Risotto With Spring Peas, Ham & Fontina
Risotto is an Italian specialty more common in northern Italy where it is so popular it is often preferred over pasta. Risotto has a reputation of being somewhat fussy to prepare, but in reality this dish is economical, extremely versatile, and takes less than thirty minutes to complete from start to finish. A true Italian risotto should be creamy, yet not runny, cooked to a consistency Italians call all’onda, which translates as “with waves”. Although the cooking time may vary with the rice used or the temperature it is cooked over, risotto is done when each individual grain remains slightly firm to the bite. Although the number of recipes for risotto are endless, the basic cooking technique remains the same for each. Once you are comfortable with this technique, you can experiment with a myriad of possible flavorings. I often say, that you could eat a different risotto dish every day of the year and not run out of flavor choices.
Almost every risotto begins with sautéing some chopped onion or other aromatic in butter, or a mixture of butter and oil which lays the flavor base on which the rest of the recipe is built on. Once the onion is tender, the rice is added and stirred until well coated and slightly toasted with the oil. Sometimes a splash of wine is used next, and once that has been absorbed, small amounts of hot broth are then added. During this period of adding liquid to the rice, it must be stirred constantly and cooked gently over a low boil. This gradual addition of adding the hot liquid is the key to getting the rice to release its starch, creating the optimal creaminess expected with a good risotto. The final flavoring ingredients are added in the last few minutes of the cooking process, and once it has completed cooking, the risotto is removed from the heat and a little butter, and sometimes grated parmesan are added to enrich the rice and help to make it even creamier.
The two primary ingredients needed for risotto are rice and broth. You should use an Italian variety of rice that is specifically grown in Italy, such as Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Cararoli. Arborio can now be found in most American grocery stores, but certainly can be found at an Italian specialty store. Homemade broth is the preferred choice, but if time or circumstances make this impossible, chose a good quality canned low sodium broth. Chicken, vegetable, fish and meat broths are all used depending on the other ingredients chosen for the dish. The flavoring ingredients can include almost anything, including seasonal vegetables, seafood, meat, and every combination in between.
This is the traditional method for making Italian risotto, and the one I prefer best. There are other methods of preparation, including one that includes baking the risotto in the oven, as well as another that requires little stirring, but I do not feel either of these methods creates the creaminess one expects from a truly good risotto.
One of my favorite seasons has always been spring when I am always inspired by the vibrant, fresh ingredients available. I love to celebrate the season by preparing creamy risotto dishes showcasing such spring vegetables as asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, and sweet spring peas. Oddly enough, I will not eat peas at any other time of the year, but find I cannot get enough sweet, baby peas in the spring. I found the first spring peas of the season at my local outdoor market recently and created this risotto dish specifically for them. Planning my risotto dish, I chose to include spring peas, ham, and fontina cheese, all ingredients I knew work well together. I added a little finely chopped basil and lemon zest to enhance and brighten the favor, and the dish turned out exactly as planned. Although I served my risotto as a first course for six before a seafood entree, this risotto dish can also be served as a main course for four with the addition of a mixed spring salad, and crusty Italian bread.
This is a simple spring risotto dish created to showcase the first spring peas I was lucky to find this year. If fresh peas are not available, frozen baby peas will work just as well, and will allow you to create this risotto anytime of the year. For the ham, I bought a thick slice that I simply diced into small squares a little larger than the peas. I decided to add Fontina cheese to add creaminess in place of Parmesan which is the typical cheese used in risotto. If Fontina cheese is not available, another semi-soft, mild flavored cheese would work well in its place. When serving this risotto dish I often sprinkle on a little additional grated lemon zest and some cracked black pepper. For cheese lovers, you may like to offer grated Parmesan cheese at the table.