10 April 2014

AUNTIE PASTA; Rice is Nice but Risotto is Better

CHIAVARI, Italy – After making last week’s recipe of artichoke and potatoes, I still had five artichokes left. So rather than let them go to waste, I decided to make artichoke risotto.
 Piazza Ducale, Vigevano, Italy
Since moving to Italy my fondness for rice has increased considerably. Growing up in America my rice recipes were, well to be truthful, bland. They consisted mainly of plain rice with some kind of meat and gravy, usually left overs, or just plain rice when the potatoes I planned to cook turned out to be past their prime. Once in a while I would add a chopped pepper along with a diced onion, some cooked ground beef and a can of tomatoes to boiled white rice to create that bit of American exotica known as Spanish Rice. But that was all B.I. Before Italy.

My first experience with real risotto happened one snappy fall day in Torino. Wandering the narrow streets near Via dei Mercanti, in Torino’s historic center, I stopped for lunch at a small trattoria. Most of the dishes on the small menu were written in local Torinese dialect, and knowing the Torinese fondness for animal innards, I chose the only thing I recognized on the menu – risotto.
 Rice Plant
It changed my life. That risotto was thick, creamy and fragrant with the rich aroma of Parmesan cheese and Porcini mushrooms. I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience and had floated off to culinary heaven.

The next day I headed straight for the grocery store to buy rice. I wanted to duplicate the creamy risotto I had eaten in Torino. I must have spent 20 minutes or more reading the labels on all the types of rice on offer, and finally settled on one of the many that said “ideal for risotto”  If I tell you my first attempt at risotto making was a success, I’d be lying. It wasn’t bad, but it lacked that creamy consistency of the Torino risotto.

A year or so later I moved to Milan for work and much to my surprise I discoverd the Lombards are rice eaters. They prefer it over pasta. It turns out rice has been the primary food crop in Lombardy for more than 500 years, thanks to Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan. After all the wars and famines and bouts of Bubonic plague, the Duke searched for a grain that could be easily grown in quantities large enough to feed the expanding population. He found what he was looking for – rice.

Leonardo da Vinci's Irrigation System Still Working in Italian Rice Paddys
After a wobbly start, rice production took off in the mid-1400’s when the Duke hired Leonardo da Vinci to design an irrigation system for the rice fields he had create in and around Vigevano, the town where the Duke was born. The Duke then applied the same system to all the other rice farms in his dukedom.

Today there are more than 4,500 rice farmers in northern Italy and Italy is Europe’s number one rice producer. More than half of the production comes from the rice fields near Vigevano, Pavia and Vercelli, all fields that are still irrigated by the same canal system designed by Leonardo da Vinci.

But to get back to the point of this week’s post, artichoke risotto, here’s the recipe I used. It’s from a cookbook called Risotto, a Taste of Milan, written by Constance Arkin and her husband Rosario Del Nero. I’m going to give you the recipe as it is in the book, but tell you that I made some small changes. I didn’t have any white wine so used broth, I didn’t have any green peppercorns either, I didn’t put the cut artichokes in lemon and water, just water and I used Pecorino Romano instead of Parmesan cheese. 

 Artichoke Risotto
  Artichoke Risotto

Approx. 6-8 cups chicken stock
4 artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
8 tablespoons (1 stick) real butter
1 medium white onion cut in small pieces (I think she means diced but not in tiny pieces)
2 cups raw rice
¾ cup Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine
12 crushed green peppercorns
¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of chicken stock to a boil on a burner at the back of the stove. Once it starts to bubble, lower the flame so it just simmers. Keep the stock hot while making the risotto, but not actively boiling.

Cut off and discard the top third and all spiny leaf tips, from each artichoke. Quarter the remaining portion, and carefully remove the entire bristly choke using a sharp knife. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into a small container of water, and put the artichokes in the water to keep them from turning brown. Cut each piece of artichoke into thickish slices (so they won’t be totally mushy) when the risotto is served. Put them back into the lemon water until you are ready to use them.

Melt six tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter in the risotto pot over a low flame. Add the onion and sauté until it loses all its color and becomes limp. Toss in the artichoke slices and give them a chance to bathe in the onion butter. Then add the rice and turn up the flame slightly, to give the rice a toasting This tostatura is one of the keys to a good risotto; it provokes a chemical change in the surface starch and ensures separate gains with a creamy consistency.

Pour in the Vernaccia (or broth) and let it steam away. Add a cupful of simmering chicken stock (or a ladle full), mix well, and wait for the rice to absorb it. Stir often. Then add a second cupful, stir and allow the rice to absorb that too. Repeat this procedure, stirring almost continuously, until the rice is almost tender, but a little firm. With the last cupful of broth, throw in the peppercorns and stir. This should take 25-30 minutes.

Then turn off the flame and add the last two tablespoons of butter and the grated cheese. Mix, cover for a minute or two and then serve immediately. You can offer more cheese at the table if you like.

My suggestions: Two cups of raw rice makes a lot of risotto, so you’ll need a big, fairly deep frying pan. I used one cup of rice and 5 artichokes, but they were the small, spiny artichokes the Ligurians prefer. And, you really do have to stand there and stir this the entire time, but it’s so worth it. Buon appetito.

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