Saturday, March 02, 2013

Almost Spring Risotto with Parmigiano Reggiano


Hungrily wandering the narrow streets of Florence, I spied a simply adorned trattoria packed with locals clearly enjoying their meal. Looked like a promising spot for dinner. Upon entering, gestures from the hostess told me to take the one empty seat at a long table filled with wizened Italian men whose faces suggested many years of working in the Tuscan sun. No sooner did I get a few friendly nods and Buona seras, I had a hearty plate of meat lasagna plopped in front of me. This clearly wasn't a menu oriented place, you ate what they cooked and you liked it.  The primi piatti was served along with my personal bottle of Chianti complete with the straw basket. And of course, the gentleman to my left passed the bowl of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, which I eagerly heaped onto my lasagna. This was clearly a very different cheese than the powdered stuff in the green dispenser I'd grown up with! Somewhere into the meat course, during another passing of the Parmigiano, one of my dining companions and I realized we both spoke a similar amount French (un peu), and struck up a conversation.

found great fettuccine while exploring the canals!
After completing my whirlwind post-college European tour, I began learning to create my own meals, many of them hearty Italian pasta dishes. A few years into my cooking journey, Jodi and I began planning to honeymoon in Italy. I eagerly awaited more memorable meals in Florence, hoping to inspire my own cooking to a higher level. I was curious to sample fresh Italian pesto, one thing I'd mastered in my own kitchen. But when we arrived, I was disappointed not to see pesto mentioned on the short list of options scrawled on chalkboards in the restaurants we visited. I found other things to enjoy, but was a bit perplexed by the absence of what I thought was an Italian staple.

Finally, I met a server who spoke just enough English to respond to my quest for pesto. She shrugged, and said emphatically, "The basil ees not FRESH!". But another dish captured my attention. Fettuccine Alfredo at a restaurant in Venice featured perfectly cooked, homemade fettuccine noodles coated in a luxurious cream, with a nutty taste and just a hint of sweetness. Perfection on a plate--and my curiosity was piqued. Why was this dish different than the version I'd prepared back home? I eventually discovered that classic Italian Alfredo doesn't use the cream I did. Only three ingredients are involved: homemade noodles, plenty of butter and a generous 1/2 pound or so of top quality Parmigiano Reggiano.

Coming to understand why the Italians wouldn't serve pesto in early March and how three ingredients could make a great dish marked an important stage in my development as a cook. Focus on what's fresh, and let a few great ingredients like great Parmigiano Reggiano shine. These lessons have served me well.
plenty of Parmigiano @ Whole Foods!
When I heard that Whole Foods was looking for bloggers to share recipes that celebrate Parmigiano Reggiano, as they seek to shatter the world record for Parmigiano cracking, I tried to keep in mind the lessons I'd learned in Italy. I wanted to be sure my dish put the cheese was central to the dish, to let it shine. I also wanted my creation to be in keeping with the rhythm of the seasons.

Patches of green are starting to emerge as the snow melts. We have a ways to go before spring is in full bloom here in the Boston area, but I did notice some good looking asparagus had arrived at Whole Foods from a warmer climate. So I grabbed that asparagus along with snap peas, another early spring vegetable, to use in a risotto that would showcase the big chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano, and have us anticipate the spring weather soon to come. I was quite pleased with the resulting Almost Spring Risotto, and I hope you will be too! As an added bonus, this fancy tasting dish is vegetarian.

basil emulsion
1 cup basil
2 garlic
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

risotto
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 1/2 cup sweet onions, chopped (Vidalia would fit the theme nicely)
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups arborio rice
7 cups vegetable broth
1 bunch asparagus, rough ends trimmed, the remainder cut into pieces of about 2 inches
2 cups snap peas, ends trimmed, pods cut in half
3/4 cup freshly grated Mitica Parmigiano Reggiano, plus extra to pass at table (or other high quality parm cheese)
1 tbsp lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

Get started by taking your block of Parmigiano Reggiano and grating it. Go ahead and grate at least 1 cup or more so you have plenty to pass at the table. Be sure to nibble on a few pieces as you go to appreciate its rich nuttiness. Top quality Parmigiano from Whole Foods tastes great on its own as well as being a star ingredient in many recipes.

Next step is to make the basil emulsion. This is a bit like a pesto, without the pine nuts or cheese. This component adds a nice fresh flavor to the dish. Simply rinse and dry the 2 cups of basil leaves, and add them to a food processor along with the garlic. Puree the two ingredients together, then gradually pour the olive oil in with the motor running. Set the emulsion aside for finishing the risotto.

Now, it's time to get going on the risotto making. Bring the broth to a gentle boil and lower a bit to keep it warm, on burner handy to where you'll be cooking the risotto. Heat 1 tbsp of the olive oil in sturdy pot for making the risotto. Add the onion, saute on medium heat until they soften, about 5 minutes. Pour in the rice, and stir to get it all well coated with the onions and oil. Cook for about one minute, then stir in the wine. Stir frequently, and cook until the wine is pretty well absorbed.

Once the wine is absorbed, it's time to begin gradually adding the stock to to pot. Add one cup, stir frequently. I keep it around medium heat, but go a bit higher if things seem to be going very slow, then lower the heat if it starts boiling. When the first cup of broth is absorbed, add another. This process continues until the stock is used or mostly used, and the rice is getting tender. You need to be stirring frequently...it's OK to briefly leave the pot to do other kitchen tasks, including steaming the vegetables, but stay nearby as it needs to get stirred every minute or two. Many recipes say this takes 15 to 20 minutes, but I usually find it takes more like 40...and my risotto always tastes great!

Steam the vegetables while you are keeping an eye on the risotto, stirring frequently. The steaming time will vary based on the thickness of the asparagus. I had thicker stocks so steamed them for about 5 minutes. Add the peas for the final minute or two of steaming, they take very little time. You want the vegetables to be tender but still crisp. When they are done, drain and rinse with cold water to keep them from cooking more.


After about 40 minutes and all the liquid has been stirred into the risotto, test the risotto, it should be tender but still a bit firm, similar to al dente pasta. You can stir in a half cup of water if you need to soften it a bit more. When the rice is ready, turn the heat down to medium low, and stir in Parmigiano Reggiano and a tablespoon of olive oil. Once the cheese is incorporated, stir in the veggies and basil emulsion. Cook on low for a minute or two so the cheese melts and the flavors are incorporated. Add a generous grind or two of pepper and stir in the lemon juice. Add a bit of salt to taste if you desire, but with the cheese you don't need much if any.


Now, you are ready to serve and enjoy the risotto. Encourage each person to sprinkle a generous amount of the Parmigiano Reggiano on top of their serving. This goes well with a green salad. Keeping with the Italian theme, I paired it with an Italian white Moscato from Manincor, a great producer from the Alto Adige region.

Help us bring the big cheese to Woburn! If you've been to a Whole Foods, you know their cheese is pretty awesome. There's a Twitter contest to bring the genius behind that cheese, Whole Foods Global Cheese Buyer Cathy Strange, to our local Whole Foods. Help us win by RTing @wfm_woburn's tweets that include #parmcrack and @wfmcheese in them! (You can find those in my @cookingchat feed too!).

Full disclosure: This post was written for a contest to write a story of our interest in Parmigiano Reggiano along with a recipe featuring the cheese. I received a gift card to buy my cheese, the recipe and story are my own!