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Strawberry risotto - the season begins

(post, Robert Reynolds)

The first strawberries of the season showed up at the downtown farmers market yesterday. It's a gorgeous little market and the produce has an incomparable vibrancy; you can feel things growing. I came across greens, leeks, lovely herbs including sorrel. I found white asparagus that proved to be amazingly sweet. Then I found strawberries and was .... suspicious. There weren't that many and I asked the woman where they grew. She said she grew them in Sherwood, and tented the plants to encourage them. "Can I taste one," I asked; I'll buy them no matter." "Please" she said, indicating I should help myself. Lovely perfume of strawberries that made me think of the strawberries  at the markets in France.

I prepared risotto as I'd once eaten in the the Veneto, the region around Venice. The Italians, like the French, use the early berries like vegetables, because with their lack of developed sugars, they're more acidic and like a tomato.

When the risotto is finished, I let it sit and rest for a few minutes before serving. I slice strawberries, fold them in carefully and divide it among the bowls. A generous scattering of Parma cheese is tossed on top. If you have a particularly good Parma cheese, it will often have a fruity quality, so much the better. Then the final gesture before sending the dish to the table, is to drizzle an excellent syrupy Balsamic vinegar. This is a dish you've been saving that very expensive vinegar for.

Drink a white wine from the northeast of Italy, a Soave from Stefano Inama, or Zuani from Feluga. The wines of the region will harmonize in a celestial way.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup small dice of shallots
1 cup white wine (optional)
1-1/2 cups Arborio risotto
about 1-1/2 cups brodo, chicken stock, or water and a boullion cube
1 pint of strawberries, sliced
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan per portion
1 or 2 teaspoons Balsamic per portion

Melt butter, then add olive oil. When hot, add shallots with a sprinkle of salt and cook for 1 or 2 minutes to soften, but don't allow the shallot to brown. Add the risotto, stir to coat with fat and continue to cook another 2 or 3 minutes until the grains of rice turn opaque. Again, keep everything from browning as you prepare the dish. Cover with broth, simmer to evaporate. 

Risotto making is like religion, people who do the details one way, don't want to talk to people who do things another way. I can hear every Italian saying, "My mother, she didn't do that." That said, you can stir, not stir, beat, not beat the risotto while the liquid evaporates. It all makes a difference. Vow to make it for the rest of your life, and more than likely your children will have a religious version of the dish to pass on.

I like mine beaten to extract starch. that gives the impression of a creamy texture, when in fact, there is no cream in the dish. Do as you like. Add and reduce liquid three times, over a period of about 20 minutes. Then start tasting the grains to determine how cooked they are. Ideally the rice should yield to the tooth, i.e. be tender, and the center should have a small resistance. When it's where you want it, turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes or so before serving. During this time, it seems to souffle, relieved that it's no longer being agitated.

Just before serving, fold in slices of strawberries, and portion the risotto in flat bowls. Each is dusted with grated cheese from Parma (or Granna can also be excellent) and drizzle lovely Balsamic vinegar over the surface. A final grinding of pepper as the plate heads to the table. The perfume of that pepper will reach up to everyone's nose and pull them into the dish.

Once the moment arrives in the season when the strawberries are ripe and filled with sugar, make some other risotto. Eat those berries naked (the berries, not you) paired with a bowl of sugar, and another of crema.

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