Saturday is definitely my favorite day of the week because it is full of promise. Rarely is Saturday defined by schedules or obligations. Rather it is the perfect example of limitless possibility. After a luxuriously silent and relatively early morning coffee, I start my day with a trip to the farmers market. My task of the morning is to soak up the sights, ultimately deciding which ingredients will take part in of the weekend ritual of cooking.
Although I have often promised myself to make lists and menu plans for the work week, my mind simply refuses this kind of obligation. By mid afternoon, I make my way home with linen bags filled with ingredients and thoughts swimming with opportunity.
Since pumpkins have made a sudden yet unavoidable appearance at every vegetable and floral stall I know of, bringing home this week’s shopping involved multiple trips by bike and by foot to a few different city market squares. Pumpkin varieties aside, the basket full of mushrooms I brought to my kitchen made it clear that autumn has arrived to stay.
For the first time in at least six months I set out to make risotto. For the occasion I dedicated late Sunday morning to puttering around, preparing each element for a perfect Sunday pranzo, completely from scratch. The number of words necessary to explain every step in the process take much longer to write than the activity itself — which by the way is invariably the case when cooking is involved. So please feel free to follow the process I describe below, changing and modifying according to the availability of ingredients. Before moving on to the practical process of cooking, I have just one more thing I would like to say about the dish I learned to love while growing up in northern Italy.
Homemade risotto is simple and fresh, based upon seasonal vegetables. It is neither complicated nor time-consuming, rich or heavy. Moreover it is a dish that can be brought to the table in less than an hour after stepping into the kitchen. The following recipe is the starting point for many variations on rice with vegetables so iconic and important in the culinary traditions of the Veneto.
Ingredients for a simple vegetable broth
- two liters of water
- two bay leaves
- four sprigs of celery leaves
- four sprigs of lovage or flat leaf parsley
- one teaspoon of sea salt
Ingredients for the soffritto
- one small shallot
- one stalk of celery
- one small carrot equal in weight to the celery
- a good pinch of sea salt
Ingredients for the risotto
- 300 grams of organic round-grained rice for risotto such as Baldo, Vialone Nano or Carnaroli
- 75 grams of organic butter or the same amount of extra virgin olive oil
- 30 ml Sherry Amontillado
- 200 grams of freshly baked pumpkin
- 50 grams of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Ingredients for marinated chanterelle in sherry vinaigrette
- 150 grams of fresh chanterelle
- 50 ml Sherry Amontillado
- 50 ml extra virgin olive oil
- one teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- a pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Ingredients for fried sage and caramelized white mushrooms
- 200 grams of fresh white . or shiitake mushroom
- (I used a local variation of mushroom known as “foot of the dunes”)
- two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
The vegetable broth
To make a simple vegetable broth for the risotto, bring two liters of water and a generous teaspoon of sea salt to a boil. Add the bay leaves, celery and lovage as soon as the water starts to simmer. Let the herbs slowly steep on the back burner for a half an hour. If you happen to have a small potato, or a wedge of tomato in the fridge, add that to the broth too. Wash and peel the carrot, celery stalk and shallot. Wash the vegetable peels and root ends of the celery in a colander and throw them into the simmering herb broth. Mince the shallot, carrot and celery with a sharp knife and set it aside in a bowl until you are ready to start making the risotto.
Marinating the chanterelle
Brush the bits of sand from the chanterelle with a soft cloth, removing the root ends. Make a marinade with a pinch of sea salt, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil and some Amontillado sherry. Whisk the ingredients into a smooth emulsion with a fork. Pour the marinade over the raw chanterelle and let the mushrooms soak up its aromatic flavor.
Baking the pumpkin
Preheat the oven to 205 degrees Celsius. Wash the pumpkin of your choice. Cut off the top in much the same way you would to make a pumpkin lantern. Place the pumpkin and its “beret” shaped lid on an oven platter covered with parchment paper. Sprinkle the pumpkin with sea salt and place it in the middle of the oven. Bake it until the velvety orange pumpkin flesh can be easily pierced with a butter knife. Remove the pumpkin from the oven and allow it to cool before scooping out the seeds. (Yes, indeed! You can toast the seeds later.) Spoon out 200 grams of pumpkin and mash it with a fork into a coarse purée. Set the rest of the pumpkin aside to make a soup for a busy work week. . . . at least that’s what I did.
Preparing the risotto
Melt the butter, or if using, warm the olive oil in a nice shallow pan. Add the minced trio of shallots, celery and carrot (also known as a soffritto),cooking them at low heat a few minutes without stirring. Once the shallots have turned transparent, add the rice, stirring well until it is evenly distributed through the soffritto.
Splash some amber-colored Amontillado sherry into the pan and allow its hazelnut flavor to soak into the rice grains. Add the pureed pumpkin, a good pinch of salt and three large soup ladles of warm vegetable broth. Stir the rice constantly for four minutes, or until the broth is almost absorbed. This will make for a creamy risotto later on.
Add three more ladles of broth. Keep stirring, but not constantly, making sure the heat is regulated in such a way that the rice cannot burn on the bottom. When the second amount of broth has been absorbed, taste-test the rice. If it is soft on the outside with a hard center in the middle, it is almost done. On an average, this should take about twenty minutes. At this point, add another three full soup ladles to the rice along with the grated Parmesan cheese and stir all ingredients well. Turn off the heat. Put a lid on the pan and shake it gently back and forth several times. Let the risotto rest five minutes.
Fried sage and fresh white mushrooms
The very last step to the cooking process has arrived ! So slice the white mushrooms lengthwise and pick the sage leaves from their stalks. Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet at medium heat. Add the sage leaves and stir fry them a minute or two, then add the mushrooms. Sauté the sage until it is crisp and the mushrooms are lightly caramelized around the edges.
Taste the risotto for the right balance between smooth and savory, salty and creamy. Add a bit of salt or a bit of warm broth if needed. Once you are happy with the results of your cooking, spoon the risotto into your favorite bowl. Arrange the fried sage and caramelized white mushrooms around the edges. Top the risotto with the chanterelle and drizzle over the olive oil and sherry marinade for a lovely final touch.
A few years ago, while teaching a master class on Italian cooking techniques in my favorite wine shop in Haarlem, I met Fabiola Bonke. She inspired me with her stories of Spain and poured me my first glass of incredibly wonderful sherry. Although I still have countless things to learn about this drink filled with flavorful history, I have learned what I know from Fabiola. In fact, she inspired me to cook with an amber-colored Amontillado sherry, which until recently I never imagined existed.