Risotto di Zucca (Pumpkin Risotto)

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Risotto has long been a favorite of mine. It’s something that can work as a wonderful primo piatto all year round; you can make it seasonal by adding a variety of ingredients.

Although I was raised in an Italian American household, we didn’t eat much risotto. I believe this is because when my grandparents immigrated to New York from Emilia Romagna, between 1915 and 1925, rice had not yet become a common ingredient throughout the peninsula of Italy. Over the years, though, Italians have come to love their sumptuous rice, and have developed a plethora of delicious ways to prepare and serve it - but the base of risotto is always made the same way.

Rice cultivation, while taking place all over Italy, is predominantly a product of Lombardia and Piemonte, where the flatlands of the Padano Plains lend themselves to the periodic flooding of fields necessary for the crops’ development. It’s believed to have first come to Italy around the time of the Renaissance from the near and far east, and was revered as a very expensive medicine.

Today, Italy is Europe’s number one rice producing country, with the favorite varieties being Carnaroli and Arborio. Of the two, Carnaroli is the preferred rice for risotto. Its higher starch content tends to make it creamer and it does not overcook as easily. In addition to these two, there are wonderful offshoots of natural brown Arborio, black risotto rice (called Riso Venere, or Venus Rice), red rice and all kinds of other wonderful specialty rice.

The thing about risotto that makes it different from all other rice dishes is its richness. It carries all the qualities of a good comfort food. It makes its own creaminess and delectability. There’s something decadent about risotto. It can be dressed in a number of ways, and there are the perennial arguments as to whether it needs to be constantly stirred or not. I am from the stirring camp, but I don’t overdo it. I casually keep an eye on it as I prepare the other dinner dishes, making sure it reaches that optimal point where creaminess and the perfect “al dente” bite cross.

In addition to the Carnaroli rice, I use Hokkaido pumpkin, which has the added benefit of having an edible skin.

Things you should do in advance:

Make a vegetable broth. Don’t insult your risotto by making fake broth with bullion cubes! Cut up a bunch of carrots, celery, onions and put them in a large stock pot, cover with water, bring it to a boil and let it simmer for 90 minutes with a closed lid. Drain out the vegetables and save the liquid. You’ll need around 2 quarts, or 2.5 liters but make at least double that and throw the extra in the freezer for the next risotto.

Roast your pumpkin. I use 2 small Hokkaido pumpkins for 4 servings of risotto. Cut into into chunks (removing the seeds), spread them on a baking pan, and sprinkle them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast them at 180C/350F for about 30-40 minutes until you can pierce them easily with a fork. Let them cool and then smash them with a fork and place the smashed pumpkin in a bowl. It shouldn’t be a puree, but rather smashed pumpkin!!

For four dinner servings:

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups Carnaroli or Arborio rice

2 roasted, smashed small pumpkins

about 2-2 1/2 quarts of home made vegetable broth

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 cup white wine

2 sprigs of rosemary, picked clean and chopped finely

2 good handfuls arugula (rucola/rocket)

Salt and pepper to taste

For non vegans: 5 tablespoons butter

1 cup grated Reggiano Parmigiano

In a large saucepan (I use a wok), heat up the olive oil over a medium heat and add the onion. Once the onion has become transparent, add the rice. Toss it with a wooden spoon. This toasting of the rice is critical as it brings the starch to just below the surface of the rice grains and makes it easier for the broth to penetrate.

Once the rice is toasted (you’ll notice it makes a slightly different, more bead-like sound - don’t let it burn!) add the white wine and stir. Let almost all of the wine boil off.

Add a ladle full of vegetable broth, stirring. Keep the heat medium. As the broth becomes absorbed, keep adding more, ladle by ladle. This process takes about 25 minutes and cannot be shortened. You have to allow the rice to absorb the broth slowly.

Occasionally bite into a piece of the rice. It needs to have a bit of resistance but it needs to also be creamy. You’ll start to see this happening after about 20 minutes. You can start to season your risotto now with salt and pepper. Do this gradually. Don’t overdo.

When the rice is “almost there”, add the pumpkin and rosemary, along with a ladle full of broth. Let the rice take on a bit of the color and then add, if you wish, the butter and cheese. Add another ladle of broth. By now, you should have reached the optimal consistency.

Keep a bit of broth to the side.

You should really serve risotto immediately. If you can’t and you need to reheat it a bit, use the broth you have set aside to feed it and soften it up.

I love serving risotto in deep, luscious serving bowls, never on a plate! Risotto is about comfort, and bowls are comforting.

Finish off your risotto with several leaves of rucola and a drizzle of olive oil.

As you can gather from this recipe, making risotto is about loving the ingredients and respecting them, coddling them along to make something rich and special. It’s time consuming and is meant to be so. This is only one of many ways to prepare risotto but the base is always the same. Good rice, good oil, good broth.

Buon Appetito!

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Noodles with Nuts

When I was a kid, there was a meal that my mother made regularly on Christmas Eve. It was rich and sumptuous and very, very easy. When I think of this dish, I reflexively think of the little angel chime that was on the table, the one with four candles under it that made the angels turn in a circle.

Honestly, though, this is the kind of meal that can be made any time. I would consider it a fall/winter meal, since it’s filling.

The last time I made it, I decided to make my own pasta, which you most definitely don’t have to do. It just makes the dish a bit more special.

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I suggest you use an egg pasta for this dish to make it rich. Here I used about one egg per 100 grams of strong flour, and threw two extra yolks in. I kneaded it for a good while to develop the gluten. I rolled it out using my pasta maker and cut it also using the pasta maker. I started the dough in my KitchenAid then moved it to a marble slab to continue working it. I let it rest for about a half hour before rolling it out. For four people, use about a pound of pasta, or 500 grams (which is a little more, but leftovers are good!).


The sauce is as simple as can be. You can either use cream cheese or mascarpone - it’s your choice. I prefer the mascarpone, but they are both perfectly ok.

12 ounces cream cheese or mascarpone (340 grams)

1 cup of ground walnuts (225 grams)

3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper.

Place the cream cheese or mascarpone in a bowl. As the pasta is cooking, spoon out a few tablespoons of the boiling starched water and mix it into the cream cheese. Use enough to get a creamy consistency.

Drain the pasta. Place in a large bowl, add the oil and toss the pasta. Add the cream cheese and the nuts and toss. Add a handful of chopped flat-leaf parsley, if desired.

Serve with grated Reggiano Parmagiano.

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You can experiment with this recipe. For example, using hazelnuts would make it more Piemontese, or maybe adding some different herbs might change it up completely. So have fun experimenting, or be a purist - which ever way you choose, the result will be buonissimo!



Breakfast Served a Lifetime Ago

Breakfast Served a Lifetime Ago

It seems like yesterday; it seems like a lifetime ago.  Our summers making breakfast in Italy. 

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The Business of Passion

We've just returned from two weeks of sun soaked, warm fall days.  The vendemmia, or harvest, was in full swing when we arrived, and was finishing up as we left.  The lighter and medium reds - Dolcetto and Barbera - were picked earlier and that last beauties to leave the vines were the Nebbiolo grapes, of Barbaresco and Barolo fame. The sweetness of the grapes, after the excruciatingly hot summer, was akin to honey.  Most winemakers agree it will be "un'annata stupenda"... a very good vintage.  

We spent a good deal of time visiting wineries, because we are starting a new business selling Piemontese wines from small producers in Germany and the rest of Europe.  This idea started six years ago, when we were in the middle of a full season at our B&B.  Micha and I were walking down our long steep driveway with Max - it was hot and we were booked.  He had just returned from having taken guests on a wine tour, and he spoke of the wish he had to help some of these wonderful producers - and human beings - to sell their wines outside of Italy.  

That initial idea never went away, and Micha recorded and documented almost all the bottles he opened from that point forward.  Once we made the decision to change our lives and sell the B&B, it was clear that we would start a new endeavor - and that we would do it from Germany.

It took us some time to get our feet back on the ground after what was a difficult and traumatic move.  Changing everything, from the project and home in which we were completely invested, to country, culture and language is challenging for anyone.  

We sifted through various business concepts and decided that an on-line wine business was where we would start.  

We're in that very exciting, very scary business development stage where we are planning the initial orders from our hand-chosen wineries (all of whom we know personally) and creating a gorgeous website with an awesomely cool agency.  We're running financials and talking about our mission and making sales projections.  All of those things you do to launch a successful business. 

But at the heart of this project is a mission - and that mission is to give an international platform to winemakers who make exceptionally wonderful wines, from a region to which we lost our hearts over a decade ago.  

It's scary to be starting something at an age where most people would be counting the days to Social Security.  It's not easy to learn about SEO and renting pop-up stores and the best way of planning events throughout the country.  We could, conceivably, just not do it. 

But what fun would that be?  Where is the learning in that?  Where is the joy of possibility?

So we're going for it.  One day at a time, one grape at a time.  

I'm proud of us for trying, and for creating something that touches on all the things we have ever done or loved or lived through.  Our goal is to work at something that isn't really work for us, and through that to create something special and beautiful and meaningful.  And to do that until we can't anymore.  

After all, what is better than living your passion? 

p.s.  I of course am still creating art.  It is my ying to all of this business yang.  I am one lucky girl. 



Italian Food

When I come to Italy, I am immediately overtaken with the desire to eat simply. We've intentionally kept our kitchen here very basic - no food processor, no fancy utensils.  We only have what we need to prepare available ingredients in the most basic of ways. 

This suits me fine.  I don't come here to cook.  I come here to recharge, to work on our wine business, to write, to meet friends, to walk.  And because ingredients available here are of the highest possible quality at fair prices,  food preparation can be reduced to the minimum.

I have a favorite fish stand at the organic market in Alba who we visit every Wednesday when we are here. The fish is brought up from the Ligurian coast just hours before we buy it.  My favorite ingredients are always the least expensive and are the classic Italian favorites:  fresh anchovies, mackerel, sardines, herring and trout.  

People often turn their noses up at what they think are "fishy" fish.  I challenge anyone who has never had anchovies or sardines or mackerel that did not come out of a bottle or flat can to resist a fresher than fresh filet of these extremely delicious and super healthy fish, marinated in just a touch of olive oil and lemon, sprinkled with sea salt.  

I rarely bother frying mackerel any more.  I just marinate them.  Today, at lunch, I served marinated mackerel with a salad I made from shaved fennel (shaved with a cheese grater), cut tomato and lettuce leaves and a loaf of freshly baked bread.  It was sublime. 

Food like this is a gift.  It is a balsam for the body and the soul.  

Dinner can be just a panful of slightly over-ripe cherry tomatoes fried gently in garlic and olive oil over pasta or rice or polenta with a little pancetta.   There is really no need to get fancy when you can wallow in flavors like this. 

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This is a country where construction workers sit at tables in local restaurants at lunch, drink red wine and eat steaming hot linguine ladled with delicate, fragrant sauces underscored with slow roasted meats and cooked vegetables.  It is a country where children, little ones, can be seen downing anchovies and  porcini along with their pasta and chunks of 24 month aged Reggiano Parmigiano.  

In short, it is a country of food experts who understand  that quality ingredients, simply prepared, give life meaning.  

It is one of the things I love most about coming here.  Eating like this.