Cooking with Kids...Italian-Style
by Kate Heyhoe
What makes food taste "Italian?" Just as every person has a thumbprint, each country has a "flavor-print"—a cuisine's unique taste derived from its most commonly used ingredients.
Every region of Italy also has its own flavor-print, due to the variations in terrain and also to the history of the area. The island of Sicily seasons its dishes with cinnamon, cloves and cayenne—spices introduced by the Saracens who invaded from North Africa in 827. The ubiquitous tomato arrived late in Italy's history by way of the Spanish, after their conquests in the New World. Northern Italy's rich pastureland at the base of the Alps hosts dairy cows rather than olives, and consequently the region cooks mainly with butter instead of olive oil.
With a parent as kitchen assistant, kids can easily make Risotto alla Milanese. This specialty dish from the region of Milan known as Lombardy consists primarily of arborio rice and saffron simmered in chicken stock, and is a direct result of the Venetian spice trade and the conquerors of Italy.
Rice was introduced to Italy by Alexander the Great and later to the rest of Europe by the Arabs. Italian rice is cultivated almost entirely in the Po Plateau, just southwest of Milan, and equals pasta in frequency as a first or second course.
Starting in the 11th century, ships from the East and Africa introduced saffron, a precious spice made from the stamens of the crocus flower, to Italy. This rare spice became so coveted that an official Office of Saffron was created to control it. The northern Italians added it to risotto, a rice dish made from plump and starchy arborio rice, and the now classic dish of Risotto alla Milanese was born.
Be sure to use real saffron and authentic Italian arborio rice for this dish; long grain or other types of rice will not produce the same creamy effect. Note, too, that this recipe uses butter, more common to the region than olive oil.
Serves 2 to 3
4 to 5 cups chicken broth or stock
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped prosciutto (optional)
1 cup arborio rice
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/2 cup dry white wine (or more broth)
1/3 cup Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese, plus additional at table
1. Bring the broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Have a ladle standing by, and keep the broth simmering throughout the recipe.
2. While the broth is heating, melt 2 tablespoons butter in another saucepan on medium heat, being careful not to burn the butter. sauté onion and prosciutto in butter until onion turns soft and translucent. Stir in the rice, coating all the grains, and continue to sauté another minute.
3. Ladle 1/2 cup of the simmering broth into the rice, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom and sides of the pot. As the broth is absorbed, stir in another 1/2 cup of broth. Stirring constantly, continue to add 1/2 cup at a time whenever the broth has been absorbed.
4. When the rice has cooked for 15 minutes, ladle 1/2 cup of broth into a bowl or cup and crush in the saffron. While the saffron dissolves and steeps into the broth, stir the white wine into the rice. When the wine has been absorbed, add half the saffron liquid, cooking and scraping the pot until the liquid is absorbed, then add the remaining saffron liquid.
5. When the saffron liquid has been absorbed, taste the risotto. It should be firm to the bite but tender. If it is too firm, continue adding more broth as above until just tender.
6. To finish the dish, remove the pot from the heat and stir in the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fresh cracked pepper to taste and the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Serve in shallow bowls or on plates with additional grated cheese on the side.
Recipe copyright 1998, by Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created 1998
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