Risotto agli asparagi

We have our tickets back to Italy this summer!  After watching airline prices for months on end, we finally saw them drop to a reasonable price, and we quickly booked.

image from http://www.italyluxurytours.com/tours/piedmont.htm

After spending a few days in Rome to visit family and friends and to celebrate the 3rd birthday of our two adorable nephews, Flavio and Davide, we plan on heading north to the visit the Piedmont region of Italy.  Nestled in the foothills of the Alps, in the far northwestern part of Italy, Piedmont is home to the Nebbiolo grape, from which some of Italy’s most prestigious wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, are produced.

image from http://www.italyluxurytours.com/tours/piedmont.htm

Inspired by upcoming trip to northern Italy and to the arrival of spring and the seasonal vegetables that accompany it, today we prepared risotto agli asparagi, or asparagus risotto.  More heavily influenced by central and southern Italian cuisine, risotto is not a dish that we often make, and we don’t at all profess to be experts.  However, risotto is one of those dishes that has transcended its regional  origins and has become known across the world as a classic Italian dish.  Plus, it’s simply delicious, so we’ve tried our hand at it and love the results.

There are a few important keys to a good, authentic risotto.  First, use a short grain, plump rice such as arborio.  This rice has a high starch content, which is essential to a creamy risotto.  Second, toast your rice in olive oil, butter or both before adding liquid to it.  Third, be sure to heat your vegetable broth until boiling, and add it very gradually to your risotto while stirring continually.  The hot broth and stirring motion causes the rice to release its starch, which is what gives risotto its unique creaminess.

for 4 people

400 grams (approx. 2 cups) rice, preferably arborio
1 lb. (450 g) asparagus
1/2 of a medium onion, minced
1 qt (approx. 1 liter) vegetable broth
2 cups (250 ml) water
2 Tbsp. butter (approx. 30 g)
2 Tbsp. olive oil (approx. 30 ml)
1 cup (approx. 100 g) grated Parmigiano Reggiano
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Cut the bottom 1/3 off of the asparagus spears and cook them in salted boiling water for 10-12 minutes, until tender.  Drain and set aside.

Melt the butter in a wide saucepan over low heat.  Add the olive oil and the minced onions and sauté for 5 minutes, paying attention that they don’t brown.  Add the rice to the onions, and stir until all grains are coated in the oil and butter. Let the rice toast in the sauté for another 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cut the tips off of the cooked asparagus, and chop the spears into 1/4 inch (just over .5 cm) pieces.  Discard any tough parts of the spear, and add the tips and chopped asparagus to the rice and onion mixture.  Stir together.

In a separate saucepan, bring the vegetable broth and water to a boil.  Adjust the heat of the rice mixture to medium-low, and add the broth to the rice one ladle at a time, stirring well in between until the rice absorbs the liquid and the risotto assumes a creamy consistency.  Be patient; this process will take 30-40 minutes.  When the last of the liquid is absorbed, stir in the grated Parmigiano.  Add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, and serve immediately with a dusting of Parmigiano on top.

Download a pdf copy of Risotto agli asparagi

Wine Pairing
We recommend pairing risotto agli asparagi with a Vecchie Scuole Sauvignon Blanc from Fattori.  This wine from the Veneto region has a nice floral nose and delicate grassy flavor that recalls green vegetables and is especially suited to asparagus risotto.

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

It’s been two weeks now since the fire.  We’ll spend one more week in the hotel, but we’ve found a house to rent not far from home and are eager to move in next weekend.  It is a perfect house for us while our own is under repair.  The best part: our landlords, Lisa and Paul, have decided to have a gas line run into the kitchen in order to replace the old electrical coil stove with a gas one!

Demolition has begun on the interior of our fire-damaged house.  Even though the fire itself was contained to the upper floor, water and smoke infiltrated the ceilings, walls and floors of the rest of the house and those will need to be stripped down to the struts. It was overwhelming at first, but we’ve come to terms with it all and are even beginning to think ahead to a few improvements we can make when rebuilding (a kitchen with more natural light for better food photography is one priority).

We haven’t done much cooking lately, and eating out is becoming tiresome.  With the weekend upon us, we decided that it is time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can produce out of our hotel room kitchenette.  There was once an Iron Chef competition on the Food Network channel that required contestants to prepare enough food for a block party using a just small outdoor grill.  Then, when the producers arranged for a downpour of rain, the chefs had to finish cooking their food on the engine of a car.

We don’t have it that bad, but that’s a little like what it feels like to prepare a meal in our kitchenette.  We have two little burners, two (dull) knives, two pots, one spatula, and one small glass cutting board.  It’s not exactly a chef’s kitchen, but we can make do.

So, we decided to make something delicious, but simple.  La puttanesca is just that – a tangy, flavor packed sauce that is quick and easy to make but that packs a punch.  It’s a perfect “Famose due spaghetti” solution, and was a good reminder that no matter what the circumstances or where we are, we can still whip up a pretty good plate of pasta.

The world has embraced the Puttanesca sauce without knowing what its name actually means.  Puttana is not exactly a nice word in Italian; it’s a vulgar reference to a lady who engages in “the oldest profession.”  The -esca suffix turns a noun into an adjective, just like the -esque suffix does in English (adopted from French).  Think picture and picturesquePuttana and puttanesca. 

How did this traditional sugo from Naples acquire such a saucy name?  There are quite a few theories on this.  Some say that it was a quick and easy pasta to prepare for the patrons of a local brothel, but there are other theories, too.  What doesn’t change is the ingredient list: garlic, capers, anchovies, and black olives in a tomato sauce.  Is your mouth watering yet?

1 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
2 cloves of garlic
One cup black olives, pitted*
6 anchovies
1 Tablespoon capers
1 dash of crushed red pepper
1 bunch of flat leave parsley
5 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt, coarse and fine
1 lb spaghetti

*Use an Italian black olive such as liguria, gaeta or lugano, but avoid those that come packed in rosemary or other herbs.  A Greek kalamata olive will work nicely, also.

Crush or finely dice the garlic.  Rinse the capers and anchovies quickly under running water and pat dry.  Cut the anchovies into small pieces.  Sauté the garlic, capers, anchovies and red pepper in olive oil over medium heat.  If your olives have pits remove them.  Cut the olives into pieces and add them to the saucepan.  Sauté the mixture until the anchovies have deconstructed and the garlic is golden brown, about 3-5 minutes.

Add your tomatoes, preferably passing them through a food mill in order to acquire a smooth sauce.  Let the sauce cook for 20-30 minutes, adding salt to taste.  In the meanwhile, rinse and pat dry the parsley.  Chop the parsley finely and add to the sauce about 5 minutes before it is ready.

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  When it boils, add a handful of coarse salt and the spaghetti.  Cover and cook to al dente according to the time specified.  When ready, drain the spaghetti and return to the pot.  Add the puttanesca sauce to the pot, and mix until the pasta is evenly coated.  Serve immediately.

Wine Pairing
We paired our spaghetti alla puttanesca with a 2009 Sangiovese Rubizzo by Rocca delle Macìe.  This wine has a strong acidity and a nice earthiness that balances the pungency and spiciness of the puttanesca sauce.


La panzanella is a rustic, summertime recipe from the Italian cucina povera, a style of cooking characterized by tantalizing dishes originally made by the poor and working classes from humble ingredients.  In the cucina povera, home-grown food is put to good use and no left-over is wasted.  True to that value, la panzanella was created as a way to use up bread gone stale.

Originally a Tuscan dish, la panzanella eventually spread to the Umbria, Marche and Lazio regions of central Italy, and as often happens variations emerged.  The original Tuscan recipe called for bread, red onion, basil, olive oil, wine vinegar and salt.  Tomatoes were soon added to the recipe, and over time la panzanella became known as a bread and tomato dish.

Today cucumbers are often included with the tomatoes, while not all recipes call for onions.  Finally, a notable difference exists in la panzanella as a salad with the bread broken into pieces, most common in Tuscany, in contrast to la panzanella as a whole piece of soaked bread with the tomatoes on top, sometimes referred to as la panzanella romana.

Although the bread remains whole in Stefano’s mom’s panzanella, for this post we opted for the salad version, using our home-made left over bread, tomatoes and cucumbers from the farmer’s market, red onion, and garden basil for a touch of color.

4 slices of stale bread
2 ripe tomatoes
1 medium cucumber
2 very thin slices of red onion
1 small bunch of basil
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
Olive oil

Lay the bread into a shallow pan and add cold water up to the top of the slices.  Drizzle one tablespoon of white wine vinegar over the bread, and let soak for 20 minutes.

Cut two very thin slices of red onion, and place them into a bowl of cold water to allow some of the strong flavor dissipate for 20 minutes.

In the meanwhile, cut the tomatoes and cucumber into cubes and place into a bowl.  Chop the basil and add it to the mix.  Toss with salt and mix.

Return to your bread, which will have soaked up the water and vinegar mixture.  Remove the crust, squeeze out the excess liquids, and crumble large pieces of bread into the bowl with the tomatoes, cucumbers and basil.

Drizzle olive oil over the salad, and stir well.  Refrigerate at least one hour, and serve chilled.

Wine Pairing
We drank a 2008 Italian Chardonnay by producer Giacomo Vico with the rustic and earthy panzanella.   This is a classic Chardonnay from the Langhe area of Piedmont, well-balanced with a yeasty, buttery flavor and a nice, clean finish.

Pomodori al riso

This is the first of 4 new posts on the Tomato, each an entry in the Washington Post’s 2011 Top Tomato recipe contest.  Our 5th entry, a previous post, can be viewed here.

Pomodori al riso
During the years when their garden was at its prime, Stefano’s parents grew more tomatoes than we knew what to do with.  One of our favorite summertime recipes is pomodori al riso, or rice-stuffed tomatoes, which we always make with pan-roasted potatoes.  The rice absorbs the summery flavors of tomato, basil, and Italian parsley for a dish that is meant to be served on a patio with a glass of chilled wine.

We had the pleasure of enjoying them with our friends Riccardo, Monica, their daughter Veronica and Riccardo’s mother Venisa, who is visiting from Italy and whose valuable advice has made this recipe even better.  The culinary knowledge of mothers and grandmothers of Italy is true treasure.

4 large, ripe but still firm tomatoes
1/2 c. Arborio rice
1 small bunch basil
1 small bunch flat leaf parsley
2 cloves garlic
4 anchovies (optional)
Black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil
4-6 medium potatoes

With a sharp knife, slice the tops off of the tomatoes and set the tops aside.  Carefully remove the pulp of the tomato by cutting through the walls, and scooping out the fruit with a spoon.  Set the hollowed tomatoes aside.

  Preserve the pulp and  juices from each tomato.  Dice the solid parts into small pieces, and place it all into a bowl. Finely chop the basil and parsley, and add it to the tomatoes.  Cut the garlic and the anchovies into small pieces, and them to the tomato mixture.  Add the rice, along with two liberal dashes of salt.  Stir, and let marinate for 2-3 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400° F.  Peel the potatoes, cut them into uniformly sized small pieces, and distribute them evenly at the bottom of a medium baking pan.  Salt and pepper the potatoes well, drizzle olive oil over them, and stir.

Retrieve your hollowed tomatoes and lids.  Fill each tomato approximately 3/4 full with the rice-tomato mixture.  Do not over-fill, or the rice will be too dry.  Spoon all of the remaining liquid into the tomatoes.  Place the lids back on the tomatoes, and bake for approximately 1 hour.  Periodically stir the potatoes and check the firmness of the cooking rice.  Remove from oven and allow to cool before serving.

For the photo shoot, we over-filled this tomato. When cooking at home, only fill the tomato 3/4 full with rice.

Wine Pairing
We paired the pomodori al riso with a 2009 Dolcetto d’Alba di la Morra produced by Ascheri.  The Dolcetto grape is common to the Piedmont wine region, and Dolcetto from the Alba area is generally considered superior to other Dolcetto wines.  With its fruit and floral character and its mild acidity and tannins, it is a lighter dry red wine which can be served chilled.