If everything had gone according to plan I wouldn’t be here. I’d be unpacking boxes in my freshly painted new flat, borrowing cups of milk from my new neighbours and generally looking practical but fetching in a pair of paint speckled dungarees and a nifty red and white polka dot headscarf. I’d be warming the soup I’d prudently prepared earlier, tearing the bread and chiseling lumps of cheese from my rustic hunk of parmesan for one of the informal, impromptu but delicious first-days-in-the-flat-picnic-lunches.
Or maybe I’d be slightly hysterical, sobbing red-faced and exhausted into a cardboard box, overwhelmed by the lack of furniture or any kind of storage. Or simply spread eagle on my new living room floor in a grubby track suit contemplating the strange crack across the ceiling that bears an uncanny resemblence to the Eiffel Tower, the bizarre marks on the wall and the prospect of a week of bleach, scrubbing and insubstantial snacks. I am however doing none of the above, as things have not gone according to plan. I do have the keys to my new flat though, a provisional move-in day next week (this will change of course) and a very nice recipe for Risotto di piselli.
I didn’t start out making risotto. As I flicked the first peas from their pods, Risi e bisi, rice and peas – a minestra densa – a thick dense soup made in the style of a risotto was the plan. It was perfect I thought, as I over enthusiastically flicked the contents of a pod of peas scuttling across the kitchen, with one large green orb taking refuge in Vincenzo’s walking boot: a good lunch and at the same time an opportunity to test the Risi e bisi recipe for Mona. What’s more it would also be a good moment to tell you about the soup book project I am working on at the American Academy with the chef Mona Talbott and share one of her recipes – a new take on Risi e bisi - with you. Things didn’t go according to plan.
It all began well. I podded the peas and set them aside. Then I pulled away the stringy top and tail from the usually discarded pea pods, put them in a stock pot with some aromatics, covered the whole lot with cold water and brought the pan to a lively boil for 10 minutes in order to make a pea pod broth. The pea pod broth I have learned to make with Mona, the pea pod broth that makes all the difference to the Venetian classic Risi e bisi. While the green tinted panful bubbled away enthusiastically, seeming at once both soothing healthful elixir and mysterious witches brew, I sat at the table with my Campari Soda – my aperitivo of choice at present - a bowl of big, fat green olives and flicked open the lap top to consult Mona’s recipe.
I’m not sure what was more disturbing, the noise – a grinding computer moan – the deranged flicker across the screen or the odd lava lamp effect in the left hand corner. I felt simultaneous waves of panic, disbelief and self-pity as yet another crisis threatened to gate-crash my week. A diatribe of heavy English cursing and Italian blasphemies bubbled up my throat and into my mouth, my eye twitched involuntarily. I felt the signs of imminent meltdown. But then, thanks in large part to my pink drink and Hugh Masekela’s ‘Boys are doing it’ curling through the speakers, I came to my senses and did the only sensible thing: I had a large slug of Campari Soda and closed the laptop.
I could have gone into next room and fired up Vincenzo’s monster mac, but considering that too is on its last legs and suspiciously slow, and bearing in mind the way things are going this week, it seemed like tempting fate. As I strained the fragrant, green tinted pea pod broth I wondered if I could remember all of Mona’s recipe. I thought very hard ‘Some olive oil, 30 ml, no 60 ml, no 30 ml and some butter! No that was the spring minestone! 1.5 litres, wait, no 2, no 1.5 litres of pea pod…..‘ before coming to my senses again and remembering the whole point of recipe testing is exactly that, testing, following the precise quantities. Recipe testing is, after all, more etching than sketching and certainly not the time for impressionist guess-work. The pea pod broth stared at me, my stomach grumbled rudely, my eye twitched. I needed some kitchen reassurance, a well-practiced recipe, I’d use the pea pod broth to make a risotto. After I’d refreshed my Campari that is.
I make a risotto of one sort or another most weeks. In winter it’s usually porcini mushroom risotto so the flavoursome liquid the mushrooms produce when soaking provides the broth, or I make a plain risotto, in which case chicken broth is order of the day. In autumn I make far too many pumpkin risottos and usually end up using Bouillon granules. If I have some pretty gutsy chicken broth I’ll make a fennel risotto. In summer I muddle together lots of tomato risotto-esque lunches and I use (gasp) water. Spring is the time for asparagus or pea risotto and that means vegetable broth I’ve taken the time to make, or bouillon granules that I haven’t. Until now that is! Now I’ve discovered pea pod broth.
Pea pod broth is a little revelation, by boiling the empty pea pods along with a handful of the peas themselves (you can also add an onion, carrot, stick of celery and some parsley stems if you so wish) you produce a light, fragrant, gently flavoured broth with a simple grassy sweetness. You can pass the pods and liquid through a food mill to make a very intense broth – this is what Mona uses for her Risi e Bisi – but for risotto I prefer simply straining the broth, pressing the vegetables firmly against the fine sieve to extract as much flavour as possible. Once you’ve made your broth and it’s simmering gently in a small pan on the stove you can begin making your risotto.
You know the routine. You gently soften a finely chopped small onion in some butter and olive oil. Then you add the rice - carnaroli, arborio or vialone nero – and nudge that around the pan, letting it absorb all the oil and butter and start to toast. Next you add the wine or vermouth, woosh, the energetic sizzle as the alcohol evaporates away and the wine is sucked up by the thirsty rice like a 5-year-old inhaling a carton of ribena through a straw after winning the sack race on sports day in August.
Now, with your timer ticking to remind you this will take about 16 – 20 minutes, you start one of the very nicest stove rituals, adding the pea pod broth a ladleful at a time, stirring, nudging, moving the rice, allowing the liquid to be absorbed before adding the next ladleful. After about 8 minutes you pause to add the peas, before resuming the steady addition of the broth. After 16 minutes you start tasting, the rice should be tender and creamy but still al dente (to the tooth) at the center, with pleasing firmness. You are trying to find (the often illusive) moment of divine creaminess and bite. Once the rice is cooked, the liquid absorbed and the risotto has a very soft, wavy texture (remember it will continue absorbing liquid so it should be quite loose at this point) you beat in the grated cheese, mint and more butter, maybe a pinch of salt, which brings everything together into a soft, undulating, creamy tumble. It is this final step, the mantecatura, the beating in of the cold butter and cheese, which helps give the risotto it’s unique consistency.
Advice, if I may be so bold. Use good risotto rice, I like carnaroli. Try and find small, tender, freshly picked peas with firm, bright pods. I know it’s impossible to know what hides inside every pod (there are always a few floury cannonballs infiltrating the rabble) but sliding open a few pods at the market will give you a general idea. Once you reach 16 minutes start tasting, you are trying to identify the moment the rice is tender but still firm at the center of each grain, this will differ from brand to brand, variety to variety. Be generous with the broth, using some extra if necessary, and turn off the flame when the risotto is still very loose, soft and undulating because it will stiffen quickly as you take it to the table.
I need to listen to my own advice and be a little more generous with the broth! The above lunch was delicious but could have been a little looser, a little more laid back, a little more undulating on the plate, a little more roll than rock. But this is by the by, after two more pans of pea pod broth and two more attempts I am ready to preach. Pea risotto made with pea pod broth is quite simply excellent. The subtle, fragrant broth is the perfect backdrop for the tender, creamy, short grain rice studded with tiny green peas: sweet and savory, as bright and simple as sunshine with their unmistakable simple grassy sweetness, the sharp, sour parmesan and the flick of earthy, moody, fragrant mint.
A cucumber and tomato salad, dressed with olive oil and salt, was a pretty perfect table companion for the risotto, The cucumber in particular: cool, calm and collected, it’s crisp texture, refreshing cleanness and alkaline tang was a perfect foil for the soft creamy risotto, sweet peas and tangy cheese.
Advice – When things don’t go according to plan, have a nice lunch.
Risotto di Piselli – Pea risotto
- 1 kg / 2 llb peas in their pods
- small white onion, peeled and cut in two
- parsley stalks
- stick celery
- small carrot
- 30 ml / 1 tbsp olive oil
- 60 g / 2 ½ oz butter
- 1 small mild yellow onion finely chopped
- 400g / 14 oz risotto rice
- 125 ml / 4 fl oz dry white wine or Vermouth
- 1.5 litres / 6 cups pea pod broth (plus a little extra) or other broth
- 60 g / 2 ½ oz freshly grated parmesan
- tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
- Pod the peas, setting the peas aside and keeping the empty pods. Cut off and discard tough ends from pods; pull off and discard strings.
- Rinse the pods and then put them into a large stock pot along with the carrot, celery, parsley stems and onion. Cover with 2 litres of cold water, bring the pot to the boil. Continue boiling for 10 minutes Pull the pot from the heat and alow the broth to sit for another 10 minutes. Strain the pea pod broth, pressing the soft pods against the side of the sieve to extract as much flavour as possible and set it aside.
- When you are ready to make your risotto heat the pea pod broth.
- Melt half the butter with the oil in a large heavy based saute pan. Saute the onion gently over a medium flame until transparent and lightly gold in colour.
- Add the rice and stir it thoughrally but gently to absorb the butter and oil. Pour in the wine and boil for 1 minute to allow the alcohol to evaporate, stirring constantly.
- Turn down the heat to medium heat and begin to add the pea pod broth a ladleful at a time allowing the liquid to be absorbed into the rice before adding more. After 8 minutes add the peas, stir. continue adding the pea pod broth until it has all been used up and absorbed by the rice. This takes about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Allow risotto to rest for 1 minute.
- Add the remainder of the butter, grated parmesan and and mint and beat gently.
It’s taken me several days to finish this post and since writing the first paragraphs progress has been made and F day and is looking a little like Tuesday. We will see. You may, or may not, be relieved to know the Eiffel tower crack had been investigated and filled and the flat is freshly painted.
It’s all feeling rather long-winded around here so I won’t go into details about the soup making project with Mona today. I will just say, that in the midst of all this change and endings, starting a new chapter and working with a chef like Mona, watching her make soup, writing recipes together and being part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project and it’s new book is just what I need . I think posting about risi e bisi now will seem a little like pea and rice deja vu so I plan (oh dear, we know what can happen to those) to write about a two of her other soups over the next couple of weeks.
I inhaled all your good wishes like the risotto rice soaking up the vermouth, like the 5-year-old inhaling a carton of ribena through a straw after winning the sack race on sports day in August, thank you, I will take them with me on Tuesday, or Wednesday. Now where I did put that Campari?