Sunday, July 13, 2008

A gift, a garden, some rice--risotto

A gift of morels is a gift indeed

I've had two particularly wonderful risottos in the last few weeks. Maybe because they take a bit of work, or maybe because I'm marked forever by the first authentic one I ever had, in a Milanese restaurant that was way beyond my budget some 40 years ago, I don't think of risotti as frugal food.

But really, they are yet another way that Italians have shown us how to take a bit of this and a dab of that and blend it into pleasure. Even Arborio rice doesn't cost much compared to say, a salmon steak or even slab of marinated tofu, and except for the olive oil and maybe some cheese, the rest of the dish can come from the garden.

A few weeks back my friend Rob gave me a small bag of morels, which reminded me that I already had some dried porcini, harvested from a neighbor's yard during the first rains of last fall. I got a few crimini from the Food Co-op (locally grown at Twin Sisters Farm). The rest was a handful of parsley and garlic chives from the garden, some stock from the last time I cooked a chicken (vegetable stock is fine too), a splash of white wine, and some time chatting while stirring at the stove.

The result was memorable. This may sound revolting if you are not a hardcore gardener, but to me the wild, earthy sweetness of that risotto was reminiscent of one of my all-time favorite smells (right up there with a new baby or a slightly sweaty horse), that of a well-made compost pile. Somehow it's full and sweet at the same time. It smells like life. (By the way, that almost floral smell is the best way to tell if your compost is ready.)

The other risotto was just last night. I picked one of my young artichokes--how I love saying that--and determined that this time I would treat it right. I am new to home-grown chokes, and the last one I cooked was insufficiently trimmed. I did get the choke part out, but I left too much stem and too many bitter outside leaves, so the whole dish was bitter.

This time I blanched the whole choke before trimming and dechoking it. Then I made my risotto using lots of parsley and a shallot from my garden, a bit of garlic, and the artichoke, sliced into small wedges with about two inches of the stem. I had just a smidgeon of hard-as-a-rock Parmesan. It was past grating, but I was able to hack it to little chunks with a carving knife and add it to the rice. I think the best part was the stem, a tender wand of artichoke flavor.

Three more chokes are ripening as I write, so I'm anticipating the next kitchen adventure.

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