It all started with a risotto.
I was still living at home with my parents. Coming back from work, I would often open the fridge to explore its content. I needed to cook something from scratch. It was my creative outlet, a way to nurture my soul after eight hours spent in an office I was desperately trying to leave.
I would often cook risotto. After all, in its most simple version, you can consider it a pantry recipe: rice, butter, stock, Parmigiano Reggiano, and maybe a seasonal vegetable of choice.
Risotto is a therapeutic recipe.
It involves all your senses and demands your undivided attention.
I learned this from Aurora. When I was nineteen, fresh out of high school, I took a fast train to Padova to spend a long weekend with my grandma’s relatives: her cousin Massimo, and his wife, Aurora. It was just the second time I met them – the first a few weeks earlier at home -, but they had promised me three days of relaxing, good food and art, so I was sold. We clicked immediately. We had coffee with cream in a historical café, we visited the Giotto chapel, and I learned the secret behind an outstanding risotto.
Aurora, a retired art teacher, told me that you must stand by the stove, coddling your risotto, adding ladleful after ladleful of hot stock to coax it into its creamy, comforting texture.
So simple, yet mindblowing. The secret is to give yourself entirely to the task, and the results will come. Don’t answer the phone, don’t scroll your Instagram feed, give your attention to the risotto you are making. That’s why the simple gesture of coddling a risotto was so therapeutic when I needed to focus on something creative, forgetting the day spent in the office.
Let your senses guide you.
The smell of onion gently frying in butter is like the beginning of a love story, so full of promises. Look at that onion, though, don’t let it burn. When it turns pale golden, pour in the rice. Listen to the rice grains, and you will hear them crackling imperceptibly while you’re toasting them. It is a sign you can pour in the wine.
Feel the resistance the risotto exerts on the wooden spoon while you’re stirring: it’s the starch released by each grain of rice. The risotto is getting creamy. Now taste it. Do you feel it? It has an unmistakable flavour. It is given by butter and Parmigiano Reggiano. More than a taste, though, it is rather a mouthfeel, a feeling of creaminess and viscosity.
I like to be involved in making a risotto.
I feel responsible for the outcome and proud of the creaminess of its texture, the sign you had been successful. As Elizabeth David wrote in A book of Mediterranean food, it should be creamy, homogeneous, but on no account reduced to porridge. One must be able to taste each grain of rice although it is not separated as in pilaff.
It is a labour of love, but it is totally worth it. You can see it also from Mark Bittman’s perspective. In 2014 he wrote an article for The New York Times, When cooking, invest time. Or work. Not both.
He explains the physical theory of everyday cooking, The Time-Work Continuum. Since I read that article, I’ve been using this principle to guide me in my weeknight meals.
To be effective in the kitchen, especially on a weeknight, you need to cook towards the extreme of the continuum. It means you can either spend 5 minutes preparing a pork stew, and then let it cook on its own for hours, or spend 30 minutes actively working on chopping, stirring, and checking the heat and doneness of a recipe.
Risotto is the perfect example of a recipe standing on the Work extreme of the continuum.
“In Italy rice is never served with chicken, meat, or fish. These ingredients, if they are to be used, are always integrated into the dish.”
Elizabeth David, Italian food
After all this talking about risotto, I had to share a recipe. Last week I went to the market with the intention of buying a seasonal vegetable to make risotto – radicchio, or maybe the first asparagus from the coast? -, but then I saw the fish stall and it happened, it became a seafood risotto.
The fishmonger sells something called misto per risotto, which is a mixture of baby squids, tiny shrimps and diced swordfish that he makes fresh each morning. Once cooked, it marries beautifully the risotto, the acidity of the dry white wine exalting the brackish taste of seafood.
The seafood risotto comes close to a seaside trip in terms of satisfaction and sheer happiness.
Since I made Samin Nosrat’s pasta alle vongole from her book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I became brave with the use of fat, especially butter (I was already quite confident with extra virgin olive oil).
Until a few years ago, I would have made my seafood risotto just with extra viring olive oil, skipping the butter altogether. And I would have left out the Parmigiano, God forbid! Italians are very particular when it comes to pairing fish and cheese, even though there are quite a few exceptions, especially in the South of Italy.
Now, even if I’m cooking a seafood risotto, I finish it with butter and Parmigiano. I remove the risotto from the heat and add just a knob of butter, a sprinkling of grated Parmigiano, then I stir vigorously, to cream the risotto. You do not distinguish the taste of butter and cheese, but they make an enormous difference.
And bang! You have the salt, fat, acid and umami in one dish, your seafood risotto.
For the mussels
- 400 grams (3/4 lb) mussels
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
For the seafood
- 400 grams (3/4 lb) baby squids, cleaned and cut into small pieces
- 4 shrimps
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- Chilli pepper flakes, to taste
- 1 clove garlic, smashed
For the risotto
- 160 grams (3/4 cups) Arborio rice
- ½ white onion
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 30 grams (2 tablespoons) butter
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 400 ml (1 2/3 cups) hot fish stock, or slightly salted hot water
- 1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Start preparing the mussels.
- Clean them thoroughly: collect them in a bowl, rinse them and scrub them under running water. Take out any open mussels. Remove the mussel beard, then transfer them into a colander.
- Pour the olive oil into a saucepan, and add the smashed garlic clove. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant, then add the mussels. Cover and cook the mussels over medium heat until they open up.
- Remove the mussels from the heat and filter the liquid left in the pan. Add it to the stock to cook the risotto.
- Collect the mussels in a small bowl and discard the shells. Leave just a couple of whole mussels for decoration.
Now cook the seafood for the risotto.
- Pour the olive oil into a saucepan, and add the smashed garlic clove and chili pepper flakes to taste. Cook over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant, then add the baby squids, cut into small pieces, and the shrimps.
- Now cook the seafood over medium heat until it is soft and has absorbed all the liquid it releases. Set aside.
Now prepare the risotto.
- Add the olive oil and half of the butter into a pan, followed by the minced onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt (the salt will help you cook down the onion without burning it). Sauté the onion over low heat until it becomes translucent and soft; just a few minutes will be enough.
- Add the rice and use a wooden spoon to stir it into the sautéed onion. Turn the heat to medium-low and let the rice toast, constantly stirring, until it is translucent, almost pearly. Again, a few minutes will be enough.
- Pour the white wine over the rice and cook, stirring with the wooden spoon, until all of it has cooked off or been absorbed by the rice.
- Now, pour in the hot stock in four separate additions, stirring very often and waiting for each addition to be completely absorbed before adding the next. The risotto will become creamier thanks to the starch released by the rice as it is cooked in the stock.
- Halfway through the cooking, when you have used about half of the stock, add the cooked seafood and the shelled mussels, and stir thoroughly to incorporate it.
- This whole process will take about 15 minutes. Remember to taste the risotto every now and then, as you might not need all of the stock. The rice is ready when it feels soft, but still with a hard soul inside, slightly al dente.
- When you have finished pouring in the stock—or maybe you’ll have just a tiny bit left—and the rice is cooked but still al dente, remove the risotto from the heat. Add the remaining butter and the grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and stir well. Taste it one last time to see if it still needs a little salt.
- Serve the risotto into individual bowls, topping it with the reserved mussels and sprinkling the chopped parsley on top.
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Serve the seafood risotto with…
It might be the lockdown we’re back in, but I’m craving a trip to the Tuscan coast. I can’t wait to be able to sit again in a small restaurant on the beach, the sea breeze caressing my skin, my eyes lost in the distance, and a seafood feast in front of me. What would you have? I’d love to start with some crudo, maybe raw shrimps and a palamita tartare, then I would have a seafood risotto, and probably a frittura mista, a plateful of fried camalari, shirmps and anchovies. To reproduce the carefree happiness of a day at the beach, serve the seafood risotto with stuffed squids and a custard and amaretti gelato.
- Stuffed squids with bread and pine nuts. Choose the smallest squids and stuff them patiently with a few simple ingredients: stale bread soaked in milk, parsley, stir-fried tentacles and a handful of pine nuts to give flavour and a different texture. The sea taste is persistent, softened by bread and milk. Pine nuts add a surprising resinous taste: everything comes together to remind you the balsamic air of a maritime pine forest, a lunches by the sea in the shade of hundred year old trees.
- Custard and amaretti gelato. This is a classic and quite historical flavour, crema fiorentina, a custard based ice cream enriched with amaretti, traditional almond and egg white cookies.