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.

Mushroom Broth (Stock)

August 18, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

~William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The debate over broth vs. stock. Why has this always been so perplexing, even amusing?

Broth derives from the Old English noun broþ, having trickled down from an Indo-European verb root bhreu- or bhru- (“to heat, boil, bubble”), which also produced the word “brew.” So, etymylogically speaking, the noun broth means “liquid in which something has been boiled.”

The Germanic form brotham was borrowed into vulgar Latin as brodo, which by way of Old French broez came into 13th century English as broys or browes.

Stock presents a tad more complicated root scenario given its varied definitions and uses (inventory, corporate stock, summer stock, livestock, paper stock, stock remark, etc.). The word originally denoted a “tree trunk,” coming from the Germanic stukkaz. Stock, as used in the sense of broth, was so coined in the mid 18th century, because one keeps a “stock” of “broth” on hand in the stockpot.

Etymylogically, they seem nearly interchangeable. But, many chefs may dispute this, contending that stock is produced by slowly simmering relatively unseasoned bones and cartilage, some meat scraps, vegetables and aromatics in order to extract their essences. Often, the collagen rich bones are first oven roasted with the vegetables, and then added to the water to further enhance colors and flavors. This gelatinous, rich, and viscous stock is then strained and later used as a base to build sauces, gravies, soups or braises. Broth, on the other hand, they claim is crafted with whole meat morsels, is more delicate by nature and refers to an already finished and seasoned product. So, although not necessary broth can be made of stock.

Add to this semantic cauldron culinary terms like bouillon, court bouillon and consommé and mayhem ensues.

The distinction between vegetable stock and broth seems neglible. As for mushroom broth, made from those noble fungi taxonomically classified as a kingdom separate and apart from plants and animals and more genetically related to animals than plants…a vegan conundrum?

MUSHROOM BROTH

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 lbs crimini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
1 1/2 C large mushroom stems (e.g., portabella), cleaned and sliced lengthwise
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

1 C dry white wine
1 T shoyu
1 C dried mushrooms, such as porcini and/or shiitake
Pinch of sea salt
1/2 t dried herbes de Provence
3 sprigs fresh thyme
8 whole black peppercorns
3 C water
3 C vegetable stock

In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over moderately high heat. Add the mushrooms, stems, onion and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms release their liquid, about 5 minutes.

Add the wine, shoyu, dried mushrooms, salt, dried herbs, thyme, peppercorns, water and vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to moderate and simmer until the liquid is reduced about one half, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the hot broth through a fine strainer into a large bowl. Strain a second time for good measure.

Store broth in the fridge for up to four days, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.

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.

My father was grounded, a very meat and potatoes man. He was a baker.
~Anthony Hopkins

From obscure origins, but no less comforting fare. One hypothesis? For generations, these potatoes were prepped at home and then treated to the even heat of a local baker’s oven. This theory loses water, though, when you consider that this same dish is often created stove top by first simmmering the potatoes in broth and then finishing them with caramelized onions in a skillet.

A recipe not capable of a baker’s precision, the key to pommes de terre boulangère is maintaining that proper ratio between the stock and potato/onion filling—not too soupy, not too dry. The aim is some browned crust on the surface with silky, succulence below deck.

BAKER’S WIFE POTATOES (POMMES DE TERRE BOULANGERE)

3 T unsalted butter
1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced
1 t herbes de provence
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 lbs waxy potatoes (e.g., Yukon Gold), peeled and thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh thyme sprigs, stems removed

1 C chicken stock
1 C beef stock

1 plump, fresh garlic clove, peeled and cut

Preheat oven to 400 F

Melt the butter with the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add and cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent but not browned, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and herbes de provence. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.

Mix the stocks. Rub the cut garlic clove and then butter on the surface of a casserole. Then, spread half of the onions in the bottom of the dish. Arrange a layer of sliced potatoes on top, season with salt and pepper, and scatter with thyme leaves. Strew another layer of onions on top and then a final layer of potatoes. Season again with salt and pepper. Gently pour the combined stocks over the mixture until it covers the potatoes.

Transfer dish to oven and bake until a knife inserts easily and all the liquid has been absorbed, about 1 hour. If needed, cover with foil to avoid excess browning. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.

Basic Fish Stock

April 29, 2010

Also called fish fumet, this delicate, aromatic stock is a foundation for fine fish cookery.

Use only fresh lean, mild, white fish and avoid oily species such as salmon, tuna or mackerel. You generally want the “racks,” meaning the spine and bones. Heads are also more than welcome to the pot, but guts are verboten. With some advance warning, your fishmonger should be willing to cheaply sell you what is needed from his day’s sustainable seafood bones (emphasis supplied). Preferably use the stock that day, but if not, pour into quart jars and freeze. Allow enough space at the top to account for expansion, and it will store well for a month or so.

BASIC FISH STOCK

1 carrot, peeled and sliced coarsely
1 leek, washed, sliced coarsely
1/2 fennel bulb, well washed and sliced coarsely
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and sliced coarsely
1 stalk celery, sliced coarsley
1/2 parsnip root, sliced coarsely
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed
3 T extra virgin olive oil

4-5 lbs fresh fish bones, trimmings and heads, well rinsed
3 qts cold water

3 sprigs fresh flat leaf parsley
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 C dry white wine
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large, heavy skillet heat the olive oil over medium high. Add and sauté the carrot, leek, fennel, celery, parsnip, and garlic until just before browned. Remove from heat and set aside.

Rinse the fish thoroughly in cold water. Put the fish parts, sautéed carrot, leek, fennel, celery, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf in a large, heavy pot. Cover with water and slowly bring to a gentle simmer. Immediately reduce the heat to low, skimming away the foam on the surface. Add the wine, salt and pepper and slowly simmer for 30 minutes.

With a skimmer, remove the bones and vegetables from the stock and discard. Pour the stock through a chinois or cheesecloth lined colander. Discard the solids.

Vegetable Stock

August 8, 2009

An onion can make people cry, but there has never been a vegetable invented to make them laugh.
~Will Rogers

Another of the savory basics which, by the way, slipped through the cracks. Roasting the vegetables first brings out the rich M. Maillard reactive depth of flavors in this broth which has endless uses.

ROASTED VEGETABLE STOCK

2 plump, fresh garlic heads, halved crosswise
2 C mushrooms, halved
4 carrots, sliced thick
4 stalks celery, leaves removed and sliced thick
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thick
2 leeks, rinsed well, greens removed and sliced thick
1 poblano chili pepper, quartered and seeded
1 medium tomato, quartered and seeded

1/3 C extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

8 C water
1″ ginger, peeled and sliced
2 t dried thyme
2-3 thyme sprigs
6 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 425

In a single layer, arrange the garlic heads, mushrooms, carrots, celery, onions, leeks, poblano, and tomato in a large baking dish or sheet lined with aluminum foil. Drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables, and then season with salt and pepper.

Roast the vegetables in the preheated oven, turning once or twice (with the exception of the garlic), until tender and slightly browned, about 30 to 40 minutes.

Combine the water, ginger, thymes, parsley, and bay leaves in a large, heavy stock pot over medium high heat. Squeeze the heads of garlic into the stock pot, and discard the outer husks. Then, place the mushrooms, carrots, celery, onion, leeks, poblano, and tomato in the stock pot. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and gently simmer for 1 1/2 hour. Taste and season while cooking. Strain into a bowl with a fine sieve or chinois, pressing to squeeze out all of the liquid.

Refrigerate up to 6 days or freeze up to 6 months.

Beef Broth a/k/a Stock

February 24, 2009

Back to fond. Rich, fullbodied broths form the essence of savory soups and sauces. (See Chicken Stock post). While this broth takes some time to cook, the liquid will reduce and become more concentrated with flavorful gelatin. Broths should be brought slowly to the simmer and should not boil vigorously. As the temperature increases, proteins in the meat and bones will rise to the surface as broth—they should be skimmed away.

Broth can be covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for 4 to 6 months.

BEEF BROTH

6 pounds meaty beef soup bones (shanks or short ribs)
2 T canola or vegetable oil

3 medium carrots, chopped coarsely
3 celery ribs, sliced
2 medium onions, chopped coarsely
6 quarts of cold water

3 bay leaves
1/2 C dried mushrooms
8 to 10 whole peppercorns
3 to 4 sprigs fresh parsley
3 to 4 sprigs of thyme

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Cut away as much fat as possible from the outside of the bones. Dig the marrow out and reserve for other purposes (I adore it on roasted bread, in a pasta, etc). Left in, the marrow melts in the broth and becomes part of the fat that is skimmed away—a waste of a precious thing. Cut the meat away from the bones into rough cubes.

Toss the meat and bones in the oil, then place them in a large roasting pan. Roast uncovered, for 45 minutes to brown. Add the carrots, celery and onions. Roast 15 minutes longer.

Drain fat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer meat, bones and vegetables to a stock pot or large Dutch oven. Deglaze the roasting pan with a little water scraping the bits off the bottom of the pan.

Pour deglazed pan juices to the stock pot. Add enough cold water just to cover. Slowly bring to a simmer and skim off the froth that rises to the surface. This should be done several times until the surface is relatively clear. Add the remaining ingredients, partially cover the pot and gently simmer for 4 hours. If necessary, add hot water during the first 2 hours to keep ingredients covered.

Discard bones and save meat for another use. Strain broth through a cheesecloth-lined colander or a chinois sieve , discarding vegetables and seasonings. Alow broth to cool to room temperature. Pour in jars or bowl.

Lentils

February 12, 2009

Lentils are friendly—the Miss Congeniality of the bean world.
~Laurie Colwin

Lentils are those pungently earthy members of the legume family—which are plants in the pea family that split open naturally along a seam revealing a row of seeds. Some archealogical digs have suggested that legumes may be the oldest crop known to humanity. Lentils are commonly found in dried form and possess superior nutritional qualities with high levels of protein.

The green lentilles from Puy, in the rocky Auvergne region in France, are considered the caviar of lentils. The arid climate, abundant sunshine and volcanic soil conditions offer a flinty, nutty flavor which has garnered the beans an Appelation d’Origine Controlee (AOC)…a quality label recognized by the French government bestowed upon products meeting specified standards.

LENTIL SOUP

1 C dried lentils
3 T extra virgin olive oil
4 oz pancetta, diced
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 14 oz can san marzano tomatoes, diced
2 rosemary sprigs
2 bay leaves
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 t freshly toasted coriander, ground
1 t freshly toasted cumin seeds, ground
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Red wine vinegar

In a bowl, first drain and rinse the lentils in a fine mesh sieve.

Toast and grind coriander and cumin seeds.

In a large heavy Dutch oven, cook the pancetta in olive oil over medium heat for 3-4 minutes; then add the onions. Cook for another 5 minutes before adding the celery, carrots, rosemary, bay leaves, coriander, cumin and lentils. Stir well, ensuring the oil coats everything well.

Add the tomatoes and stock. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, allowing the soup to cook for 45 minutes to one hour. Remove the bay leaves before serving, and salt and pepper to taste. Kindly drizzle some fine red wine vinegar over each bowl.

LENTIL SALAD

1 1/2 C lentils
2 T extra virgin olive oil
2 oz Virginia ham
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely diced
Water to cover

1 qt chicken stock
1 bay leaf
a few springs of fresh thyme
Sea salt
2 oz Virginia ham, diced
1 medium onion, peeled and finely diced
Freshly ground pepper

2 T red wine or sherry vinegar
2/3 C walnut oil or extra virgin olive oil
1 T Dijon mustard
1 small shallot, peeled and finely minced
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Rinse the lentils in a fine mesh sieve and remove any foreign matter.

In a large heavy Dutch oven, heat the olive oil and and cook the onion and ham over low heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Set aside.

Transfer the lentils to the same heavy Dutch oven, then cover with cold water, which should cover the lentils by at least 3-4 inches.

Bring to a boil over high heat, then remove from heat and drain in a fine mesh sieve.

Return the lentils to the pan, add the stock, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaf; bring to a gentle boil over high heat and reduce to a simmer. Skim off the surface. Simmer gently, uncovered, until the lentils are just tender, about 30 minutes.

Combine the mustard and vinegar and whisk to blend. Add the walnut oil and shallots, and continue to whisk. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the bacon in a large nonstick skillet and cook over moderate heat until done. Set aside on paper towels.

When the lentils are done, drain them well, then toss with the vinaigrette. Remove bay leaf and thyme. Let stand until the lentils have absorbed the vinaigrette. Sprinkle with diced bacon. Season with more salt and pepper to taste.

Serve warm.

This is an impressive crowd: the Have’s and Have-More’s. Some people call you the elites. I call you my base.
~George W. Bush

With all the recent sharp banter about Wall Street moguls, their dizzying business failures, shameless sybaritic bonuses, and recent unfettered use of TARP funds, it seemed only appropriate to suggest a recipe which has origins in the Mughal Empire. After all, mogul—jargon for a successful business magnate who has built a vast economic empire—derives from the word “Mughal.”

The rulers of the Mughal Empire were the masters of the Indian subcontinental universe from the mid 16th century to the mid 18th century. Major Mughal contributions included majestic architecture, development of the Urdu language, and a refined, imperial cuisine influenced by Persian culture.

Find a reliable local spice merchant for all of your culinary journeys.

CHICKEN MUGHLAI

The Paste
2 T cumin seeds
2 T coriander seeds
2 t mustard seeds
1 T dried chili flakes
1 (1 “) piece ginger, peeled
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled & roughly chopped
4 T whole almonds, roughly chopped
1/4 to 1/2 C water

The Brown
2 T ground cumin
2 T ground cardamom
1 T ground cinnamon
2 T turmeric
Sea salt

2 T grapeseed or canola oil
3 T unsalted butter
3 to 3 1/2 lb. free range, organic chicken, cut into 8 pieces, room temperature

The Braise
5 cardamom pods, bruised
2 cinnamon sticks
2 bay leaves
1 T turmeric
1 t dried fenugreek leaves, crushed
4 cloves
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
4 fresh, plump garlic cloves, peeled & smashed
1 C plain yogurt
1 C chicken stock
1 C heavy cream
3/4 C golden raisins (sultanas)
2 T garam masala
2 T honey
1 t salt

3/4 C flaked almonds, toasted

In a dry heavy bottomed skillet, roast the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds over medium heat for a couple of minutes. Grind the seeds and red pepper flakes in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. Place the ground cumin, coriander, mustard and red pepper along with ginger, garlic, almonds into a food processor; blend while adding just enough water to develop a paste. Place in a bowl and set aside.

Mix ground cumin, cardamom, cinnamon and turmeric together in a bowl. Salt the chicken pieces first then coat with the spice mix. Heat oil and butter in a large, heavy bottomed deep skillet or dutch oven over medium heat until hot and shimmering. The chicken should sizzle when it touches the surface. Add the chicken pieces and sauté until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Place in a dish, loosely tent and set aside.

Pour off just enough of the liquid in the pan so there is still a liberal coating on the bottom. Add the cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, turmeric, fenugreek, and cloves into the pan and stir some. Add the onions and garlic, cook until softened and translucent, keeping the heat at medium, and stirring frequently, to avoid sticking. Pour in the blended paste, and cook until the color intensifies some.

Add the yogurt, and then stir in the stock, cream, garam masala, honey and raisins. Put the browned chicken back into the pan, along with any collected juices from the resting chicken. The chicken should be covered in the braising liquid.

Cover and cook at a simmer for 20 minutes, testing to make sure the meat is cooked through by piercing the flesh with a fork to see if juices run clear, yellow.

Serve with the toasted, flaked almonds.

RICE PILAF FOR CURRY

2 T grapeseed or canola oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves
3 cardamom pods, bruised
1 cinnamon stick, broken into 3
1/2 t cumin seeds
2 C basmati rice
4 C chicken stock

1/2 C sliced almonds, toasted, for garnish
2 to 3 T chopped fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

In a deep heavy saucepan, cook the onion in the oil, adding the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, and cumin seeds until the onion is slightly browned and soft. Keep the heat medium to low and stir frequently, about 10 minutes.

Add the rice and gently stir until glossy and somewhat translucent; pour in the stock and bring the pan to a gentle boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to low, cooking for 20 minutes.

To serve, fluff the rice with a fork, topping with the toasted sliced almonds and cilantro.

Risotto

January 27, 2009

Any healthy man can go without food for two days, but not without poetry.
~Charles Baudelaire

My dawn ablution of a poem and three cups of joe reminded me of risotto. The poem, entitled Rotary by Christina Pugh, ruminates about the slow-paced rotary phone which predated the touch tone and ubiquitous cell. Her verses reminded me of the ritualistic patience needed to make refined, satiny risotto…and in general how simple home cooking can diurnally stall the usual frenetic pace demanded by modern life. The nexus between a rotary phone and risotto my seem a stretch to some, but on this morning it seemed perfectly logical.

Risotto is rustic yet elegant fare whose rural roots have now spread their reach to a more chic audience. The object is to produce a smooth, velvety risotto whose texture plays upon the essence of each individual grain in a way in which they all coalesce to form a sumptuous symphony. An the type of rice and an assiduous hand produces the desired consistency.

A good risotto begins with premium Italian rice, usually Arborio or Violone, which are short, stubby and absorb liquid—resulting in a creamy product which retains a slight bite (al dente) to each grain. Two starches are found in rice: amylose (which does not gelatinize when heated) and amylopectin (which does break down when heated). Rice with a lower percentage (ergo more amylopectin) is shorter and starchier. For instance, Arborio rice contains roughly 19-21% amylose. The desirable gentle chew in risotto is actually due to a defect in the Arborio called chalk. During maturation, the starch structures at the grain’s core deform, making for that firm, toothy center when cooked.

The rice should stirred gently and somewhat constantly, with hot stock added a cup at a time, until it has reached a point of softness yet with the grains retaining their shape. The rice should be creamy, with a slightly resistant core and should not stick together or to the bottom of the pan. The whole procedure takes about 20 minutes of your focused attention. Risotto is not a dish you prepare haphazardly while performing other tasks around the house, but please do not be fearful or assume it needs expert coaxing…just some gentle pampering.

Some diehard aficianados suggest there is an added ritual of properly eating risotto. While such over wrought etiquette often falls on deaf ears here, here is a primer on the process: (1) the cooked risotto should be served mounded in the center of shallow bowls; (2) as you eat, push the risotto push the grains out slightly toward the edge of the bowl, eating from the now shrinking ring of rice; (3) Continue spreading from the center and eating around the edges in a circle, so that the mound in middle will keep the risotto warm as you savor the risotto around the rim. The more extreme sects of risotto eaters even insist upon using spoons rather than forks.

RISOTTO WITH WILD MUSHROOMS

7 cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
4 T unsalted butter
1/4 lb fresh wild mushrooms such as porcini or chanterelles, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
1-2 T fresh tarragon, minced
2 plump fresh peeled garlic cloves, smashed
1/3 cup minced shallots (about 1 or 2)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 teaspoon white truffle oil
¾ C freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the stock in a large saucepan and keep at a gentle simmer as you prepare the risotto.

Heat the oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over moderate heat until hot, but not smoking. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté until browned and the juices begin to exude, around 2-4 minutes. Sprinkle the mushrooms with minced tarragon, drain them and set them aside. Wipe out the skillet with paper towels.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add the garlic for perfume, pressing the garlic down and around the pan with a spatula to spread the aromatic wealth. Remove and discard the garlic. Add shallots and cook over low to moderate heat, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 3-4 minutes. Add the rice, and stir until it is well coated and semi translucent, about 1-2 minutes. The heat and butter will separate the grains of rice, assuring a creamy consistency in the end.

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 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.

Remove from heat and stir in parmigiano-reggiano, a scant tablespoon of butter, sautéed mushrooms, a drizzle of truffle oil, and salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately with a Barolo from Piedmont or pinot noir.

Yield: 4 servings

Pourboire: For a more full bodied version, add already coarsely chopped and sauteed pancetta to the risotto at the end.