used rosé;  any dry white or pink wine will work)
1 medium onion
1 tbsp. fennel seeds, crushed
3/8 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small cans sardines in olive oil, drained and rinsed
1 pound fresh pasta or good-quality dried fettuccine

Combine the currants, wine and saffron in a small bowl.  Let sit for half an hour before starting the sauce.

Roughly chop the onion and fennel, then combine.  Warm a large saute pan on low heat and add all the olive oil.  When the oil is warm, add the onion, fennel and fennel seeds and saute until golden, stirring occasionally and keeping the heat low.  The low heat means the sauce will take longer to cook (about 30-45 minutes), but will deepen the flavors. 

While the sauce is cooking, start a six- to eight-quart pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.  When the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and cook until al dente--cooking time will obviously depend on whether you are using fresh or dried pasta. 

After you put the pasta in, add the currant mixture and the sardines to the sauce.  Stir to combine, and break up the sardines into small chunks with a wooden spoon.

Drain the pasta, and immediately toss with the sauce.  Makes four main-course servings, and would comfortably serve six as a pasta course primo piatto.

Wine Pairing:  We had an aged sparkling wine from California, but the perfect pairing would be a bone-dry Spanish or Italian rosé or a full-bodied Italian white such as Arneis.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Revenge of the Croccante

Clearly the croccante from Sunday's post noticed my frustration, and they get the final word.

After the previously-described Sunday morning misadventure making the croccante, I gathered up the remaining scraps of dough.  Too frustrated to roll them out and make a final batch, I pressed the scraps into a six-inch square approximately 1/8 inch thick, wrapped it in plastic and literally threw it in the fridge.  No rolling it out, no special treatment--nada.  Or niente, if I want to be Italian about it.

Flash forward to Wednesday night, when I open the fridge and give the square of dough the evil eye.  Do I want to throw it out or give it a second chance?  I tossed it on the counter, cut it into rough 1 inch by 2 inch rectangles with a pasta cutter and put the rectangles on a sheet of parchment on a baking sheet.  I baked for less than 12 minutes--way shorter than the previous time--at 400 degrees.  The cookies emerged smelling beautifully of caramel, vanilla and almonds. 

These croccante were not trouble, except for the waistline.  I brought them to work this morning and when I went to take a picture a few minutes ago, only a pile of crumbs remained.

Apparently the dough wants lots of cooling time in the fridge, enough to not ooze over the kitchen counter or get all delicate at the sight of the rolling pin.  The A16 recipe calls for an hour in the fridge--I'd say it should be at least two.  Or, if all else fails, three days--worked for me!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beet It

I have a love-hate relationship with beets.  When I was four and would only eat hamburgers on a vacation (ketchup and pickles only, please, don't even consider putting mustard or onions on them), the other thing I was guaranteed to eat were beets.  As in canned beats.  As in the overly-brilliantly-colored, salad-bar staple.  Several decades older, I shudder at the thought.

I became a much more adventurous eater when I moved to New Orleans at 17, but never contemplated eating a beet again until five years ago, when the ubiquitous roasted beet and goat cheese salad began appearing on restaurant menus, well, everywhere.  After a few less-than-inspired versions, I wrote beets off again.

And then they arrived in last week's CSA box, with their plumy greens and garnet color.  The color is so vibrant that I can't even come up with the right words to describe it.  I decided gave them another chance.  This salad tempers the sweetness of the roasted beets with crunchy, bright fennel and a simple olive tapenade vinaigrette.

Roasted Beet Salad with Fennel and Olive Tapenade
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

1 bunch medium red beets (about 3-4 good-sized beets)
Kosher salt
Up to 1/2 cup good olive oil
1 fennel bulb, trimmed of the stalks and fronds
1/3 cup pitted black olives
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Shaved ricotta salata or parmesan cheese, for serving

Wash the beets with their greens, and remove the top and stem of the beets.  Keep the greens--they can be used in another recipe that I will post separately.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place the beets in a small roasting pan, drizzle with olive oil and a generous sprinkling of salt.  Cover and roast until the beets are tender when poked with a knife, about an hour.  Then remove from the oven and left them cool enough to be picked up and peeled, either with fingers or a paring knife.  Slice the skinned beets into small wedges and set aside.

To prepare the fennel, cut the bulb in half lengthwise and remove the tough core.  Slice each half into 1/4 inch pieces and bring a small pot of salted water to boil.  Submerge the fennel in the water briefly (less than two minutes), drain and immediately rinse with very cold water to stop the cooking process.

Then, make the olive vinaigrette.  Put the olives in a small food processor and chop until they are in small pieces.  Add the vinegar and then add in the olive oil by tablespoons, until the mixture comes together--the whole process should take less than a minute.  Add extra vinegar or a little salt to taste.  This could also be made by hand or in a mortar and pestle--fine chopping is not required.

In a small bowl, mix the fennel with the lemon juice and a pinch of salt and drizzle in another tablespoon of olive oil.  Toss the mixture until the fennel is coated and taste.  Add extra lemon juice or another bit of salt to taste.

In another bowl, combine the olive vinaigrette and the beets.  Toss to combine.

This looks better on a platter than on individual plates--place the fennel mixture on the bottom, then top with  the roasted beets.  Shave the cheese over the top.  I used ricotta salata, which is mild-tasting, but parmesan or pecorino would work too.

Serves 4 as a first course or two with leftovers.  The salad holds up well in the refrigerator for a couple of days, although assume any cheese left on it will immediately be colored purple from the beets.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

We've Got Trouble, My Friend

Yup, trouble right here,
Right here, in Anchorage,
Trouble with a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for "put the damn butter away if you're not going to use it right now."

But I digress.

That's my homage to "The Music Man," a musical I've never particularly liked despite an upbringing in theatre.  Due to an odd set of circumstances, I had Thursday and Friday off this week.  I had Grand Plans--a "to do" list ten items long that I thought I could work my way through on Thursday despite four appointments and working at home.  I thought surely, surely I could make the Croccante--almond and butter cookies--from A16 in my vast free time despite the four appointments, the to-do list and making dinner for six people and taking it to my friend Paul's that night.

I optimistically set out the 8 ounces of butter early in the afternoon.  Then life intervened.

Flash forward to Sunday morning, when I finally have time to make cookies.  The butter was so soft it was practically oozing off the counter, but I combined and stirred and let the dough firm the right amount of time in the refrigerator.  I optimistically then attempted to roll the dough out, only to have it stick to the marble rolling pin, the counter and then dissolve in a big buttery puddle on the counter.

It wasn't pretty, but I managed to cut and bake the cookies.  They took way longer to bake but through a miracle of baking, came out all buttery and almond-y.  Don't follow my example--take your butter out an hour or two before.

Adapted from A16 Food + Wine

8 ounces butter (2 sticks), at room temperature but not melting off the counter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups sliced almonds

Beat the sugar with the butter until creamy, either with a hand mixer or a stand mixer with a paddle attachment.  Add the egg and vanilla and beat to merely combine.  Mix in the flour and salt on low speed, then add the almonds.  Be careful not to overmix.  Then dump the mixture onto a large piece of plastic wrap and press into a square, approximately 1/4 inch thick.  Refrigerate for an hour, and make sure the dough is nice and firm.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter two baking sheets and then make sure the dough is the 1/4 inch thickness--roll out if necessary.  Cut into 1 inch by 2 inch rectangles, then space approximately one inch apart on the cookie sheets.  Bake about 12 minutes or until lightly golden, then cool on wire racks.

One of the great things about Italian desserts is that they are small and not too sweet--this is a great example.  Serve with fresh fruit.  Makes about 30 cookies.

Monday, August 8, 2011

You Call THIS August?

Alaskan Augusts are kind of unfortunate.  Sunny, high-60s days give way to rainy, damp, gray days.  On the plus side, it's now dark enough to easily get to sleep at night.  On the minus, you become all too aware of the fast slide into autumn, which--if we're lucky--is all of about two weeks in late September or early October.

I don't know about you, but this kind of weather makes me think about soup.  Hearty, hot, soulful food that I think of as fueling another day of work or marathon training.  It was in this frame of mind that I came across A16's Borlotti Bean and Mussel Zuppa with Zucchini and Grilled Bread.  This recipe is great enough to stand up to modifications:  small clams instead of mussels, dried cannellini beans for the borlottis.  If A16's version is better than the modified one, I don't want to hear it.

The recipe is a cinch, as long as you soak the beans the night before.

Alaskan-ized Zuppa with Clams and Zucchini
Adapted from A16 Food + Wine
Four main course servings

1 cup dried cannellini beans, picked over and soaked overnight
1.5 lbs. small clams in their shells
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 small zucchini, diced
1/4 tsp. dried red chile flakes
12 slices baguette, cut 1/2 inch thick
2 tbsp. chopped basil
olive oil
kosher salt
fresh pepper

Drain the cannellini beans and rinse.  Start a fire in the grill for the bread, or preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  In a large, heavy pot, warm two tablespoons of olive oil on low heat.  Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about three minutes.  The garlic should color but not scorch.  Increase the heat to medium and stir in the zucchini.  Sautee for about five minutes, until the zucchini colors.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil, the chile flakes and the clams.  Cover the pot and cook on medium until the clams open.  Skim the clams out, making sure not to lose any of the liquid.  Remove the clamshells, then return the clams and any liquid to the cooking pot.  Add the beans, season with salt and pepper to taste and simmer on low for five minutes.

Put the bread right on the grill or, if using the oven, on a cookie sheet.  I recommend brushing both sides with olive oil and sprinkling with salt and pepper.  Cook until at least golden;  don't be afraid to let the bread get grill marks--it gives it a fabulously smoky flavor.

When the bread is ready, remove the soup from the heat.  Sprinkle the bowls with the basil and serve.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Dancing About Architecture

Confession:  I am a voracious reader.  High literature, the occasional chick lit, lots of magazines, sometimes genre fiction.  One of the best indicators of whether I'll like a book is whether it has a definite sense of time and place.

Whenever I get ready to travel, I read lots of books set in the place I'm going.  For this past trip to Italy, I bought novels set all over Italy--so many that I'm still reading them.  I just finished two books set in Italy, one a big snooze and the other a slight but lovely read. 

There's a quote:  "Talking about love is like dancing about architecture," a variant of which is apparently "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."  No one knows who said this originally--maybe Elvis Costello?--but the gist  is that capturing the essence of something wonderful is near-impossible.

The first book I read, Nocturnes:  Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by the terrific writer Kazuo Ishiguro, has two stories set in Italy.  They happen to be the two best stories, both about musicians and their unorthodox mentors, that capture the canals, the piazzas, the langorous mood.  It isn't his best work--that's either Never Let Me Go or The Remains of the Day--but it's well worth reading.

By contrast, Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon, made me want to hit my head against the wall.  Two former lovers meet again forty years later in Rome, walk and talk and worry over what went wrong all those years ago.  Every chapter set in the present takes place in a different, evocative location in Rome, but the book doesn't give any sense of what those places are like.  Never have I wanted to yell "Shut up, already!" to two characters more.  I'm not sure I've ever seen this plotline done really well in a book, but Before Sunset did much the same for Paris, and it's a pretty perfect movie.

David keeps saying that he is ready to go on vacation again.  We just returned from Italy two months ago, and until we can actually go back I'll keep dreaming...and cooking...and reading.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Misty Water-Colored Memories

I have the best memories of the risi e bisi I made in law school out of an old Food & Wine magazine.  Cue "Evergreen," a/k/a, the theme to The Way We Were, starring Barbra Streisand, an actress/singer I've never understood.  Risi e bisi is a classic Italian recipe, basically risotto with peas.  David makes risotto with a pressure cooker and, don't get me wrong, it's great, but it's not really Italian grandmother-y.  I love the standing and standing for forty minutes to get the risotto creamy and just perfectly al dente.

Risi e bisi is Italian comfort food, and with a pound and a half of fresh English peas sitting in my fridge and pouring rain outside (welcome, Alaskan August!), it seemed like the perfect time to break out the recipe from Italian Cooking at Home.  The flaw in the CIA's recipe, though, is that instead of stirring in small amounts of warm stock at a time, the recipe calls for you to dump a large amount of stock in at the beginning.  The poor rice never had a chance, and became ever so slightly soggy.  Unfortunately, the circa 1997 recipe from Food & Wine doesn't seem to be online, so here's the revised CIA recipe:

Risi e bisi
Adapted from Italian Cooking at Home

2 quarts chicken stock, homemade or otherwise
2/3 cup chopped yellow onion
2 1/4 cups arborio or long-grain white pearl rice
2 cups peas, shelled, preferably fresh
6 tbsp. dry white wine
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese
chopped fresh parsley to garnish

Boil the chicken broth and keep it warm.  In a large pot, warm the oil over low heat and add onion.  Saute the onion over low heat without letting it brown, then add the rice, constantly stirring, until the grains become opalescent.  Watch out for burning.  Stir in the wine all at once and add the first dose of broth, about a cup.  Stir until the liquid is almost absorbed, then add by ladlefuls until the rice is just al dente.  You may have a bit of extra liquid.  The cooking should take about 20-25 minutes, but test the rice.  If it is too hard, add more broth and cook longer.  Whatever you do, don't let the rice get soggy!  There will be a little bit of brothy-ness to the dish.

When the rice is the desired consistency, pull from the heat and add the butter, cheese and parsley.  Season with freshly ground pepper and salt to taste.

Voila--classic Italian comfort food.  Serve with a dry, minerally white or rose.