He’s not exactly Italian, Irish in fact, but he can speak it and cook it like nobody’s business, plus its history, art, culture, politics. For those of us who don’t get to Italy as often as he does, Mac’s Italian feasts are mouth-watering touchstones for how it might be if we ever get there ourselves. Not unusual to walk into his kitchen for dinner and find him stirring a steaming pot of risotto or hand made pasta, making a delicate sauce or a pan full of lasagna. We stand around and chat, enjoying our libations while he cooks for us. Love among friends doesn’t get much better.
About a year ago right now I was in the kitchen of friends while Mac was cooking up a pot of Risi e Bisi for our first course, rice and peas Italian style. Rice and, yawn, peas? It now seems blasphemous to have doubted. Let me tell you, I sat down at the table, had a bite from my bowl full and began to float. I was in heaven. I carried on and I might have even said that it was the best thing I’d ever eaten. It was one of those moments when hyperbole is the only fitting expression.
Since I have the very cookbook that he uses, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, I recently got up the nerve to try it myself, and the experience was nearly as good again. I pass it on and recommend. You know how Italians are about their seasonal specialties – well, Risi e Bisi is one of them. This dish is Venice’s spring fling and has been for centuries, part of festivities honoring the Doge, ruler of the Republic. The rule of a Doge long gone, risi bisi remains heartily loved.
Peas are in season in the PNW right now, perfect timing if you can get them. Last week I found fresh shelling peas at the Farmers Market, this week not, so I used a package of frozen. Cascadian Farms are organic, local and, unlike other produce, peas are pretty good frozen. The timing is right so look around a bit.
And timing is part of the deal here. Read the recipe, lay everything out and go for it. With the stock made in advance this takes about 35 – 40 minutes. I recommend homemade chicken stock if you can manage it. You’ll notice that this recipe uses Arborio rice, but the process differs from the usual risotto making.
Risi e Bisi (Rice & Peas)
From The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen, Darrow & Maresca. Four servings.
Ingredients: 6 C chicken stock/ 4 T unsalted butter/ 2 T olive oil/ 1/4 C chopped onion/ 1/2 C chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley/ 2 ounces pancetta, chopped/ 2 C fresh peas if you can find them/ 1 C Arborio rice/ 1 t salt/ freshly ground black pepper/ 3 T Parmesan cheese.
Bring the 6 cups of broth to a bare simmer in a large pot/ In another large pan melt 2 T of the butter and 2 T olive oil/ Add onion, pancetta and parsley and sauté over medium heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until pancetta begins to brown and onion is soft/ Add peas and simmer for a minute, stirring and coating with the base ingredients/ Then add 1/2 C broth and simmer until peas are almost tender, 20 – 30 minutes, stirring often and adding broth a little at a time as needed/ The peas should be kept just moist, but not swimming in broth/ AN IMPORTANT NOTE, this is where I diverged from the recipe. I cooked peas about 10 minutes instead of 20 or 30 and felt the dish didn’t suffer from that change./ When peas have finished their simmering process, add the remaining broth and bring to a boil/ Add all of the rice and simmer uncovered until rice is just tender, about 20 minutes/ Season generously with pepper, stir in the remaining 2 T butter and 3 T parmesan cheese. It should be a little soupy.
Garnish with parsley, take a bite and have your own moment of heaven.
Buon Appetito and thank you Italy!
A Homemade Chicken Stock Recipe
It can be informal and simple to make. Use leftover bones or the carcass from cooked chicken, uncooked backs, a whole chicken, or a combination of both/ Place it all in a large pot with enough cold water to cover the chicken (probably several quarts)/ Add one onion, quartered, one carrot and one celery, cut into large chunks, a handful of fresh thyme or a teaspoon dried, a bay leaf, salt and pepper/ For a large batch of 4 quarts or more add more onion, carrot, celery and herbs to the mix/ Slowly bring it all to a simmer and let it cook, covered, for 2 1/2 – 3 hours/ Check and stir the pot occasionally/ Add salt & pepper to taste, drain through a fine sieve and pour broth into quart containers/ Label and freeze.
After broth is chilled it’s easy to skim fat off the top, or use a fat separator. Oxo Good Grips makes a good one, a pitcher with a long spout that works well.
Or, Poppy’s slow cooked broth recipe is excellent and has more explicit directions.