Thursday, August 25, 2011

Risotto phobia

In something of a twist from my childhood, I made dinner for my family last night. My sister did the dishes and provided the other half of the comedy as I fashioned a risotto with yellow squash and some simple crostini with fresh basil and a salad. Risotto was something that we ate growing up, but not often. Because of this, I always had a misconception that it was a difficult dish to make. My mother, who can cook anything on this earth, didn’t make it more then every few months, and my grandmother, who can cook any dish in all of southern Italy, the same. Since these superheroes of the family dinner weren’t making risotto, I had always assumed it was not for novice home cooks like me to even try.
Now, in Liguria, we eat quite a bit of risotto, about once a week or so. Manuel’s grandmother even gets creative in seasonal ingredients, making us Google a recipe for a pumpkin risotto this winter after being gifted with the perplexing variety of squash. After we presented her with a few recipes she waved us away and said she would just do it on her own. Of course, it was delicious, since I’m assuming she has been making risotto for most of her 79 years. Watching Manuel and his family eat risotto by flattening it out into the bowl, each grain of the Arborio rice patted down, then eating from the outside in, similar to how Americans eat mashed potatoes with a gravy well, I knew that this consumption tradition spelled disaster for me. I wanted to try to make risotto desperately, but knowing what I know about food habits and what it says about the anthropology and the practice of eating the dish, I could see that this had a special place in the hearts of Italians. A good risotto would be the ONLY risotto consumed.
The risotto fear was at its height when, at the local market, a moment of sheer madness gripped me and I pulled a box of Arborio rice down from the shelf. I would make risotto while Manuel was at work, and then, if it came out badly, I could throw it out and say I didn’t start making lunch yet when he got home. I would be saved!
Now, I’ve never been one for following recipes, so after reading a few I figured I had the basics down and got to work. My plans were foiled when Manuel came home early, poking around the kitchen, peering into the pot and smiling. “I haven’t had rice for so long!” he exclaimed happily. After a few tastes, he sat down and ate 2 bowls full. I warned him if I made it wrong, he needed to tell me or else he would spend the rest of his life eating overcooked, glue-y risotto, but he assured me it was, really, delicious. Slightly overcooked, but that was pretty much his fault since he was the official risotto taster. Victory was mine!
Risotto, I have now learned, is not a difficult thing to make – it just requires that you pay attention. You have to stay active for about 30 minutes, which can be too much for some people, such as a supermom who has just sprinted home from work to have a hot dinner for four on the table, still wearing her suit and heels. Like many Italian dishes, it is not overly complex and dependent on 75 different spices or ingredients, it just needs some time. Even concerning desserts, another area that I always despised (though now I know it stems from my inability to follow directions). After making the dinner for my parents last night, I made a summer fruit crostata for my friends for a rainy picnic today. Though at this moment I’m in New Jersey, it’s not hard to bring a little bit of Italian seasonal cooking and some of my sunny life in Liguria to this earthquake and hurricane ridden stretch of the U.S.

Risotto with Zucchini/Yellow Squash
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tbsp olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 large zucchini or yellow squash, diced
2 cups Arborio rice
Salt and pepper
¾ cup Parmesan cheese (or more to taste)
¼ stick of butter
Handful of parsley, chopped
Bring the broth to a low simmer in a large saucepan on a back burner. In a large stockpot on the front burner, sauté the onion and garlic in oil until translucent, then add the zucchini. Cook until soft. Add the rice and cook lightly, stirring constantly, until the rice is translucent. Add a ladle-full of the simmering broth and stir in until all the liquid is absorbed into the rice. Continue adding the broth slowly in this manner and stirring until the rice is al dente (you should have used almost or all of the broth). Turn off the heat and stir in the cheese and butter. Season with salt and pepper and parsley. The risotto should be creamy but not glue-y and still a little firm.
Serves 4.
Note: when making this for Manuel I used zucchini that had the flowers still attached, which is common in Italy. Along with stirring in parsley, I also added the flowers, with the stems removed and thinly sliced.

Summer Fruit Crostata
The crostata is, literally, one of the easiest desserts to make, requiring little from the pantry, and can be adapted to whatever ingredients you have on hand. Apple in the autumn, berry – even Nutella and, well, anything, since I am of the opinion that Nutella is the best substance in the world.
1-cup flour
3 tbsp. sugar
Pinch of salt
1 stick butter, very cold and diced
3 tbsp ice water
2 ripe peaches, sliced
2 plums, sliced
Pinch of flour
1 tbsp sugar
Juice of ¼ lemon
In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar and salt and pulse a few times to mix. Add in the butter and pulse 10-15 times until the dough forms little balls the size of peas. Add the ice-cold water and mix until the dough forms itself into a big ball. Remove from the food processor, form into a mound and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 450 F.
Mix the sliced fruit with the flour, sugar and lemon in a separate bowl.
Once the dough is properly chilled, roll out on a floured board until it forms about a 12” circle and is reasonably thin (but not too thin). Fill the center with the fruit, and then fold the edges around like a little package. It’s ok if it looks crooked; it’s supposed to be “rustic”.
Bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes until the edges are golden brown.
Serves 8.

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