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(post, Robert Reynolds)
FROM: AN EXCUSE TO BE TOGETHER, by Robert Reynolds The frog is still in the swimming pool but he has stopped croaking. Six people are standing around the edge of the pool watching it drain, or not drain, depending on whose voice you hear. The frog is hiding. He has to be wondering what all the fuss is about, and why the water is disappearing. At lunch every eventuality that could go wrong when draining the pool was discussed. Since the possibilities were without end and some were anxiety provoking, everyone at the table seemed to find comfort in the risotto with asparagus I’d prepared. The risotto started yesterday evening when Eve and I went to a market in Velleron, near Carpentras. Eve said she loved a good risotto, and was reminded that Michel prepared them very well. I told her I wanted to feed people risotto. “That’s fine with me,” she said, “Will you make one with asparagus?” She and I drove to the evening market in one car, and her friends Fatima and Claudine drove in another. The market at Velleron happens once a week near the national route that passes through Velleron. By the time we got there at five in the evening the parking lots were already filled. We found a good space close to the entrance and considered it a fortuitous sign. There were some things we wanted to get, like apple juice for Ambra, and spring peas, squash blossoms, pencil thin, green asparagus for the risotto, and tomato plants; we bought as we made our discoveries. Eve remembered eating green asparagus once in the United States, but here we mostly eat the fat white asparagus which are luxurious in taste and cost. When we got home, I was given control of the kitchen. Ambra, the 17 year old daughter of Eve’s friend, Fatma, asked if she could help. Alima works as the house keeper and though she tried to stay in the background, she was too excited to see what I would do with the things we bought. “It’s good to have the men in the kitchen from time to time,” I remarked. She loved sticking her nose in the pots, watching closely while I started the risotto. I started the risotto with magnificent, large spring onions. They are white, watery and have a gentle flavor. Onions offer a note of sweetness to the risotto, and as they cook help the risotto achieve that final creamy texture that makes it an exceptional dish. I use an equal amount of butter to olive oil in the pan when starting risotto, heating one first until the perfume it releases reaches my nose, then I add the other. When the temperature is correct, I put in the onions cut to the size of the grains of rice. I give them a sprinkle of salt and sauté gently until they melt. Ambra stood next to me at the stove until she mentioned that she’d never made risotto, so I showed her how to measure the grain by hand. Two handfuls make the equivalent of the pasta course, three handfuls are enough for the principal course. When the fat is hot, I add the rice, turn it gently till it’s coated and shiny. It cooks until it becomes opaque, about 3 minutes on a medium flame. I watch the level of heat because I don’t want the onions or the rice to brown. When the rice loses its transparency and becomes opaque, I pour white wine, today a Cote de Luberon, turn the heat to high, stir, and watch the liquid reduce. With the heat turned back down, and enough hot broth is added to cover the rice. It is stirred, sometimes like a madman the way Cathy Whims showed me, while the broth reduces. This procedure of adding and reducing is repeated a couple of times while the risotto gradually absorbs liquid and softens. It's important to taste as it goes along, judging the final flavor of the dish by the taste of the broth. I don’t want to salt the dish too much too early as the reduction only concentrates salt. Risotto usually takes 20 to 25 minutes. The tender green asparagus for today’s risotto are already blanched and ready. When it’s time to add the final volume of liquid to finish my risotto, I take a handful of cooked asparagus, put them in the blender with a ladleful of the water they cooked in, and liquefy them. When I add this liquid to finish cooking the risotto, it lends a pale green color that is pretty. Vigorously stirring the risotto while it cooks helps create creaminess in the dish by releasing a maximum of starch. I try to judge the final moistness of the dish, because I don’t want it too dry, or for it to mound too much. I stop cooking when the rice feels soft, but still retains enough toothsome quality that allows me to still distinguish the shape and texture of the grain. When the risotto is where I want it, the heat is shut off and it sits for another 5 minutes of so. During this time, the risotto seems to absorb more liquid and to soufflé gently and each grain retains it shape. My friend Marietta often beats a single egg in a bowl, stirs it into the risotto at this point, covers the pot and removes from the heat for a minute or two. The risotto soufflés with the egg, and she finishes the dish, which she calls “Bambino” with a little cream, and Parma cheese. It’s a dish her mother used to make especially for the kids. While Ambra and Jany search for flat soup bowls and set them in place at the table, Alima helps me find a large platter. I heaped the pale green risotto into the dish, garnished it with the perfectly blanched green asparagus. Just before sending it to the table, I sprinkle Parmesan cheese which Ambra grated by hand, “and with love,” as she suggested. We deliver the plate to an eager audience waiting at the table. Everyone makes appreciative comments, passes the platter and before we’re done eats every grain on the platter. As the conversation continued, Jany kept coming back for yet another spoon full. With the final taste of the risotto, she said, “I’ve never tasted anything so good in my life.” I was reminded that the Italians say when you eat risotto that you need to save some grains for the angels. They know it’s so good and that anyone is going to want to eat it all, so the spirit of a little angelic offering seems to lend value to the dish. 1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and blanched tender 2 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoon olive oil 1 large white onion, cut in a tiny dice 1 pound of risotto, (I like Arborio) 2 cups white wine 1 quart chicken stock 1 quart asparagus blanching water Heat the butter in a 9 or 10 in straight sided skillet. When it melts, add the olive oil and wait for it to come to temperature. Add the diced onion, a sprinkle of salt and sauté 3 or 4 minutes without browning, until the onions softens. Add the risotto, stirring with a wooden spoon to coat the rice. Heat the rice until the grains turn opaque, again without browning. Raise the heat, add the white wine and quickly evaporate. Turn the heat back down, add enough broth to cover the rice and cook slowly until the rice evaporates. While the rice cooks, stir constantly, sometimes vigorously, to release starches. Repeat this operation of adding liquid and reducing until the risotto seems tender. Taste the broth as you go along and add salt discretely to make the liquid flavorful. When you think you are ready to add the last ladle of liquid, liquefy half a dozen asparagus in the water used to blanch the asparagus, and finish the risotto with this liquid. When the risotto is cooked to your liking, turn the heat off and let it rest for five minutes. Spoon risotto into flat bowls, garnish with whole asparagus stalk. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and give a grinding of pepper before serving.