I remember distinctly my first few months in Italy: the overwhelming sensations, flavors, sights, sounds and emotions that envelop anyone who goes to live in a foreign country. I remember the frustration at my imposed silence, and the excitement at every new word I learned to recognize, then repeat. And I remember my first encounters with the food. I remember raising a forkful of my first italian risotto or pasta dish to my lips. I would close my eyes and savor the moment, then reopen them wide in surprise as the simple, clean flavors exploded and melded with balance and grace. This would happen with each taste of a new recipe, as my delight and ecstasy multiplied at each new discovery.
After 7 years my enthusiasm for the food hasn’t dwindled, but I have become a bit spoiled. Like most native Italians, I know I’m eating some of the best dishes in the world, but I’m so used to it that wouldn’t expect or tolerate anything inferior. Less and less often do I find myself widening my eyes in wonder as I taste a forkful of pasta al pesto, of risotto milanese, or focaccia genovese. The full enjoyment is still there, just not the element of surprise.
Every now and then, however, a dish will appear and transport me back to those first few months of shock and wonder, and truly shake my senses. This happened with more than one tasting at Identita’ Golose this year, the most memorable of which was the Christian Costardi’s Risotto al Pomodoro (tomato risotto).
I watched all the risotto presentations with interest because it’s a dish I absolutely adore and am always seeking out new tips and techniques in order to perfect its preparation. I must say, I left a bit more confused than when I arrived. Each chef was adamant about his own technique, and there are some highly contested issues surrounding risotto. Some say the soffritto must be prepared separately from the rice or the onion will be inevitably burned and bitter, others insist this is a useless variation from the traditional recipe. Some maintain that wine is an imperative ingredient in all risottos, while others argue it lends undue acidity. Some say all the broth should be added at once, while others stress it should be added only a little bit at a time.
All of my confusion faded away when I closed my eyes for my first bite of Costardi’s Risotto al Pomodoro. It’s a humble dish which doesn’t much inspire the imagination, yet he was able to give it a new life.
This dish is the positive metamorphosis of one of childhoods most detested foods, so often overcooked and watery in school cafeterias. As you grow older, your continue to reject and despise the mere idea of it, partly because perfecting a risotto with tomato as the main ingredient is not exactly an easy task. Funny, though, how the exact opposite happens with pasta and pizza. The tomato almost seems to reject rice. Then Chirstian Costardi began to reflect, to contemplate, and to experiment with countless trials and many errors, until that great day… – Paolo Marchi
It was absolutely perfect. It is such a simple dish, a far cry from some of the other exotic and wildly creative inventions I had tried that same day. Yet, there was something so surprising, so intoxicating about the burst of familiar flavors. The rice was perfectly al dente, and somehow reminiscent of pasta. The flavor was MORE than tomato, it was the quintessence of tomato-ness. And the small dollop of basil pesto was the perfect, bright compliment without overwhelming the integrity of the whole.
When I opened my eyes, they were wide with wonder. I turned to Emilio who’s expression was also a mask of surprise and utter pleasure. “Wow.” I mumbled, suddenly at a loss for words in Italian. I felt like a tourist again, in this strange land of unending gastronomic surprises.
Risotto al Pomodoro
- 1 28-oz can of peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- 1 celery stick, finely minced
- 1 small carrot, finely minced
- handful of basil leaves
- handful of pine nuts
- 1/2 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
- vegetable broth
- 1 onion, peeled and cut in half vertically
- 1 1/2 cups (280 g) risotto rice (arborio or carnaroli)
- 1 tbsp butter, very cold
- olive oil
- 3/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- salt, pepper
Combine the tomatoes, celery, carrots, 2 tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a pot over medium-low heat. Bring to a boil and lower to a slow simmer, stirring occasionally. Let cook for 1-2 hours, until all the liquid has been absorbed and you are left with a thick, velvety tomato sauce. Blend the sauce and set aside.
Make a simple pesto (sans cheese) for the garnish: place the pine nuts, garlic and a few tablespoons of olive oil in a food processor and blend into paste. Add the basil leaves and pulse just until finely chopped into a pesto. Add more olive oil if necessary. Salt to taste and set aside.
Pour vegetable broth into a small pot and bring to an almost-simmer. With a couple toothpicks, skewer one half of the onion to keep it intact during the cooking process (you’ll remove it at the end), then cut off the ends of the toothpicks that stick out. Reserve other half for a different use. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a wide stainless steal or heavy aluminum pot over medium-low heat and add the half onion. Stir for several minutes to distribute the flavor, but do not allow the onion to turn brown. Add the rice and toast, stirring constantly for several minutes, or until the rice becomes shiny.
Add a ladleful of vegetable broth and a teaspoon of salt and stir constantly until absorbed. Continue to add broth, a couple of ladlefuls at a time, stirring constantly, for about 7 minutes. Stir in the tomato sauce and continue to cook, stirring constantly. If the rice becomes too dry and begins to stick, add another ladleful of broth. Depending on the rice, the total cooking time should be between 15-20 minutes. You want the rice to be al dente, and it should have enough liquid to make “waves” if you shake the pot. Remove from the heat and discard the onion, then stir in the parmesan cheese. Add the cold butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, but do not stir. Instead, grab one handle of the pot (with a pot holder!) and shake back and forth (pushing the pot away from you, then pulling it back toward you quickly) for a couple minutes, making “waves” in the risotto to distribute and melt the butter. Taste and adjust the salt as needed. Cover the risotto with the pot lid and call everyone to the table.
To serve, spoon the risotto into individual plates (or in a cylindrical form, as seen above) and garnish with a dollop of pesto. Chef Costaldi also adds a garnish of “tomato jelly” made from straining the gooey interior of a fresh tomato. I’ve managed to avoid this extra step and the results are anyway delicious!