A New Cookbook & a Recipe Preview (Risi e Bisi)

risi e bisi

The Premise

When I first moved to university and started to cook for myself, it wasn’t from a cookbook. It wasn’t from a hand-scribbled recipe notebook either, because no one in my family ever kept one. I mostly played it by ear, using the few basic skills I had picked up from Mum. I knew, among other things, how to make a decent plate of pasta in a small array of fashions; a good risotto with a few variations (pumpkin, peas, radicchio, asparagus or mushrooms); a fine roasted chicken; and a balanced salad dressing. I liked cooking, but I also liked not cooking. I loved having the luxury of eating cheese on toast for four days in a row, because I was finally living alone, playing adult, and responding to no one other than myself. Stirring pots interested me to a point; I had stronger urges.

Then again, food wasn’t yet the ever-embracing trend that it is now. Back then, properly written recipe books were spare and rare, particularly in Italy, where many households owned, if any, one or two tomes at most (Artusi and The Silver Spoon). In my family, for instance, I have never seen a cookbook circulating; certainly not on our coffee table, and definitely not in the kitchen. We might have owned a couple, but never used them. Mum liked to cook on a whim, make stuff up, wing it a lot, rely on classics. She, too, had stronger urges. Rather than cookbooks, she bought novels. She found following recipes somewhat tedious and cooking a distraction from her devouring passion for fictional characters. The less time spent in the kitchen, the more time with her nose buried in books.

In this instance, I turned out to be very much my mother’s daughter. I grew up loving fiction books to bits and had enrolled in a foreign language degree at university with the ambition to become a literary translator. I spent a good part of my spare time consuming British and American literature of all calibre while chasing the dream of mastering the English language as it was my own. Of course, I failed. I realised pretty soon that I was failing – struggling, stumbling on accents and sentences – and instead of pushing harder, I lost momentum, preserving my interest in reading but not my ambition in translating.  Around then, my dreams took an abrupt U-turn.

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Ossobuco with Gremolata

Ossobuco with Gremolata There were a couple of nights a few weeks ago, before the heat decided to come and make itself comfortable, in which the air sweeping from the harbour carried an unusual chill. One night, on our usual evening walk along the water  – the ritual that separates the working part of the day from that of leisure, contemplation and unrushed time in the kitchen – we had to put an extra layer over our t-shirts. We walked hugging ourselves the whole way, wondering where such breeze was coming from, dark clouds gathering swiftly over our heads.

We rushed home just in time before the first downpour started. Another followed shortly, and then another, at seemingly regular intervals, as if the sky was emptying itself by the bucketload, taking a break between each. We thought it a good night for a robust bottle of red and for lingering in the kitchen and around the table while waiting for a warming dinner.

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A Polenta Fruit Cake from Veneto

On 6th of January in Italy, we celebrated Epifania, the day when the three kings show up on the nativity scene, and also, the day when the Befana – the old witch who used to bring gifts to Italian kids before the whole Santa thing came up – descends into people’s fireplaces to fill up stockings. In my sock, I would find the simplest things –mandarins or clementines, a few sweets, perhaps colour pencils. It wasn’t as big of a deal as Christmas, but we all liked to keep the tradition alive.

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Zabaione al Caffé

Making coffee at home in the morning is a ritual Jesse and I shared from day one. It was a habit that preceded our relationship, that we brought together effortlessly.  Of course, the habit of making moka pot coffee was mine before it was ours – Jesse was always brewing his cup with a French press before moving to Italy – yet it entered our joined life without much questioning. Living in Italy, the ritual and gestures just made their way into our morning routine quite naturally.

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Flourless Pumpkin Cake

Far from being a modern take on pumpkin pie, this is a cake that dates back to the end of the 1800s.

The recipe is included with the name of Torta di Zucca Gialla in Italian food bible “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” by Artusi. The cake, it turns out, has the marvellous, moist texture of pumpkin pie filling. When you eat it, it feels like biting into a creamy, smooth crustless pumpkin pie, except here the flavour and texture of the pumpkin truly takes centre stage, with cinnamon only playing a supporting role. What holds it together is a dash of almond meal, which helps keeping the texture on the soft, moist side.

To make it less wet, I upped the almond meal game a bit, and included the smallest amount of cornstarch to help with excess moisture (the original recipe calls for breadcrumbs). However, if pumpkin pie filling is your thing, leave the cornstarch/breadcrumbs out altogether to enjoy this creamy delight in its purest form.

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