Rice used to come to the table in the shape of steamy platefuls of creamy, buttery risotto. It could have been with mushrooms, or asparagus, or shrimps, or chicken gizzards; sometimes even with spinach – not often, thankfully, as it was my least favourite, and seemed more like a trick to make me eat the dreadful leafy greens. My grandma, especially, has always had the habit of making risotto for Sunday lunch, as a primo, followed by a meat course. It had become almost a ritual, and a welcomed one. I was always going for second helpings even though her risotto was known for being quite thick, a bit heavy, and certainly not what purists would call a ‘properly done’ one.
Since the beginning, then, I had associated rice with something quite festive, a nice change from the everyday bowl of pasta. However, as I discovered later, it hasn’t always been the case – it was actually the other way around. Rice, in the flatland of Veneto as well as those of Lombardy and Piedmont, in the North of Italy, was a staple food, far more widespread and widely available to the masses than dry (or fresh) pasta. Rice was a key source of energy in people’s diet alongside polenta, and it was often combined with legumes and other vegetables, and sometimes small amounts of animal fats, for a complete meal. Many traditional Venetian cookbooks will list recipes featuring rice, whose amount overshadows the one of pasta recipes. Pasta seemed to be something reserved for the Sunday meal, well dressed with oily meat ragù – but only for those lucky enough to afford it.
Not only was rice an everyday food, but it was also rarely made into risotto. Rather, it was mostly throwin into soup. Many famous Venetian primi piatti, especially those of the cucina povera, i.e peasant origins, are actually rice-based soups: risi e bisi (rice and peas) in the spring, risi e faxoi (rice and beans, an alternative to pasta and beans), risi e patate (rice and potatoes), risi e verxe (rice and cabbage), and risi e suca (rice and pumpkin), in the fall and winter months. These dishes were nourishing, economical, seasonal – and even relatively healthy.
Risi e suca is definitely one if my favourite soups. As far as I can remember, I have always loved the flavour of pumpkin, particularly in savoury preparations. Although it wasn’t my mum’s strongest suit – she never really liked pumpkins, and really hated cutting them – she would still make this bright orange, creamy soup a couple of times a year, whenever grandma would send us one of her deliciously sweet pumpkins. Her trick to balance out the overall sweetness of this soup was to add a little bit of freshly made (non-aged) salami in the onion soffritto. The other trick: she would also blend the cooked pumpkin with its cooking water to make a smoother broth, and eventually, a creamier soup. I am not sure if any of this is truly orthodox – there seem to be no trace of salami or blending techniques in any Venetian cookbooks (written in dialect!) I came across. But as you might know by now, she liked to break the rules. I like to think they are these anarchic recipes I am bringing with me – they teach me a lesson in being myself without forgetting where it all comes from.