Sometimes I need comfort, but not too many calories. I need to pair a boost of spring energy with a warm hug. I need to have something exciting enough to fulfill my taste buds, without challenging them with exotic flavours. There is one food to match the bill. Risotto. Namely, risotto ai piselli.
In Italy piselli are heralds of spring – early spring. Here up North they are more of a herald of Summer, but never mind: the important thing is that I know that every year I can count on my fix of fresh peas. Shelling the plump pods, getting my nails green, already feels like healing from whatever is aching. I love the way the pods crack open and fill the air with their sweet smell. I love running my hand in the fresh bounty of peas. I like them so much that when they are really tiny I’d eat them raw, until I feel a bit queasy.
Today I bought fresh peas for the first time this year. My partner had already made me promise – weeks ago! – that I’d hold my usual culinary experiments and cook the very first peas in form of a ‘humble’ risotto. One of his favourite dishes, and I have to admit, now that I think about it, also one of mine. I never feel like cooking risotto: I used to eat so much of it growing up, that I have developed a thick crust of indifference to it. I will not accept any risotto less than outstanding, and it would rarely excite me. But when I actually cook it, well, it feels like meeting a friend after a long time, and finding out that the years did not change you in the end, and you still are really fond of each other. A very good feeling.
Risi e bisi – Venetian dialect for rice and peas – is one of the dishes we’ve always eaten at home, and with always I mean at least four generations have prepared it in my family. It is a risotto so runny it borders with a soup. I make it slightly thicker in honour of my years in Lombardia, but leave it a bit runnier and al dente than what you’d expect. It is a simple dish, all made of little details, that can make it taste so much better. The main factor influencing the result is the stock. If you have it, good home-made chicken stock is a good choice, but not necessarily the most traditional one. My grandmother and mother use ready-made dado (bouillon) and are perfectly happy with it. I prefer its flavour unadulterated: to me it does not need to taste of anything but rice and peas. I normally make a quick vegetable stock using the pressure cooker, and if I happen to have organic pea pods, I add them to the stock for a boost of flavour and a lovely green colour. If you are not vegan, you can round the risotto off with some butter, but it is not needed. And if you are not vegetarian, you should add some parmesan right before serving (true Italian parmesan is made with animal rennet and thus not vegetarian), but also this is not necessary, although nice: just add more salt if you skip it. Actually the risotto was traditionally prepared with grana, the cheaper cheese variety produced in almost all of Northern Italy. Parmesan is a speciality from a smaller region and has higher quality standards, grana is somehow rougher, but when properly done it can be delicious.
A final tip: it is much easier to make a risotto in a very large pot. If making two or three servings I often use a sautee pan. It makes stirring easier and the evaporation more uniform.
I am sharing this dish with #35 edition of My Legume Love Affair, an event organised by Susan at The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted this month by Smitha at Kannada Cuisine – how can you not love fresh garden peas? And being definitely a house favourite, the dish also goes to Claire’s House Favourites: Vegan.
Risi e bisi
Ingredients (serves two):
For the stock: 1 onion, 1 carrot, 1 piece of celeriac or celery, 10 grains of pepper, 2 bay leaves, organic pea pods if you have them
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
1 small white onion or 2 spring onions
200 gr risotto rice (the most traditional in my family are Baldo or Sant’Andrea; Carnaroli is a safe choice if unsure)
500 gr peas, including shells
a small bunch of flat leaf parsley
1 small knob of good quality butter (optional, substitute with mild olive oil)
handful of freshly grated parmesan (optional)
Shell the peas from their pods. Put all the stock ingredients in a pressure cooker or in a normal pan. Cover with 2 liters of water and bring to the boil. don’t add salt. Let simmer for about 15′ on pressure cooker, or 40 mins without.
Finely chop the onion and the parsley. When the stock is nearly ready, start the risotto. Heat the oil in a wide non stick pot, add the chopped onion and stir gently on medium heat until it softens a bit. It should not colour at all. Add in the peas, washed and dried, and the rice. let the rice toast for a couple of minutes, stirring. Add some salt (I like adding it at the beginning so that I don’t forget), then start adding the stock, one big ladleful at a time. Keep stirring gently for about 15 minutes, adding stock as you go (you’ll add about a liter, depending on rice variety). Taste the rice and adjust seasoning, then cook a bit more if needed. You should turn the heat off while it is still quite al dente, but not raw, and there is soe liquid left in the pan. Add butter and parmesan, if using, and parsley and pepper. Stir well and let sit for a couple of minutes – this moment of rest will turn the remaining stock into creamy goodness and let you obtain a real risotto all’onda.
Serve hot, with a bit of extra parmesan and white pepper if you like.