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.

…but not taught to the tune of a hickory stick. The ways we unwittingly age ourselves.

I was briefly hijacked by another project and the pre, mid and post holiday revelry. Now it’s retour au train-train quotidien as the calendar bluntly reminded me. So, without further ado and the usual palaver, behold some root cellar fare to serve on a chilly evening.

RISOTTO WITH TURNIPS & PARSNIPS

3/4-1 C medium parsnips, prepped as below
3/4-1 C medium turnips, prepped as below
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil

7-8 C chicken stock

Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
1 1/2 C arborio rice
1/2 C dry white wine, e.g., sauvingnon blanc

1 t fennel seeds, roasted and ground
3 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
Fresh tarragon leaves, stems removed (not chopped)
3/4 C Parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 400 F

Peel the parsnips, quarter them lengthwise, and remove the tough core with a paring knife. Cut into 1/2″ shapes. Peel the turnips, cut lengthwise and also cut into 1/2″ shapes. Place cut roots in a large glass bowl and coat lightly with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Arrange both roots on a sheet pan or in a roasting pan. Consider lining the sheet or roasting pan with aluminum beforehand.

Roast until tender and slightly browned, about 15 to 20 minutes for the parsnips and a little longer for the turnips. Pierce with a fork to check doneness. Remove from the oven, season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside, tented.

Meanwhile, in a medium heavy sauce pan, heat stock on low until hot, nearly simmering.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven, add the onion, and sauté over moderately high heat until it softens and becomes translucent. Add the rice and stir until coated and opaque, about another 2-3 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the alcohol evaporates.

Then, begin the beguine. 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. Do check by tasting a spoonful.

Remove from the heat, gently yet thoroughly fold in the turnips, parsnips, fennel, butter, tarragon, and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so.

Mound in the center of shallow serving bowls and serve with spoons.

Pourboire: this same calendar proclaimed ce sera mon année as well! Does that mean a year of boundless creation, flukish wealth or certain death?

One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas.
~Victor Hugo

Disorientation can occur in even the most precise of places. Just a few years ago, the Swiss army mistakenly invaded Lichenstein—a principality which has been without an army for well over a century. Not only has Switzerland been famously neutral for some 500 years, a sizeable minority once suggested in a national plebiscite that the country no longer even needed a military. While the invaders were armed with assault rifles, they had no ammunition. Once the misdirected recruits realized their error, they sheepishly tiptoed back to the homeland before anybody noticed. The next day, a formal apology was issued.

Just my kind of military incursion…delightfully comical, no shots exchanged, with all diplomatically forgiven and forgotten.

That lissom, leafy green known as Swiss chard really is not an authentic Swiss piece. Actually, the first varieties have been traced to the Mediterranean basin, likely Sicily. Some posit that seed cataloguers tried to distinguish chard from varieties of French spinach by using the neighborly word “Swiss.” Others claim that chard got its common name from another local green, cardoon, a celery-like plant with thick stalks. French cooks began calling them both carde, and confusion reigned which may have lead to the Swiss modifier.

The roasted, ground fennel seeds are a must.

RISOTTO & SWISS CHARD (RISOTTO e BIETOLE)

7-8 C chicken or vegetable stock

2 T extra virgin olive oil
1/2 C yellow onion, chopped

1 1/2 C arborio rice
1 C dry white wine

1 lb swiss chard, washed well, stemmed, cut into strips
2 t fennel seeds, roasted then ground
4 T unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 C parmigiano reggiano, grated
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

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

Heat the oil in a heavy pot, add the onions, and sauté over moderately high heat until the onion softens and becomes translucent. 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 chard, fennel, butter and parmigiano reggiano and stir well for about a half minute or so. The chard should be wilted and the rice tender and firm. Season with salt and pepper, divide among shallow serving bowls and serve.

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.

Tonic-clonic Sicilian croquettes.

A way to embrace those lonely risotto leftovers from the previous day—before you take the fateful, even shameful, step of simply discarding them. The name arancini derives from the shape and color of this street and café food, which is reminiscent of the small oranges found on Sicily. These deservedly glorified fried stuffed rice croquettes are an almost cult-like, centuries old Sicilian delight with distinctly North African roots, as oranges were brought to the island during Arab tenure there.

Once again, the struggles of conquest and occupation and the interlacing of disparate cultures leads to blissful cuisine. Food is so often the last haven for besieged peoples. Fusion is far from a recent culinary phenonmenon.

Dip these little comforts in aïoli once they cool some. (See Aïoli, Aïoli, Aïoli, January 25, 2009). Or tidy them over a nest of baby mixed greens and drizzle a simple balsamic vinaigrette over them (See In Praise of Balsamic, March 19, 2009). Do not feel limited to this recipe, as arancini can be made with most any risotto.

ARANCINI (RISOTTO BALLS)

3-4 C wild mushroom risotto, cooled (See Risotto, January 27, 2009)
1-2 C Taleggio cheese, cut into 1/2″ cubes

4 large eggs
2 C all purpose flour
2 T fresh rosemary leaves, finely chopped
1 T fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
2 T parmigiano-reggiano
2 C fine fresh bread crumbs

Equal parts extra virgin olive and grapeseed oils, for frying
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Aioli, for dipping or
Balsamic vinaigrette, for drizzling

Pour combined olive and grapeseed oils to a 3 1/2″ depth. Bring the temperature of the oil to 350 degrees F, using a frying thermometer. Line a jellyroll pan or cookie sheet with paper towels to later drain and season the fried arancini.

To make an arancino, take about two tablespoons of risotto in one hand, make a hole with a finger and stuff it with 1-2 Taleggio cubes. Close the hole and then form and roll the risotto into almost 2″ diameter balls. Set aside on a pan covered in parchment paper.

Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and whisk well. Place the flour in a separate mixing bowl and combine with the parmigiano-reggiano, rosemary, sage and salt and fresh black pepper to taste. Place the bread crumbs in a third mixing bowl.

Roll the arancini first in the flour mixture, then dip into the eggs until well coated and then finally roll lightly into the bread crumbs.

Working in batches cook in the heated oil until golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from the oil with a spider or slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and season to taste.

To review:  1) roll arancini into 2″ balls 2) make a hole and stuff with 1 or so 1/2″taleggio cubes 3) whisk local, fresh eggs 4) roll in seasoned flour 5) dip into whisked eggs 6) coat lightly with bread crumbs 7) cook in heated, mixed oils — 350 F — for 3-4 minutes 8) drain cooked arancini on paper towels and 9) once cooled enough, relish with eyes rolled back.

Pourboire:  serve arancini on a plate which has copious dollops of basil pesto for dipping.

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.