Has the pandemic changed our attitude toward culinary authenticity? Are we more or less likely to “break the rules” and try new variations in the interest of curiosity, diet, taste, or simply, just for fun? Sometimes I think that The New York Times baits its Italian and Italian-American readers with modifications to classic pasta dishes like carbonara, puttanesca and Bolognese. In fact, the internet blew up when the newspaper published a vegan Bolognese, which, of course, omitted the meat and dairy that are traditionally integral to the dish. The recipe featured seared mushrooms and toasted walnuts, enhanced by balsamic vinegar, tomato paste, soy sauce and Marmite, a popular British sandwich spread. Besides the outrage, there were many positive comments about this “rich, robust and complex” dish. Sometimes I wonder if The Times’ chefs should choose a completely neutral name—say, one named after their own cities, instead of messing with a classic—to cool down the temperatures.
So, it was with trepidation that I checked out the newspaper’s rendition of Risi e Bisi (https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1022094-risi-e-bisi), a Venetian springtime specialty to celebrate the feast of San Marco on April 25. The major modification was the addition of firm, baby zucchini. I checked out the comment section. To my relief, nobody fainted at the Cipriani in Venice. In fact, the comments were relatively mild and modest. One reader objected to the use of olive oil in the recipe: “olive oil was scarce in Venice; only butter should be used.” Another noted that carnaroli rice is low in starch and that vialone nano yields a creamier result.
To find some discussion or debate on Risi e Bisi, you had to consult the doyens of Italian cooking. Of course, one thing the best chefs agreed on was the star of the show—the peas. One must use the youngest and freshest peas available—and preferably ones you grow yourself. Peas are best when they are small and sweet, before the sugars turn to starch. Heaven forbid one uses canned peas or frozen peas (well, maybe the latter in a pinch, but then why not make a different dish if that is what you have on hand). The other advantage of fresh peas is that you can add the pods to the dish, which makes the peas taste even sweeter.
The burning question: do you eat it with a spoon or fork? Marcella Hazan explains in her bookbooks: “risi e bisi is not risotto with peas. It is a soup, albeit a very thick one, which should be runny enough to require a spoon.” Elizabeth David and others in their books recommend the use of a fork. The Venetians refer to the consistency as “all’onda,” a reference to the waves in the sea. However, they would probably all concur on the use of a napkin. Here is a classic recipe (with quantity conversions) from my favorite Italian cookbook, L’Italia in Cucina, which features recipes, traditions and products by each of Italy’s 20 regions:
Risi e Bisi from Locanda Da Condo, Farra di Soligo (Treviso)
Ingredients (for 4 people)
About 10-11 oz. di riso
About 1.5 pounds of organic peas in pods
1 spring onion
A bunch of parsley
About 2 oz. of pancetta or guanciale
A glass of dry white wine
About 3.5 oz. of grana padana
About 8-9 oz. of butter
Salt and pepper
For the broth:
An onion, a carrot, a celery stalk and some leaves, several parsley stalks
- With salted water and the aromatic vegetables, prepare the vegetable broth.
- Shell the peas from the pods. Blanch the pods, then puree to obtain a dense cream that you then set aside.
- Brown in about 2 oz. of butter the pancetta that has been roughly chopped, then puree in a mixer to reduce also to a cream.
- Brown in about 3.5 oz. of butter the onion chopped finely and begin to toast the rice: when it begins “to sing,” pour in the wine and cook until it evaporates. Add the peas, the pancetta “cream”, and then gradually during the cooking the pea pod “cream.” Continue cooking with the vegetable broth. Halfway through, add the chopped parsley.
- Once the rice is cooked, taste for salt and pepper, whisk in the remaining butter and the grated grana padana cheese.
Serve immediately “molto all’onda!