Five years have passed since that gloomy night when, standing in front of the stove in my tiny kitchen in via Peschiera in Bra, I showed Jesse how to make a proper Venetian risotto. We weren’t dating yet, not officially at least; but my kitchen had quickly become a focal point, a gravitational centre in our strange, undefined relationship. Cooking and eating together was a way to feel each other out, to test our compatibility, to make sense of who we were as individuals, and as a couple. Everything in our lives back then passed through the filter of food. Food filled our days – we were studying it in all its aspects, eating it copiously, often cooking it collectively – and permeated our minds, our conversations. We breathed food, dreamed about it, talked about it all the time. Naturally, we thought it was only going to work between us if we could make our eating habits collide, our food ideas click.
Little did I know, standing in front of that steaming pot of risotto, that just over a year later I would have married him in my Venetian hometown. All I wanted back then was for him to learn how to make risotto properly, without all the adulterations and additions one sees all too often travelling outside of Italy. Risotto mattered to me, so I wanted it to matter to him. Actually, now that I think about it, he asked me to show him the tricks – I just obliged. Although I believe the whole thing made me feel fairly important. Thankfully, my risotto with radicchio tardivo turned out pretty fine that night, and so did most of the risotti I’ve stirred up for us thus far (gaffe avoided there!). Five years later, though, and Jesse is still afraid of making one for me, yet he eats mine with such enthusiasm and profusion of compliments that I don’t really want to change the current culinary status quo.
That Venetians take great pride in their risotto-cooking skills is an understatement. Rice in engrained in our genes: starch of choice in the region for the past five centuries, it was even more popular than polenta – which up until recent times, wasn’t really a choice but rather a necessity. Rice dominated the tables in the countryside as much as in the city, featuring in savoury and sweet dishes alike. Rice is for us Venetians what pasta is to the South of Italy – a staple but also a blank canvas of sorts. It nourishes while allowing culinary freedom, versatility, and the sweet taste of possibility. And yet, it wasn’t until recent times that risotto made its appearance on the tables of the Veneto. In fact, it is considered a modern adaptation of minestra de risi (a soup of rice with the addition of vegetables, meat and/or fish, like in this thick soup or rice and pumpkin), which is why many Venetians risi dishes retain a rather soupy, liquid consistency, often described as all’onda (wavy).
Faithful to my origins, I learnt to make risotto à la Venetian, which is rather loose; and to like it this way more than others. I get a thrill of pleasure when I see it spreading freely on my plate, taking shape and moving around in all its lush creaminess, carrying with it, like a wave carries small shells and pebbles, the ingredients that enrich and define its flavour. I wish I knew how to make it flip over and back inside the pot with just a sharp movement of my wrist, the way great Venetian chefs can, for this movement would trap air at every salto (jump), giving it the beautiful fluffy texture that is so welcome in, say, a risotto di pesce. Alas, I can’t. So I rely on my rather fatigued arm and the humble holy (with a hole, that is) wooden spoon to do the job of whipping my risotto energetically, trapping air as the butter and cheese melt and gift the final dish with the sort of glistening appearance that captures the light in the room as much as the attention of the table. This passage, called mantecatura, I find rather tiring but crucial for a creamy, homogenous, plain delicious result.
“The elementary rules once grasped, it remains only to be borne in mind that the simpler the risotto the better.” says the wise Elizabeth David in her brilliant book called Italian Food. Indeed, apart from the basics (oil and butter, onion, rice, wine and stock) a couple of add-ins are usually enough, being them meat, fish, seasonal vegetables and/or cheese. The best risotti have just one or two dominant flavours, sometimes complementary, others contrasting, but never colliding. Many vegetables like radicchio, leeks, asparagus or broad beans go well with a bit of pancetta or salsiccia (see this leek and sausage risotto, for instance), a bit of grated parmesan perhaps, but not more, and they could even make a risotto on their own. Likewise, artichokes, or seafood, need little more than a light dusting of finely chopped parsley.
Letting the seasons decide what to put in my risotto is an inclination I inherited from my nonna Ada, my mum’s mum, who must have gotten it from her Venetian ancestors – casual, frugal cooks who relied a lot on what was in season and whatever they could forage in the fields, forests and gardens. I rely a lot on the market these days, but the concept has remained unchanged: using the best ingredients the season can offer allows for variety (creativity even, like in this early autumn fig and pecorino risotto), optimum flavour as well as frugality…Because what’s abundant is usually also the best-priced, and who doesn’t like that?
The colourful market of Piazza delle Erbe in Padova, which I visited a couple of weeks ago (more on that soon!) has been flourishing with all sorts of wild mushrooms nostrani (local) lately, perhaps gathered from the nearby Euganean Hills or the Pre-Alps. The most iconic varieties in the region are finferli (girolles), a sweet, fruity kind that grabs one’s attention with its bright golden cap and its scruffy look. I could not restist buying a few for risotto, which is really la morte loro (their death, which also means ‘the best way to eat them’). A few bits of speck fom the nearby region of Trentino Alto Adige made their way into the pot, too, adding a pleasant smokey, savoury note. The rest remained unchanged, familiar, executed in a sort of ritualistic sequence that is now so soothing, I feel comfortable making it for guests as much as for family: good olive, oil, an onion, some proper risotto rice, fruity white wine, simmering stock, more butter, parmesan. Confidence and skill come with repetition.
Girolles Mushroom & Speck Risotto
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A knob of butter
½ medium golden onion
50 g thick slice of speck (or smoked flat pancetta)
180 g vialone nano or carnaroli rice
70 ml dry white wine
1 L vegetable stock
100 g girolle mushrooms
30 g (a large knob) unsalted butter
40 g grated Parmesan
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Clean the mushrooms using a small brush or a damp cloth until all dirt is gone. Trim the roots where present. If you have any large mushrooms in the lot, halve them; keep the rest whole, then set them all aside.
Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan and keep it on the boil by the side of the stove where you’re going to cook your risotto. Meanwhile, peel the onion and slice it very fine; remove any skin from the speck and cut it in small, thin bits; add both to a heavy-bottom pan where you have heated the olive oil and the butter. Fry everything gently for a few minutes, until the onion has softened and the fat in the speck has rendered. Set the heat to medium-low, add the rice and toast it for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently, until it assumes a pale, transparent look. Now, pour in the wine; let it evaporate before starting to add the stock, about two ladles at a time, adding more as soon as it has been absorbed, and stirring all the while.
Towards the end of the cooking time – when the rice is still al dente – add the mushrooms and stir to incorporate, then taste and season with salt and pepper. The bit of liquid they’ll release should be enough to finish cooking the rice – add more stock if not. Once ready, the risotto should be fairly loose still, yet not mushy; the grains shouldn’t stick together but rather be bound by a starchy, smooth cream – Venetians call it riso all’onda (which literally means ‘wavy’, to describe the way the risotto spreads on the plate once served, like a wave on the shore). Adjust its thickness adding more liquid if needed, or allowing the rice to rest a minute if too much broth remains in the pot.
When ready, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the butter, working your risotto energetically until the fat has melted and dressed the rice evenly. If you want to add some grated parmesan, this is the time to do it; stir everything once more, until combined. Plate it right away by ladling it over flat dishes so that it can spread comfortably and reach the ideal eating temperature.