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!



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. 

 

 

 

 

  

Italian Lessons

Italy is a place where one loses and finds oneself in equal measure.  It has long been my contention that people feel so drawn to Italy because we are all vulnerable to seduction.  With natural wonders that border on the sublime, a gastronomic and enological culture that defies every imagination of what food and wine can be, and a sense of kindness that grasps the heart, Italy is not short on seductive tricks up its very beautiful sleeve.

We spent a decade here, drawn by a calling to eschew the boardrooms and city life.  We worked harder than either of us ever thought we could doing things of which neither of us thought we were capable.  We came to understand that you can feel physical pain from the top of your head to the souls of your feet simply by supplying yourself with firewood - if you have to cut it yourself.  We learned, from people who kindly befriended us, what it means, truly means, to live with the seasons and never to underestimate the power and wrath of nature.  

We learned how to be with each other, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, without pushing each other's buttons to the point where one of us would actually leave.  Believe me, that is no easy feat, even in the best of relationships. 

We came to learn that hard work comes in no relation to money earned, and that the hardest workers in the country side don't feel as though they are owed anything.  We came to learn that we were no more or less entitled to anything simply because we came to fulfill a certain desire to be independent in a beautiful place - we would have to work just as hard, if not harder, than the person who makes his sustenance by planting potatoes and harvesting a couple of acres of grapes. 

We learned that people have always struggled, and will always struggle, and it's what you do with that struggle that will determine what kind of person you are.  We learned that people who struggle the most often have the greatest sense of empathy for the struggle of others, and are the most willing to make a plate of pasta and pour a glass of wine for others in need of it.  

We learned we didn't miss boardrooms, or meetings, or getting up in the morning to have to go to a place where we had no real stake in the process, other than what it paid us.  We considered ourselves inordinately lucky as a result. 

But Italy pushed us.  It prodded us, and sometimes, it tortured us.  We were willing to throw ourselves into the task of being students, and often, too often, it ate up large parts of us.  As time went on there, we knew that the lifestyle we lived would too challenging for us to continue forever.

But that doesn't mean it didn't hurt like hell to leave.  

I will never be the same person I was before I went to Italy.  It took me right up to the very edge of my limits.  Sometimes I stepped beyond my own limits, and I dealt with the consequences of it.  My health, both physical and emotional, suffered.  Now, almost two years after selling our home there, I have had a time to rest and distance myself from the hard work, the brutally equalizing nature, the unending uncertainty of the harsh economic situation the country still finds itself in, and I can see, with ever increasing clarity, the magic that seduced me so completely. 

And I miss it. I miss it in the depths of darkest and brightest corners of my soul.  And just to be able to know that kind of longing makes me eternally grateful that Italy seduced us in the first place. 

We leave in a few days for Piemonte, and I will once again be able to hold the hills in my closest heart as the farmers harvest the grapes.