L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani. (We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians).
~Massimo d’Azeglio

Unification (Risorgimento) was a 19th century political, and socio-cultural movement that aggregated a patchwork of unique states of the peninsula into a single kingdom of Italy. Although many scholars dispute the dates, it is likely that conservatively the process began with the downfall of Napoléon Bonaparte followed by the 1815 Congress of Vienna and ended in 1871 when the country’s capital moved from Florence to Rome…except for the Vatican which became an independent state inside the city. In between that half century, much happened throughout Italy. (I could not begin to discuss the entirety of the movement here.)

For centuries, the Italian peninsula was a politically, culturally and linguistically fragmented conglomeration of neighboring states. Local dialects and regional power conflicts abounded. Although Italy still remained splintered through the mid 19th century, the concept of a united country then really began to take root. With nationalist fervor ignited, pervasive arisings occurred in several cities, mostly advanced by adherents such as professionals and students and often directed at Austrian rule. Giuseppi Garibaldi, a native of Piedmont-Sardinia, also cobbled together the then southern peninsular states into the unification process. With French resources appropriated to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Napoléon III ordered his troops out of Italy. Then, the final thrust for unification was orchestrated by an adroit diplomat, Piedmont-Sardinia’s Prime Minister, Count Camillo di Cavour. Through many struggles — regions, nations, leaders, peoples, wars, revolts, skirmishes, and strifes — Italian risorgimento was finally achieved in 1871.

Italy celebrates the anniversary of risorgimento each semicentennial (every 50 years).

The risotto rendition below is a tad tardy for this farmers’ market season, but likely there still will be some heirloom tomatoes making their final curtain call. Certainly, though, the same recipe can be used during next year’s iteration (and afterwards) when fresh corn ears, ripe heirlooms and basil leaves together grace the stalls. Thanks, locals.

RISOTTO WITH CORN, TOMATOES & BASIL

2 medium to large, local sweet corn ears

8 C chicken stock, seasoned

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C yellow onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 lb heirloom tomatoes, cored, peeled, seeded and diced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/2 C dry white wine, e.g., sauvignon blanc
3-4 T unsalted butter, cut into tabs
Freshly grated Parmigiano-reggiano cheese

3 T fresh Italian basil, cut into chiffonade

Remove corn kernels from cobs and set aside the kernels in a bowl. Simmer the cobs in stock for 20 minutes. Remove from stock and discard. Bring back to a gentle simmer over low heat, with a ladle at hand.

Heat olive oil over medium heat in a wide, heavy skillet or Dutch oven until shimmering and not smoking. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and cook gently until tender, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and arborio rice and cook, stirring, until grains of rice separate and begin to slightly crackle, a minute or so. Stir in heirloom tomatoes, and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, until tomatoes have reduced slightly, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Add wine and stir until it has evaporated and has been absorbed by the arborio rice. Begin adding simmering stock, a couple of ladlefuls at a time. Stock should just cover the rice and should be simmering, not too slowly but not too aggressively. Cook, stirring often, until just nearly absorbed. Add another ladleful or two of the stock and continue to cook in this mode, adding more stock and stirring when rice appears to dry. You do not have to stir continually, but often and vigorously. After 10 minutes, add corn and continue for another 10 minutes. When the process is complete, the arborio rice will be just tender but al dente (chewy to the teeth), which is about in 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste, if necessary.

Add another partial ladleful of stock to the arborio rice. Stir in butter and parmiggino-reggiano for about a half minute and remove from heat. The admix should be creamy. Top with basil and serve somewhat promptly in shallow soup bowls with spoons.

Advertisements

Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.
~Bertrand Russell

Ancient Rome had an illustrious tradition of kinky emperors, some of whom just narcissistically railed out of control. Whimsy and revelry gone morbid.

Armed with a paranoid temperament, Caligula (37-41 AD) was widely reputed for his tyrranical cruelty, orgiastic extravagances and sexual perversities. Nero (54-68 AD), an early persecutor of Christians, was known for having captured worshippers burned in his garden at night for a source of light. Alleged to have calmly fiddled while Rome burned—a My Pet Goat moment—he also had his mother Agrippa summarily executed and stepbrother poisoned. Commodus (180-192 AD) who ruled with his father, Marcus Aurelius, held perverse sway over hundreds of concubines and terrorized Rome’s rich and famous with a murderous reign of death and torture. In the midst of his cruelties, Commodus would sing and dance, frolicking as the town buffoon on Rome’s streets. The notorious Caracalla (209-217 AD) ruthlessly murdered his brother and persecuted some 20,000 of his allies. Elagabalus (218-222 AD) married multiple times, even taking one of the sacred vestal virgins as one wife. He was rumored to have had homosexual liaisons with his courtiers and had his body hairs plucked to appear more feminine…even engaging in public crossdressing.

Enter on stage Silvio Berlusconi, the current prime minister. Facing trials on a number of scandals, his private life has become curiously linked with the phrase bunga bunga. The term is now so well embedded in the Italian language that “bunga bunga city” refers to Sig. Berlusconi’s world.

Hordes of linguists and journalists have puzzled over the origins of these words which emerged last year, when a teen Moroccan belly dancer said she had attended bunga bunga parties with other women at Sig. Berlusconi’s villa in Milano.

I openly confess to not knowing what bunga bunga means. But, Arab news sources have reported that that Berlusconi learned these harem rituals frοm hіѕ friend, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Some have suggested that the phrase comes from one of the prime minister’s favorite infantile African-connoted jokes. Other references to bunga include a masquerading hoax about the Abyssinian emperor inspecting the H.M.S. Dreadnought at the turn of the century which involved the author Virginia Woolf donning a full beard. Earlier this year in Spartacus fashion, Sabina Began, German actress and Berlusconi’s friend, even revealed to Sky Italia that she herself was bunga bunga: “Bunga Bunga is simply my nickname.”

I still do not know the definition, but have felt an urge to proclaim “I am Bunga Bunga!” It has a certain cinematic ring.

So, enough bunga bunga prattle. On to more serious fare, risotto—a marvel of the food world. There is a radiance to risotto. An elegant, yet soulful, sheen which almost causes you to bow at the waist.

RISOTTO con FUNGHI e VINO BIANCO

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
2-3 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 ozs proscuitto di parma or san daniele, diced finely
3/4 lb porcini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 1/2 C arborio rice
8 C chicken stock

1 C sauvignon blanc
4 T unsalted butter
1 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a medium sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, almost simmering.

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium high heat until almost smoking. Add the shallots and proscuitto and cook until the shallots are softened but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté until lightly browned while stirring. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes.

Then, begin the process. Add a ladleful of hot stock, and cook, until liquid is absorbed. Continue adding stock a ladleful at a time, waiting until the liquid is absorbed each time before adding more. The rice will become tender and creamy but still al dente after about 18 minutes.

Add the wine and cook until the alcohol has evaporated, about 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat, add the butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

Beet Risotto

September 24, 2010

The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.
~Tom Robbins

Good food artfully crosses the full ambit of the senses: sights, scents, tastes, textures. Even the sounds of the kinetic kitchen, the quiet clamor of glasses and plates, and the hum and sometimes clamor of table commotion are part of the medium. These symphonic stimuli are perceived, processed and ordered by that vast network of cells, neurons, synapses, receptors and transmitters housed in our gray matter. They are basic impulses which are too often taken for granted. For some though, the eating experience differs…those that must see without sight, listen without hearing. Perception is gleaned from honing other senses to “see” that which cannot be “seen” and “hear” what cannot be “heard.” These so-called heightened senses are used to interpret the environment visually and aurally.

In an admittedly less than fluent fashion, this brings me to the advent of the latest iPhone gadget. The Color Identifier is an app which uses the iPhone camera to scan a subject(s) and then speaks the color. The visually impaired can click an image and then a color identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits reports the hues to the user. Sunsets/rises, flora, fauna, landscapes, paintings, autos, homes, clothing, you name it…from the banal to the spectacular. To one who is blessed with sight and is as technologically proficient as Moses, this seems almost surreally miraculous.

The earthiness of this vivid root couples well with the supple elegance of risotto. Frabjous fare.

ROASTED BEET RISOTTO

3 medium red beets, tops and roots trimmed off, and halved tranversely
Extra virgin olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6-7 C chicken stock, as needed

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1 cup yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 1/2 C arborio rice
3/4 C dry white wine

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 F

Line a large baking dish with aluminum foil. In a large bowl, toss together the beets, splashes of olive oil, red wine vinegar, and salt and pepper. Place beets in the dish and cover snugly with foil. Bake for 35 minutes, then uncover and bake until tender and golden around edges, about 10 minutes more. Check throughout the latter part of the cooking process to see if the beets are cooked until tender, but still al dente. They are done when easily penetrated with a fork. Pour excess beet juice into a bowl and reserve. Allow beets to cool uncovered, then peel or slip off skins with paper towels and cut into 1/2″ cubes.

Pour stock into a pan and heat over low heat, keeping at a gentle simmer while you prepare the risotto.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium low heat. Add onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the rice and cook, until fully coated and semi-translucent. Add the wine and continue stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock by ladles (about 1/2 cup) until each ladle has been absorbed, stirring gently yet constantly. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding the next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. There is a rhythm to the process which is not too fast and not too slow. About halfway through the process of ladling the stock into the rice, add the beets and a tablespoon or so of the reserved beet juice.

Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 18 minutes. Then, remove from heat and stir in the butter and parmigiano reggiano and season to taste with salt and pepper. The risotto should be smooth and creamy with the rice still retaining a slight al dente texture.

Divide the risotto among shallow soup bowls, grate some parmigiano reggiano over the top and serve.

Pourboire: Roast more beets than alloted in the recipe and refrigerate for salads, etc. later during the week.

Risotto with Fennel & Wine

September 24, 2009

We signal the captain, taking time out against the wall. He frowns. He groans. His feet hurt. His ulcer rages. He hates his wife. The risotto will take 25 minutes. Lasagna will take even longer.
~Gael Greene

Another dish featuring that Mediterranean darling, fennel (Foeniculum vulgare).

Fennel is a potent font of vitamin C along with being a source of dietary fiber, potassium, manganese, folate, and molybdenum. In addition, niacin as well as the minerals phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper are nestled in this versatile and long revered plant. Fennel also boasts phytonutrients such as the flavonoids rutin, quercitin, and various kaempferol glycosides that offer strong antioxidant activity. Whatever all that means to a single human being and to existence in general…let’s just leave it as a healthy compound of sorts that may or may not give you another day of that life you adore or abhor.

To keep it simple, I usually sidestep the nutribabble and just enjoy the aroma, herbaceous flavors and texture of this oft-underutilized green in all its glory—bulb, stalk, fronds, and seeds.

You can even push the envelope, as early test flight engineers were prone to say. For an extraordinarily transformative (and expensive) dose/experience, you can purchase the pollen which is collected from wild fennel. Tasting distinctively different than fennel seed or anise, and sometimes described as a touch curry-like, fennel pollen is a unique ingredient that imparts flavor and depth. Known as the “Spice of Angels,” fennel flowers are picked at full bloom, and then dried and screened. The pollen can be used as a dry rub on meats or fish before roasting or grilling, as a substitute for saffron in rice, pasta, or risotto dishes, or in stocks, sauces, and dressings.

RISOTTO WITH FENNEL & WINE

3 T extra virgin olive oil
3 plump fresh garlic cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
2 medium fennel bulbs, cleaned, trimmed, cored and coarsely chopped (save fronds)
1 C yellow onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 T dried red chile peppers
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 T unsalted butter
3/4 C dry white or red wine
6+ C chicken stock

2 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano-reggiano, freshly grated
Zest of 1 lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Goat cheese, crumbled and reserved fennel fronds

In a large skillet add olive oil over medium heat and sauté the garlic, then the fennel, followed by the onion with a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring regularly over medium low heat until fennel is soft and the onion translucent, about 15-20 minutes. Discard garlic and set fennel and onion mixture aside.

Pour stock into a large pan and heat over low until just below a simmer.

Heat olive oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium low heat. Add chile peppers and onion and sauté until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not brown. Add the rice and stir, allowing the rice to absorb the moisture of the butter. Cook, stirring constantly for about a minute so the rice is fully coated. Add the wine and continue stirring until absorbed, about 2 minutes. Add stock by the ladle until each ladle has been absorbed, stirring constantly. After your second ladle of stock has been absorbed, add the cooked fennel.

Continue ladling and stirring the risotto until barely al dente, and then add the parmigiano-reggiano, remaining butter and lemon zest. Add lemon juice, and taste for seasoning.

Serve hot, topped with crumbled goat cheese and feathery fronds.

What makes the English people sprightly is the liberal use of saffron in their broths and sweet-meats.
~Sir Francis Bacon

The plants and flowers of ancient Greece culture abound in mythology, and magical saffron is no different. According to one tragic tale, the handsome mortal Crocos fell deeply in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. Although his overtures were at first flattering, she later became bored and rebuffed his continued advances, transforming him into a passionately tinted crocus flower. Another tradition relates that he was metamorphosed by his friend Hermes, who had accidentally killed him in a game of discus. The three drops of Crocus’ blood that spilled on the ground transformed into a small flower with brilliant red stamens.

Saffron comes from the three delicate and thready stigmas of the saffron crocus. It takes 75,000 blossoms or 225,000 hand cultivated stigmas to create a single pound of this cherished brilliant orange-red colored and pungent bitter-honey flavored spice which helps explain why it fetches astronomical prices.

This elegant dish, Risotto alla Milanese, seduces with its delicate, creamy flavors and may be served as a first course, a side or a main dish.

SAFFRON RISOTTO (RISOTTO ALLA MILANESE)

6-7 C chicken stock
Pinch of saffron threads (about 1/2 t)

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and minced
1/2 C dry white wine
1 1/2 C Arborio rice

Sea salt to taste
3 T unsalted butter
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, grated

Parmigiano reggiano, grated, for serving

In a large heavy saucepan, heat the stock and keep it at a bare simmer while you prepare the risotto. Add the saffron to the stock, stir and infuse.

In a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over moderate heat. Add the onion until softened, but not browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until coated well and it begins to turn shiny and translucent, about 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the wine and then ladle in 1 cup simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding the next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 16 to 18 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy yet still retaining a slight al dente texture.

Remove from heat and add the butter, parmigiano reggiano and a pinch of salt, stirring well. Divide the risotto among shallow soup bowls, grate some parmigiano reggiano over the top and serve.

The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
~Albert Camus

Yesterday, the Tour field opened up (perhaps hemorrhaged), with many of the men being separated from the boys on a steep finishing climb in Switzerland. Today is a no-rest-for-the-weary day which does not always translate into better performances tomorrow as riders can fall out of psychic and physical sync.

The next stage (numéro 16) mercilessly traverses 160km up and down the majestic Alps of Switzerland, Italy and France. After a precious few flat miles, riders will crawl up the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard (HC), the pinnacle of this year’s Alpine summits (8,114 feet). The final 5km is tortuous and never ending, with an average 6.2% grade, and some pitches as steep as 10%. Pains my quads to even tap, tap about it. After cresting the peak, the riders will descend into Italy at breakneck speed heading toward the Col du Petit-Saint-Bernard (Cat 1—a smidgen less steep) for another punishing ascent. Really? Again?

A symmetrical, buxom, double breasted race profile—the myth of Sisyphus times two, except unlike the tale, there is a finish to the stage.

The brief run through Northern Italy in tomorrow’s stage warrants a risotto recipe…a dirty, rustic one to be savored with the lights on.

RISOTTO SPORCO

8 C chicken broth

1/4 lb pancetta, chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
1 C porcini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 t dried thyme

1/3 lb chicken gizzards, chopped
1/2 lb chicken livers, patted dry and chopped
1 T extra virgin olive oil
2 T unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

3/4 C yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
1/2 C poblano chili pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely diced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 C Arborio rice
3/4 C red wine
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano, freshly grated
1 T Italian parsley leaves, chopped

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a simmer. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

In a large heavy skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the pancetta and sauté until rendered, about 4-5 minutes. Pour out some, but not all, of the pancetta fat. Set aside and drain on paper towels.

Heat some more olive oil and butter in the same large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt and thyme, and sauté until just browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2 to 4 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

Meanwhile, melt more butter and olive oil in the same large skillet over medium high heat. Season livers and gizzards with salt and pepper. Add gizzards then livers a little later to skillet and sauté until not quite cooked and still pink in the center, about 2 minutes. Remove and set aside on paper towels.

In a large heavy sauce pan or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium high heat, add the onion and poblanos, and sauté until tender, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, about 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the rice and stir to coat. Add the wine and simmer until the wine has almost completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Ladle in 1 cup of the already simmering stock and cook, stirring constantly, until the rice has absorbed most of the stock, about 1-2 minutes. Add another ladleful of stock, and stir regularly until all of the stock is absorbed. Let each ladleful of stock be almost absorbed before adding next, allowing the rice to be covered with a thin coating of stock. Continue adding ladlefuls of stock, stirring frequently until the rice is almost tender but firm to the bite, about 20 minutes. The risotto should be smooth and creamy.

Remove from the heat and stir in the mushrooms, pancetta, livers, gizzards and most of the parmigiano reggiano. Transfer the risotto to shallow serving bowls. Garnish with the remaining parmigiano reggiano and parsley and serve immediately.