We are staying for a few days in the apartment of our good friend Diane in Il Colle di San Marcellino near the Brolio Castle – the baron who authored the standard recipe for Chianti wine. Her apartment is carved into a larger structure dating back to the 1200’s. Underneath the apartment where the animals originally slept on straw, today is her washing machine happily spinning away with 21st century detergent as I write.
Tonight we decided to cook dinner at home. After an exhausting day of touring around Tuscany from the Val d’Orcia to Volterra, we had no time to stop at a grocery store, so Linda accepted the challenge of creating dinner from whatever we had at home. She said it would relax her after a hectic day.
I struggled with all the modern conveniences that were revolting against us as we tried to bring them into this charming medieval borgo: the internet was maddeningly sporadic and the washing machine overflowed (sorry Diane). Meanwhile, Linda stretched her creative cooking muscles to invent an exquisite – original – risotto.
When we sat down to dinner and tasted the dish, I asked Linda if she could write a recipe that perhaps we could blog. “That would be difficult,” she replied. “I didn't use ingredients people would generally use to make risotto, I had to resort to skills and techniques I learned in cooking school to make this dish and not a recipe.” But I pressed on. “Well,” she said “I looked around at what I had ... a pork chop, a red pepper some odds and ends, and then started inventing.”
The risotto was a creamy dish with flavors of red pepper, pork and lemon! We didn’t have butter so she substituted an egg yolk(!) that gave it a silky, rich texture. “There is a basic risotto method: you saute onions, add the rice to toast it and then add white wine, then continue cooking the rice adding stock if you have it, in this case I used water and added some finely chopped olives to substitute for the roundness a stock would give, and toward the end, the particular ingredients. The thing about risotto is that everything you add has to have it's own individual flavor. Ultimately, all these flavors need to come together in the final experience. Every bite you take should express a variation on the ingredients. Arborio rice is a tender grain and all those flavors should have time to absorb into each kernel of rice.”
I understood what she was saying because I took a forkful and detected a hint of lemon. “Oh, yes, she said, I threw in some lemon marmalade that Beppe made in Genova to marinate the pork.”!! She went on... “If you know how flavors work, you know you how much to add to a dish to make it something special and not overwhelming.” So risotto is all about pressing your own thumb print on a dish. Beyond the essential principles, there are no rules that can’t be broken. Good cooking has to come from the soul. “I remember many years ago,” said Linda “when my friend Beppe made risotto with cantaloupe. He added all these other ingredients, and then a dollop of mustard, and I thought this was going to be horrible. But in the end, everything came together perfectly. It was so creamy and each forkful had a different taste, texture or experience.”
Experience! That is the essence of risotto. In fact that is the essence of cooking. Recipes are a starting point, but from there each cook needs to add a little of their own soul. “Cooking from the groin” is what Linda labels it. “Go with what you know and don’t be afraid to experiment.”
This, of course, is why it is so difficult for Linda to write a cookbook. She never cooks the same thing twice. According to her methods, it is more important to understand food, flavors and herbs than measurements and celebrity chef recipes. That will allow you to create delicious, innovative meals – like tonight’s red pepper pork and lemon risotto.