What after all of these years of cooking still fascinates me the most is the ephemeral nature of summer ingredients: peaches, apricots, peas, snow peas, broad beans, sprouting broccoli, cherries, the best, most plump and fleshy tomatoes… It’s summer in Portugal and all of a sudden the markets and vegetable shops are brimming with it and before you know it, it’ll be gone again. So it’s best to make use of the ingredients as fast as you can, as much as you can. One of my favorite summer songs (and albums) deals exactly with that: it’s named after a summer peach, July Flame by Laura Veirs and after having cooked this delicious risotto so herby, vibrant and well-balanced with earthy tones from the mushrooms and the slight hum of lemon zest throughout, much like the narrator in the song, you’ll be asking your plate the exact same prenuptial question: “Can I call you mine?”.
Cooking time: About one hour
Feeds: 4 normal people or 2 very gluttonous pigs like us
Ingredients in the order of appearance:
If you want to make your own stock which really isn’t as difficult or as time consuming as you might think and will totally rock your world if you do it yourself, let alone give you an enormous feeling of accomplishment having cooked a dish from head to tail:
4 cloves of garlic
1 bulb of fennel
2-3 sticks of celery
4 bay leaves
fresh rosemary or thyme sprigs
For the risotto
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
300 g of risotto rice, arborio or other, has to be rice for risotto, don’t even think about using anything else or you’ll miss the creamy point of this dish entirely
1 glass of good white wine (rule of thumb: if you use wine that tastes like Satan’s urine, your dish will taste of … yes, exactly)
a handful of peas (frozen or fresh, it doesn’t matter)
a small handful of fresh basil and / or mint (works best with both, if either one unavailable: use two handfuls of either one)
200 g of chopped fresh shiitake
a spoonful or two of non-salted butter (don’t be stingy)
a handful of grated parmesan or São Jorge or any other hard, cured cheese from cow milk
1/2 of bio lemon
freshly ground black pepper
Pestle and mortar, it’s not gonna be the same without.
- For the stock, you can use cubes but a light homemade chicken or vegetable stock will make the final result so much more rewarding. In summer, here’s how I would go about making a stock: take a liter or two of your finest tap water and add: three or four smashed cloves of garlic, one roughly chopped onion, four bay leaves, one bulb of fennel roughly chopped, a couple of stalks of celery roughly chopped, one summer tomato quartered (this really adds a beautiful umami-balance to your dish), a couple of sprigs of rosemary or thyme, maybe some green asparagus bottom ends or peelings you might have kept in your freezer or some of pea or broad bean pods if you’ve been playing it smart. Add a nice bit of salt and let it simmer for about 20 minutes and taste. If it’s a bit too watery, don’t worry, it’ll evaporate as you cook your risotto and intensify in flavor. While making the risotto, keep your stock simmering at a low temperature on the hob next to you.
- And now, why you clicked on this article. The risotto. First you make the soffrito: if the smell of one finely chopped onion and a clove or two of garlic sweating down into some olive oil on a low temperature fail to make me smile or hungry, I think that’s the day I hand over my wooden spoon to someone else really. In any case, let it just fry for about five minutes without color. Add your rice and keep stirring so the rice gets nicely coated in oil and starts looking a bit glassy.
- When the rice is nicely toasted, add a glass of good white wine and enjoy the sound which always reminds me of waves crashing on the shore. Stir, stir, stir until the wine is all but evaporated and cooked into the rice.
- Now starts the 15-20 minute process of making the risotto. Ladle by ladle, add your stock which you should have on the hob next to you, 2 liters of it, steaming away on a low simmer. As you ladle in your stock, stir your rice, and just keep stirring on a low heat to release the starch from the rice so you get a nice and creamy risotto. Make sure it doesn’t catch on the bottom. If using fresh peas, add them maybe two or three minutes before the rice is done, so when the rice is still a bit too hard to the tooth.
- In the meantime: fry the shiitake on a high heat with some salt and olive oil in a non-stick frying pan. When they’re nice and nearly golden, add your garlic, fry for another minute and set aside.
- Also in the meantime: make your pea pesto, the real, lip-smacking hook of this dish. In a pestle and mortar, smash your fresh herbs together with some salt into a dark green, fragrant paste. Then add your peas, a couple at the time, and the first you smash into a puree but as you add, make sure to leave some chunks in there as it will make the final result more interesting and varied. Taste it: when you can taste basil, mint, olive oil and peas all in equal balance, say hey presto to your pesto (I sure hope I’m the first to have come up with this wordplay).
- Now it’s time to finish your risotto: taste the rice and if it’s nice and soft but still got a bite (unless you’re cooking for someone without teeth) then turn off the heat, stir in your butter, cheese, shiitake and pea pesto as quick as you can until its all dissolved. If using peas from the freezer, add another handful of fresh peas here. Taste and season with salt and pepper (always season a risotto after adding cheese because it can get quite salty). Let stand for another two minutes, add two or three gratings of lemon zest in there to lift all of the flavors up and if the risotto is too firm, add a ladle or so of stock: it should be runny but not soupy, the consistency of mud or a creamy rice pudding.
- Serve and this is the occasion to break out a bottle of new season’s fruity olive oil and just drizzle it on top. Serve with a crisp glass of white wine (Fernão Pires would be particularly good) and watch your guests’ faces light up. It really is something to behold.