Risotto, ripasso and the triumph of good over evil

Fun things to do over Memorial Day weekend in Holland:

1. Walk through the neighborhood counting rose-bushes...

2. Have an impromptu dinner party with the FranKats...

3. Make pumpkin-parsley risotto...

4. Sample a flight of Valpolicella (starting with the 2008 Ripasso)...

5. Thoroughly enjoy the aforementioned risotto...

6. Stake out the kitchen to see who sneaks in to lick the pot...

7. Take cool pics of your friends making coffee...

8. Enjoy said coffee in the silliest cup you can find...

9. Watch good triumph over evil...

10. Hug your friends a lot and count your blessings.

Things not to do:

1. Paint your house the wrong color...

With regard to the latter, if you choose to ignore this sage advice and do it anyway, it helps to have an extremely good sense of humor and considerate friends who bring you apple flaps.

As for the rest, these things have my highest recommendation, with honors.

Risotto con Zucca (Pumpkin Risotto)
adapted from Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes by Anna Del Conte
Serves 4

3 tablespoons (50g) butter or 1/2 cup olive oil
1-4 shallots (or 1 onion), chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 small bunch Italian (flat) parsley, chopped
1-1/2 cups pumpkin, cubed (500g/1lb)
2 cups risotto rice (300g)
1 cup vino bianco (white wine)
5-6 cups (1.5L) vegetable broth
freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup grated parmesan, to serve

In a medium saucepan, heat the vegetable broth.

In a separate, heavy-bottomed saucepan, start by making your soffritto. This is the base for every good risotto. [Note to the Italian boys, there is an actual translation for soffritto - it means "underfried".]  Heat the butter or olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the shallots (or onion) and the sea salt - this will help onion soften the onion without browning to keep the flavor delicate. Add the sugar and cook for 3-5 mins. Add the garlic and half the parsley and cook another 3-4 mins, stirring frequently.

Next, add the pumpkin and cook until fork-tender. This could take anywhere form 5-20 minutes, depending on the pumpkin. If it starts to stick, add a few spoons of stock to keep everything loose.

When you can cut through the pumpkin with the side of your wooden spoon, add the rice and saute for 1-2 minutes until the rice is well coated and slightly toasted.

When the rice is slightly translucent or spotted turn up the heat to high and stir for about 30 seconds to keep it from burning before adding the white wine - it should make that great sizzling sound and begin to evaporate immediately.

Then turn the heat back to medium and continue cooking (and stirring) until the wine has evaporated. Add enough stock to cover the rice completely and continue to cook, stirring often, until all the liquid is absorbed.

Add one cup at a time of the remaining stock, and keep stirring until it is absorbed again. It is this act of constant stirring that gives risotto its creamy texture. It is also one of the things that makes risotto such a great group activity, as it permits plenty of time to drink and gossip. Master this and you, too, can be a bona-fide Risotto Queen.

Repeat until the rice is al dente, tender but still very chewy. The consistency should be slightly liquid, somewhere between solid and soupy. Then season with a bit of pepper and check the salt.

Mix in half the parmesan and let sit for one minute (not much longer) to blend.

Spoon it into shallow bowls, sprinkle with remaining parsley and grated parmesan and enjoy immediately.

Note: If this isn't decadent enough for you, the original recipe calls for 150ml (about 1/8 pint) of heavy cream and a knob of butter to be mixed in with the parmesan just before serving. It was perfectly lovely (and light) without these, but feel free to indulge if you've done something extra good to deserve it.


All in good time

I've been extremely antsy lately.

Last night I jumped on my bike and just started riding. I didn't know where I was going, but I was going to get there really fast.

I got lost. Well, as lost as one can get in Utrecht.

Actually, I knew where I was at all times: On the corner where the little calf jumps around the yard like a puppy. Past the house where the wild boar forages around the dandelion patch. Near that beautiful pair of horses who are always cast in the most perfect tree-filtered light. In some scary ghetto near the train station, literally on the wrong side of the tracks...

Yes, I always knew exactly where I was - I just had no idea where that was relative to anything else. But I kept riding. And shouting at the sky.

I wanted to exhaust myself. To ride until my legs turned to jelly and simply refused to support me anymore. To force myself into submission. So I would have to stop and just. be. still. Whether I liked it or not.

I'm certainly not complaining - no one loves globetrotting more than I do. But I suppose the downside to making 40 international trips over the past year is that we haven't really settled down long enough to decide where we're going to live. In the meantime, I haven't the slightest idea what I should be doing with myself. Should I be trying to make friends here? Find a job? Get my residency permit? Ship the rest of my shoes? Or is that all pointless if we really are moving soon? And if so, where are we going...?

These are just a few of the hundreds of rhetorical questions that I've been asking my husband with increasing frequency and decreasing patience. Thankfully, he is extremely understanding and has not (yet) chucked me into the canal.

I know that my restlessness is pointless. That there is a natural order to all things, that some take longer than others, and that the best things in life are worth waiting for.

And whenever I need reminding of this, I make a risotto.

There are a few secrets to a good risotto, but none so important as time. Anna del Conte, one of my favorite Italian food writers, insists that "risotto requires a generous amount of butter (and usually cheese] to achieve its lovely, creamy consistency." However, in an attempt to reduce the amount of butter and cheese I've been consuming (particularly since moving to Europe), and I can personally attest to some of the loveliest, creamiest risotto dishes being made without an ounce of either.

If you want to make a proper risotto - I'm talking about a truly transcendent bowl of warm, gooey deliciousness - you need to get comfortable in front of your stovetop. Contrary to popular belief, it is neither butter nor cheese that gives risotto it's creamy texture - it's the gentle action of continuous stirring that loosens the starch from the rice grains and releases them into the cooking liquid.

I've not the slightest idea whether substituting butter and cheese for stirring time would work. To be honest, it never occurred to me to try. Risotto is one of my guilty pleasures. The enjoyment of this dish lies not only in its divine texture or its ingredients, but in its making.

How often do we allow ourselves one uninterrupted hour of time to stop and think, to chat with a friend, to enjoy a glass of wine before dinner and flirt with our spouses the way we used to when we were trying to hard to impress them...

For me, it is the culinary equivalent of meditation - only when you're done, there is a kick-ass dinner waiting for you as a reward.

This one in particular set off a string of spontaneous F-bombs in our kitchen.
And I mean that in the best possible way.

Sun-Dried Tomato-Basil Risotto with Balsamic Vinegar
adapted from my friend Karie's recipe (thanks girl, we owe you one!)
Serves 4

5 cups vegetable broth
2 small tomatoes, peeled and chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed
1-1/2 cups (250g) arborio rice
1 cup red wine
4-5 sun-dried tomatoes (about 3 oz), cut into bite size pieces
1-1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
salt & pepper to taste
20 fresh basil leaves, cut into thin strips (chiffonade)
2 oz goat cheese, crumbled (optional)

Pour the veggie broth into a saucepan and add the chopped tomatoes. Bring to simmer and reduce to warm, but don't take it off the heat. It's important that the cooking liquid is always hot to facilitate the starch release.

While that's happening, warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion with a teaspoon of salt - this will soften the onion and keep it from browning. Then add the garlic and saute until soft.

Next, add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until the rice is thoroughly coated and becomes translucent. Nicely toasted rice is another secret to great risotto.

Add in a cup of red wine (and pour one for yourself while you're at it) and stir until the liquid is absorbed. Then add a cup of the broth and tomatoes and stir. And stir. And sip. And stir some more.

When the broth has been absorbed, add another cup and keep stirring until the liquid has again been absorbed. Feel free to pour yourself another glass of wine. Call your mom. Make out with your husband. But whatever you do, keep stirring.

Continue adding the broth a cup at a time. When the rice starts to soften (test a couple of grains after 2-3 cups), stir in the sun-dried tomatoes then continue adding rest of the broth (a cup at a time) and stir-stir-stirring until the rice is al dente (tender but slightly firm in center).

When the rice is nice and creamy, stir in the last cup of broth along with the balsamic vinegar. When these have been mostly absorbed, remove from heat, add the chopped parsley and season with salt and pepper to taste. The traditional texture is all'onda (wavy). It should spread out easily, but not have a watery perimeter so be sure not to cook the liquid out completely.

Risotto should be served and eaten immediately or it will continue to cook itself in its own heat which will dry it out and make the grains too soft.

Spoon onto individual plates or bowls, garnish with the basil chiffonade (and a few crumbles of goat cheese if you like) and serve with the remaining red wine.


It's something you just have to feel

I love this video posted by Michelle at Bleeding Espresso featuring one of my favorite calciatori (footballers) and my grandfather's homeland. It actually gives me goosebumps - even though I can barley understand what he's saying...

I'm inexplicably overwhelmed with pride and nostalgia. Having never been there personally, I can't really explain why. I just am.

Makes me want to cook something rustic...

I've just returned from Italy where I spent 10 days improving my Italian (speaking and cooking) and my first experiment in deliciousness was Caponata, an Italian-ish version of ratatouille (the French Provençal stewed vegetable dish) and a nice twist on what basically amounts to sweet and sour vegetables.

There was something divinely earthy about making this provincial dish. In fact, the entire experience was a little otherworldly, from the walk to the market to select the vegetables to the clipping of fresh basil from the garden and perusing an old Italian cookbook while the most heavenly smells of garlic, onion and vinegar swirled in the crosswinds of the open kitchen door. Is it possible to be high on aromatics?

The sun was shining, the birds were signing, and the only language in the house was Italian. Heavenly, I tell you. Simply heavenly.

In Italy, a cookbook is regarded more as a collection of suggested guidelines rather than the explicit instructions I tend to follow to the letter. I like recipes. They provide a comforting sense of order to an otherwise chaotic world. And few things bum me out more than a botched meal.

But I am slowly learning how to color outside the lines and this particular dish is a perfect example of how imprecise cooking can be.

The original recipe was the traditional Sicilian version with celery and olives. We had neither, but decided that the bell peppers in the fridge would work nicely. It also called for half a glass of vinegar. What size glass? No clue. There were some pretty specific measurements given for some of the other ingredients, all in metric weights of course, but there was neither a scale nor a single measuring utensil anywhere in sight. Gadzooks.

I thought of all the times I have frustrated my husband to no end asking him to quantify the random ingredients he was throwing in a pot to clear out the fridge or the exact amount of time one should cook a pasta or risotto since one or two minutes on either side of perfect usually results in either too hard or too mushy. "I don't know, Amore," he says, trying not to sound completely exasperated, "until it's done. Don't try to measure it, it's something you just have to feel."

That's when it occurred to me that I wasn't here to learn how to follow Italian recipes. I was finally getting some insight into the elusive concept of kitchen intuition - that incredible gift of knowingness that allows some people to stumble into a kitchen and pull incredible gourmet feasts out of thin air. I'm a long way from that, but the leash that tethers me to my measuring cups is getting a little more slack.

I did my best to eyeball the quantities of everything that was going into the pot and to scribble down notes in between frantic bouts of chopping, stirring and quasi-measuring. But just to be sure, I cross-reference the quantities with my Italian cooking bible and I'll be damned - Mamma Eugenia was spot on. As always.

Caponata in Agrodolce
a mash-up from Le Ricette Regionali Italiane and The Silver Spoon
Serves 4-6

1-3/4 pounds (1kg) eggplant, diced or sliced in strips
1/2 cup (100g) olive oil
1 celery stalk chopped (apparently optional)
1 each red and yellow bell pepper, sliced in strips (our substitute for the celery)
1 onion, thinly sliced (we used two)
14oz (500g) ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced
1-1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup white wine vinegar (we used red, worked fine)
1 cup pitted olives (black or green)
3 tablespoons (50g) capers (we used a whole cup in lieu of the olives)
1 tablespoon each golden raisins and pine nuts (optional, but lovely)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Freshly torn basil leaves and grated parmesan, to garnish

Having never been much of an eggplant fan, I suspect it may be because I never knew how to prepare them properly. My diligent adherence to recipes sometimes fails when it calls for the extra effort of a seemingly extraneous step like "sweating" an eggplant. If you're using smaller eggplants you can probably get away with skipping this step (as confirmed by this major food publisher), however if you do opt for the larger ones or if you have time, I would definitely recommend it. I do it now regardless of the need. Partially because I just don't want to take any chances with my food, but mostly because I like to imagine my great-grandmother having done the same. What can I say, I'm a sucker for tradition.

So start by slicing the eggplant lengthwise and rubbing some salt into both sides of each piece. Place them vertically in a colander and let them stand. I prefer to leave them for an hour but 30 minutes should be enough. Rinse off the salt, pat them dry with paper towels and either dice them or cut them lengthwise in strips.

Heat 5 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet, add the eggplant and cook over medium heat until they are golden (dorata). Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in another skillet, add the celery (or bell peppers or both), onion, and tomatoes and cook over low heat for 10-15 minutes until nicely thickened and pulpy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. If you're pressed for time (or just don't want to wash an extra pot), you can also cook the eggplant together with the celery, onion and peppers as we did. Just wait until the veggies are cooked just enough to brighten their color before adding the tomatoes.

Next, stir in the sugar, vinegar, olives, capers (and if you're using them, throw in the pine nuts and raisins) and bring to a boil over low heat. Then add the eggplants and simmer for another 10 minutes.

Garnish with freshly torn basil leaves and a grating of parmesan. This also makes an excellent antipasto, served warm or cold.

Enjoy it with some crusty bread, a glass of wine. Yes, even if it's lunchtime.


Through the looking glass

I met the most incredible man today.

Gianmaria Ciferri was an amateur painter when he stepped onto the international art scene in 1969. Unlike so many promising new artists who are launched out of pre-pubescent obscurity, Ciferri was already 44 years old. And for the past 42 years he has enjoyed a brilliantly successful second career as a world-reknowned artist.

After having met him, the photo above looks to me like the Gianni Ciferri who held whatever position he had in whatever company he worked for, while the Signor Ciferri of today reflects my stereotypical vision of a classical artist: blue-striped ascot and blue walking coat with an intense set of piercing blue eyes that confer an otherworldly aura, not so unlike a cross between this self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh and Vincent Price.

I hope he wouldn't find that offensive. I mean it in the best possible way.

It was an amazing experience to just sit with a coffee at his dining table. To see his wife, Luciana, in a highly-stylized portrait that captures her beautifully, albeit esoterically. To be led through his home down the galleria, past countless pieces of priceless art scattered amongst everyday snapshots of their cats. To enter his small studio where the afternoon sun overexposed the white walls and organized chaos.

He has the most dignified air about him. The kind that seems to immediately identify a true artisan. Sophisticated. Cultured. Decisive. Knowing. Humbled by cataracts and an elegant walking-stick that belie a veritable force of nature.

In an instant I saw my life flash-forward to 2056, the year I would be his age.
I felt like I'd just stepped through the looking glass.

I worry sometimes that time is flying by too quickly, that all the fun I've been having has distracted me, and that my newfound appreciation for the role of a casalinga has dulled my ambition as a result. I should have been living in Italy for the past year by now. Fluent Italian diction should be rolling mellifluously off my tongue. I should have my personal administration in order, my taxes finished, my websites up and running, and my businesses fully-functional. At the very least, I should have the entirety of my belongings in one country - yet all that's managed to make it over the pond is 200 pounds worth of cookbooks and kitchen utensils.

In a futile attempt to regain control of my destiny I've been furiously running around like the White Rabbit: "I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I'm late! I'm late! I'm late!" Moving to Europe was supposed to force me to slow down, but I find myself scrambling more than ever.

My consciousness returned to the apocalyptic story Signor Ciferri was telling about his latest piece, an explosion of color featuring a pregnant woman, a child and a 7-headed dragon. Man, and I thought I was multi-tasking.

Then he showed us his other works: calm, serene, refined women who embody the same grace and elegance with which their creator carries himself. This, I decided, was a worthy aspiration.

There is something incredibly powerful, but also genuinely lovely, in moving slowly, deliberately, purposefully. Almost as lovely as the tortellini Luciana gave us to take home for dinner. Almost...

Luciana's Tortellini with Sage Butter Sauce
Serves 4

For the pasta:
3½ cups all-purpose flour
4 eggs, beaten

For the filling:
1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces pork loin, diced
2 ounces turkey breast, diced
4 ounces prosciutto, diced
4 ounces mortadella, diced
2 eggs
1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
Salt and freshly ground pepper

For the sage butter sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
a handful of fresh sage leaves, chopped

If you've never made homemade pasta before, have no fear. It's really not that difficult, but it's a bitch to roll out the old-fashioned way. I recommend using a pasta machine but to be honest, you can also use store-bought pasta dough.

If you decide to go for it, Luci's "best guest" as to quantities are listed above.

Mound the flour and make a well in the center. Then add the 4 beaten eggs and a pinch of salt. Using a fork, work the eggs into the flour until a dough forms. Form the mixture into a ball, and knead it for 10 minutes, adding more flour if necessary. Wrap it in plastic, and set aside for 30 minutes. If you need a visual aid you can find about a million online. Here's a pretty good one.

This recipe includes turkey breast in the filling, one of the few variations accepted by tortellini purists. The filling can also be made a day ahead, covered well and kept in the refrigerator.

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the butter. Add the pork loin and turkey breast, and sauté until cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Place the pork, turkey, prosciutto and mortadella in a food processor, and process until well-mixed but still slightly grainy. Place it all in a bowl, and add the 2 eggs, Parmigiano and a pinch of nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper to taste, mix well by hand, and set aside.

Using a pasta machine, roll out the dough until you reach the second-thinnest setting. Cut the pasta sheets into 1½-inch squares. Drop ½ teaspoon of the filling in the center of each square, brush the edges of the square with water, then fold opposite corners over to form a triangle. Press to seal the edges, then bring the opposite corners together, and pinch them to form the tortellini.

As you make them, arrange them on a floured surface so they don't stick together.

In a large pot, bring the stock to a boil. Season the stock with salt and pepper, add the tortellini and cook until done, about 2 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the sage. When it starts bubbling up, it's done.

Ladle the tortellini into soup bowls and sprinkle with Parmigiano-Reggiano. Finish by pouring some of the sage-butter on each serving.

It's a delicate dish, well suited to be enjoyed slowly, deliberately and purposefully...

Buon appetito!
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