DANCING CHEEK TO CHEEK
We had the great good luck of living – and eating - in Italy for 7 years. 7 unforgettable years. We traveled as often as possible, cooked like crazy (we lived for 5 years a mere stone’s throw from Milan’s fabulous Mercato Wagner, and 2 years near the town of Parabiago, known for shoes: Città della Calzature, Shoe Town, if you will, and with a beautiful collection of food shops), and ate out as often as possible (which meant at least once, if not twice, a week).
Our boys grew up in Italy – Italian is Simon’s first language – going to preschool and part of elementary school in the Italian public schools. Even in pre- school, food is a priority. Every morning, I would stand and drool over the day’s lunch menu, often begging the teachers if I could join them. No pizza or hamburger and fries for the little Italians! School lunches were more along the lines of pasta with pesto or pumpkin ravioli, veal Milanese or chicken Cacciatore, veal stew with polenta or risotto with artichokes or eggplant.
Parent/teacher meetings were invariably centered around food: the menu, the cooking, the quality were discussed, dissected, analyzed with a true Italian passion. Mammas would organize themselves into teams and come to oversee the lunch preparation every day to make sure that their children’s lunches were being prepared with the same love and care that they themselves would put into it at home. Everything else concerning their children’s schooling paled in comparison.
Marketing in Italy was an amazing experience, a true pleasure. Italians are extremely protectionist when it comes to the fresh produce sold at the markets. Everything, every fruit, every vegetable, comes from Italian soil and strictly in season, with the exception of maybe Florida grapefruits (Indian River Grapefruit, which for me was a taste of home). One day, I would walk into the market and be surrounded by piles upon piles of artichokes of every size and type, all Italian. And then one day, they would all be gone, disappear from the market as quickly as they arrived, the beginning and the end of the season. Tomato season would bring variety upon variety of colorful, sweet, juicy tomatoes, from deep red to green, from large to bite-size, round, oval, for cooking, sauce or salad. And on and on, asparagus, peaches, peppers or cherries. I was always sure of getting fresh, seasonal, real fruit and vegetables. I never for one second worried that I would get home and find that I had a bag full of floury, cottony, flavorless, hothouse anything, flown in from the other side of the world.
I would find fresh-made ravioli and tortellini filled with cheeses or meat, pumpkin or vegetables. There was never a reason to make my own. Fabulous cheeses, cured meats and ham, olives. And whether buying cheese, meat or fish, all I had to do was ask if I wanted a recipe to be thrown in with my purchase (I also think the Italians took pity on the poor American, “la poverina”, who surely could not know how to cook). It was a joy to shop in the markets or shops of Italy. It led to a truly intense desire to cook with these amazing products. It also taught us the simple pleasure of simple cooking: with such fabulous, flavorful, fresh ingredients, why concoct complicated dishes when a simple swirl of olive oil and a grinding of pepper is all that is needed to bring out the best of it all?
And we fell in love with artichokes, carciofi. Huge, pale globe artichokes, perfect for stuffing or frying or carciofi alla giuda (artichokes cooked in the “Jewish” manner), or the smaller, Violetta artichokes (artichauts poivrade here in France), lovely, slim, purple, elegant, used in risotti or ravioli. And then there were the tiniest, most delicate artichokes, the size of Brussel sprouts, artichokes that I have seen nowhere outside of Italy. Bought by the paper bagful, cooked whole, tender yet bursting with a full artichoke flavor, JP would use them to make stews and tagines, most often a beautiful long-simmered saffron, lamb and artichoke tagine that he had learned how to make in Morocco. Hidden deep below the thick, dense, tough shell, protected by the thorny leaves, the “meat” of an artichoke is earthy and heavenly all rolled into one.
And asparagus, white and thick or green and thin, piled high in crates at every market stall.
Cream sauce for pasta or gnocchi, stuffed into ravioli or steamed and rolled in prosciutto di Parma. Our favorite way to eat them was the Milan specialty, asparagi alla Milanese, steamed and laid out side by side on a plate, topped with a fried egg (sunny side up!) and sprinkled generously with grated Parmesan. Simple yet delicious, the perfect dish to savor this delicate vegetable.
And artichokes and asparagus are tied to Italy by more than just my humble family! They began their culinary journey in Ancient Rome where both were delicacies prized for their flavor and elegance; and artichokes even had the added oomph of being considered an aphrodisiac! Treated as objects of desire, foods only affordable by the wealthy, savored by Emperors and later Kings, savored all year round through either drying or preserving.
Today, both of these vegetables are fairly common, yet even now they are still considered luxury food by many and are often expensive. I remember my college days when an “older man”, a graduate student, tried to woo me with a plateful of steamed asparagus, of which he was particularly proud. Sadly, it didn’t work (maybe he should have tried artichokes!). And as both vegetables are still often pricey, they fall into the special treat category, delicacies as in Ancient Rome, which is why they are often served as the centerpiece of a dish or even on their own, simply with a sauce or melted butter. Or tossed in pasta.
And risotto. Who said risotto? Did someone call for the Risotto Queen? Nothing says Springtime, La Primavera, like these elegant, flower-like, beauties, deep green stalks tipped with purple, graceful violet bulbs worthy of a crystal vase, the two together picture-perfect for any spring dish, meals eaten with the windows thrown open or carried out onto the terrace. The epitome of Springtime, their seasons are short-lived, truly and only overlapping at the height of spring like lovers crossing paths on an ocean liner on the high seas, elegant in silk and pearls, dapper in white tie and tails, artichokes and asparagus are very well the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of vegetables and meant to dance together cheek to cheek.
ARTICHOKE-ASPARAGUS RISOTTO WITH GRILLED COPPA
4 cups (1 liter) chicken stock or broth
2 Tbs or more olive oil
1 bunch (5) Violetta artichokes (Poivrade)
1 bunch (12 – 15) slender green asparagus
3 – 4 Tbs olive oil
2 shallots or 1 small onion, finely chopped
8 ½ oz (250 g) rice for risotto (Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Carnaroli)
1 large glass dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs (45 g) unsalted butter
2 oz (60 g) grated Parmesan cheese
2 or 3 slices of Coppa or bacon per person
Prepare the chicken stock or broth. Prepare the rest of the risotto while the broth is hot or heat it through before starting the risotto.
Prepare the artichokes and asparagus :
Cut the stem off of the artichokes just below the bulb. Pull off the tougher outer leaves of each artichoke, several layers until the leaves seem paler in color and more tender.
Slice the sharp points off the top, about an inch down for the larger bulbs, a bit less for the smaller, more tender artichokes.
With a very sharp knife, slice each artichoke into fairly thin slices or cut into quarters, then again into 8 or 10 pieces.
Snap or cut off the tough ends of each asparagus stalk and discard. Slice off the tip of each stalk and slice the rest of the stalks in half-inch (1 cm) pieces, scraping lightly the outside of the last inch of any thicker stalks. Set aside.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, and sauté the sliced artichokes for a few minutes, tossing often, until lightly golden. Remove from the pan into a bowl or plate. The artichoke slices should still be a bit tough or crunchy. They will finish cooking with the risotto.
In the same hot pan, heat another tablespoon of olive oil and add the sliced asparagus. Toss to coat with oil and grill for a minute. Add one ladleful of chicken broth and allow to cook for about 2 minutes, tossing constantly. Remove from the skillet and add to the artichokes. The asparagus pieces should still be a bit crunchy. They will finish cooking with the risotto.
Prepare the Risotto :
Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in the same skillet. Add the chopped shallots and, stirring, cook for a couple of minutes until softened and just starting to turn golden.
Add the rice and toss with the shallots until all the grains are coated in oil. Cook for a minute or two until the grains of rice become more translucent.
Slowly pour the wine over the rice and stir, cooking until the wine is almost completely absorbed by the rice.
Pour on two ladlefuls of broth and cook, stirring continuously and gently, until the liquid is almost completely absorbed. Continue cooking the risotto over medium heat, adding 2 ladlefuls of broth at a time, stirring constantly and allowing each addition of liquid to be almost absorbed before adding more broth. This should take between 20 and 25 minutes total cooking time once the rice is added.
About 5 minutes before the end of cooking, after about 20 minutes once the rice has been added, stir the pre-cooked artichokes and asparagus into the risotto, adding more broth so both the rice and the vegetables finish their cooking.
When the risotto is finished, the rice should be meltingly tender, the risotto creamy and smooth, the vegetables al dente, crispy/tender.
Remove the pan from the heat. Add the butter and the Parmesan cheese and stir until the butter is melted and everything is well blended.
Prepare the Coppa :
Heat a non-stick (preferably) frying pan and place the slices of Coppa on the hot surface and cook for a few minutes (survey this closely) until the sides are curled up and the Coppa is grilled and crispy. If you don’t have Coppa, feel free to use bacon as grilled Coppa has a wonderful flavor very similar to bacon.
Serve the Risotto hot in soup plates, placing 2 or 3 slices of grilled Coppa on top
We absolutely loved this divine meal, elegant and flavorful. The grilled Coppa was most definitely a beautiful addition to the Springtime Risotto, adding both a rich salty snap and a crispy texture to an otherwise delicate dish. Both the artichoke and the asparagus were perfectly cooked and this Risotto is an excellent way to highlight these two favorite vegetables.