I was a picky eater. Would you believe it? I used to eat lunch at school and it felt like a torture. That giant snail shell pasta with tomato sauce, dried out with a shower of grated Parmigiano, seemed to multiply in my plate. Not to mention the wilted green salad.
There was one dish, though, that I would eat with dedication: it was a humble tomato risotto. Probably because my mum and grandma never made it at home, it was somehow special.
When I turned six, I became a curious eater, open to new dishes and flavours, and I forgot about that risotto until a few years ago.
As it often happens with childhood favourites, it is challenging to recreate a taste that has been living solely in your memory for years. It was probably a combination of relief and texture that made that risotto so memorable. If I close my eyes, I can see a young Giulia with a pale green and white chequered smock sitting at a low table, on a polished wooden bench, cleaning a plate of tomato risotto, delighted that it was not that dreadful snail shell pasta.
Roasted tomato risotto
I’ve attempted a few times to reproduce that risotto. If a simple tomato passata and a hefty tablespoon of grated Parmigiano Reggiano work to make a decent risotto, quite close to that of my memories, using a roasted tomato sauce and a generous scoop of stracciatella cheese turns the risotto in a dish for special occasions, yet still genuine and simple.
Let’s talk about stracciatella.
Do not confuse it with the gelato taste, stracciatella, a milk-based gelato dotted with fine, irregular shavings of dark chocolate. The stracciatella cheese is the filling of the burrata, a creamy soft cheese with shreds of mozzarella. I could eat it by the spoonful, simply dressed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil from Puglia, its bitter notes a perfect counterbalance to the milky stracciatella.
Stracciatella enhances the creaminess of a risotto, too, without covering its taste. And it works magic with risotto al pomodoro, consolidating the classic dyad mozzarella and tomato, so typical of the Italian tradition, from pizza to caprese. So, if you cannot find stracciatella, opt for burrata or finely shredded mozzarella.
If you do not feel like making the roasted cherry tomato sauce, or if you do not have time, as you’re planning to eat your risotto in half an hour, substitute it with 300 g (1 ½ cup, 10 oz) of tomato passata. Cook it briefly with a splash of extra virgin olive oil and a clove of garlic to enhance its flavour.
Ingredients for the roasted tomato sauce
- 500 g (1.1 lb) datterini, or cherry tomatoes
- 2 shallots
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Black pepper
Ingredients for the risotto
- 2 shallots
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 20 g (1 1/3 tablespoons) butter
- 180 g (1 cup) Arborio rice, or Carnaroli rice
- 150 ml (2/3 cup) white wine
- 2 ½ cups hot water
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 350 g stracciatella cheese, or burrata
- Freshly ground black pepper
Make the roasted tomato sauce
- Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F).
- Cut open the tomatoes, arrange them cut side up on a roasting pan. Peel and divide the shallots in a half, then add them into the roasting pan along with the tomatoes.
- Dress with salt, pepper and a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
- Slow roast the tomatoes for one hour, then blend the tomatoes until creamy. Adjust the seasoning.
- Set aside until you need it. This can be made in advance, keep it in the fridge until ready to make the risotto.
Make the risotto
- Mince the shallots (if you do not feel to master the knife skills properly, use a cutter, but do not chop it too much or it will become a mush).
- Pour the olive oil in a saucepan, add the butter, the minced shallot onion and half a teaspoon of salt: the salt will help you to cook the shallot without burning it. Sauté the shallot over low heat until it becomes translucent and soft. Just a few minutes will be enough.
- Add the rice and toast it. Stir it with a wooden spoon into the sautéed shallots and let it toast, always stirring, over medium-low heat, until the rice will be translucent, almost pearly. If you listen carefully to the pot, your will hear it crackle imperceptibly. Another tip to see if the rice is ready is to hold a few grains between your fingers. When they are too hot to handle, they are nicely toasted. Again, a few minutes will be enough.
- Pour the white wine over the rice: let it evaporate, stirring with the wooden spoon, until the rice has absorbed it.
- Now cook the risotto by pouring the hot water in at least 4 times. Cook the risotto over medium-low heat, stirring very often. Doing this, the risotto will become creamier thanks to the starch released by the rice.
- Halfway through the cooking, when you have used about half of the hot water, add the tomato purée.
- Keep on adding the hot water to cook the rice. The whole process will take about 15-18 minutes, not more, so remember to taste the risotto every now and then. It will be ready when you feel it soft, but still with a hard soul inside, slightly al dente.
- When you have finished the hot water, or maybe you’ll have just a tiny bit left, and when the rice will be cooked but still al dente, remove the risotto from the heat, add the grated Parmigiano Reggiano and half of the stracciatella, and stir well. This is what we call mantecare, in Italian, which means almost to cream the butter and cheese into the rice. Taste it one last time to see if it still needs a little salt and you are ready to serve it.
- Top each bowl of risotto with the remaining stracciatella, sprinkle with black pepper and serve immediately.
Serve the risotto with…
This is a meal that comes directly from my childhood, consisting of some of my favourite dishes.
- Bracioline al pomodoro. So, here it is the marvellous food that marked the beginning of my foodie discoveries, a peasant dish, created to increase the available meat, which is passed in a beaten egg and then thickly coated with breadcrumbs, fried and then cooked again with a good dash of tomato sauce, the same they would bottle during summer with a basil leaf, the same we still make.
- Zuppa inglese. The pastry custard is also the starting point to make zuppa inglese, literally English soup and basically a trifle, which was made when there was sponge cake or some savoiardi, lady biscuits, an acclaimed afternoon snack, perfect for those days when you needed a boost of energy or an extra cuddle, to be added to the wool blanket on the couch and to grandma’s caresses.
Some of the things I’ve been reading, watching and listening to while breastfeeding at night, or during the day, walking outside in the autumn shades or driving my car for the first time after months.
- Midnight Chicken: & Other Recipes Worth Living For. I’ve just begun this book. The author, Ella Risbridger, is a new talented food writer you should keep an eye on.
- How 12 Female Cookbook Authors Changed the Way We Eat. From Edna Lewis to Julia Child, from Marcella Hazan to Alice Waters and other less known food writers, Anne Willain examines some of the most love cookbook authors.