KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 21 — Our kitchen is a playground for trips down memory lane. This weekend, we are feeling nostalgic for Italy. My better half tells me of long, lingering meals in Rome and Venice; I go one better and recall my time in a real Italian kitchen.
When studying in Munich over a decade ago, one of my best friends was Manuel, a well-mannered Italian kid from the northern ski town of Trento. He’d have me over to his dorm room and show me how to cook pasta just right, meaning al dente, and in return, I’d dish up a Malaccan boy’s version of nasi lemak as best I could.
The real eye-opener was when I was invited back to his family home in Trento. Italians are the warmest, friendliest folks I’ve met, and if you’re a friend of the family, well, you are practically famiglia! Multiple pecks on the cheeks – left, right, left (and right again if you’re particularly close) – even from Manuel’s brother-in-law!
This is how Italians say welcome.
The other way, of course, is through their cooking. Fancy dishes with complicated names in fine dining restaurants can’t hold a candle to real, rustic fare from a real Italian mamma’s kitchen. I’d watch Manuel’s mom (or Mamma Mazza, as she was warmly known) stand over a heavy pan, stirring continuously and adding ladles of stock slowly. Patience is key when making risotto, she said (and Manuel translated).
Was it worth the wait? Let’s just say I became a believer from my first mouthful onwards. Creamy, not too rich, bursting with savoury, mushroomy flavour – every spoonful was a prayer answered. Good food certainly benefits from lots of time and love. Sounds perfect for our weekend kitchen.
Mamma Mazza’s mushroom risotto
Creating a soffritto (a flavour base of aromatics) is essentially Italian and a nice “warm up” to the meditative process of stirring and adding stock continuously. This dish is the epitome of Slow Food; enjoy the time taken.
Now, the thought of adding lemon to a risotto, much less a mushroom risotto, may sound strange. Trust me though; the citrusy acidity lifts up the dish without being as sharp as using, say, vinegar. The secret is in separation of zest from juice (and incorporating them at different stages of cooking).
The use of two types of mushrooms adds layers of flavours – dried mushrooms have a deep smokiness while the fresh variety offer a juicy umami hit. Play with the types of mushrooms you use in this recipe; see what’s available at your neighbourhood grocers rather than trying to track down some obscure Italian fungus.
The technique may be Italian but allow the taste of the risotto be uniquely your own. For example, omit the bacon for a vegetarian version of this risotto.
1 litre meat stock or vegetable stock
4-6 dried mushrooms (such as chanterelle or porcini)
50g unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots or small onions, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
4 strips of bacon, cut into small pieces
300g Italian rice such as arborio or carnaroli
50ml white wine
1 lemon, juice and zest
3-4 fresh mushrooms (such as shiitake or oyster), cleaned and sliced
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, freshly grated, with some extra for serving
A few sprigs of fresh parsley, leaves picked and chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1 egg (optional)
First heat your stock and keep it on a low simmer throughout the cooking process. Pour some hot stock over the dried mushrooms in a bowl, just enough to cover them. Allow to soak for a few minutes till they have softened. Remove from stock and chop them up. Reserve this soaking liquid or “mushroom water” for later.
In a heavy saucepan, heat half the butter with the olive oil, shallots, and celery. Cook for about 8-10 minutes until the shallot and celery soffritto has softened without browning, adding the bacon midway during the process. Next stir the rice in until the grains are well coated with the soffritto and become partly translucent.
Add the wine and keep stirring until it has been absorbed by the rice. Next add the chopped-up rehydrated dried mushrooms, the reserved “mushroom water”, and a ladle of the hot stock. Make sure the heat is at a simmer. Stir continuously until the rice has absorbed most of the stock before adding another ladle of stock.
Midway during the cooking, add the lemon zest into the rice. In a separate pan, fry the sliced fresh mushrooms with a little oil and sea salt. Set aside when done.
The risotto will take about 20 minutes to become creamy once most of the starch has been slowly coaxed out of the rice. Note that you may not need all the stock. Conversely, if you finish your stock before the risotto is ready, you can use hot water for the rest of the cooking process.
Once the grains are al dente, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the fried mushrooms, grated cheese, chopped parsley, the remaining butter, and season with sea salt and black pepper to taste. Give the risotto a quick stir and serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon juice. You may add a poached egg on top and have extra grated cheese on the side if desired.
Yield: Serves two generously.
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