July 26, 2008

Italy, part 3: Lezione di Cucina

This night was one of my favorites of the trip. Yes, we stayed in the most beautiful hotels, and yes, we ate in exclusive restaurants and drank fancy champagne, but for me the cooking lesson and dinner at Dora's was one of my favorite things.

We arrived and she put us to work immediately. There were 5 of us girls plus Dora, and the agenda was 'risotto con zucchine e fiori di zucca' (risotto with zucchine and their flowers).

First, because nothing is ordinary in Italy although the cuisine is rather simple and depends on the finest ingredients, we made little "cialde" or baskets out of parmigiano cheese in which to serve the risotto.

First, heat your pan until very hot and add freshly grated parmigiano (about 100 gr per basket). It will come together pretty quickly into the shape of your pan so choose one that is similar in size to the basket you want to end up with. As soon as it is done, lightly browned and uniform, take it out carefully with a spatula and lay it over an upside-down bowl to form it while still hot.

Once hardened into the shape of the bowl, remove and repeat the process for each basket. Yum! a parmesan cheese bowl to eat when the risotto is gone! What could be better?

How about fried stuffed zucchine flowers? A perfect garnish for this dish, but also one of my favorite summertime treats.

For the flowers, first trim off the stems and pistons inside each flower. If you have to slice it open to get them out, do it carefully so as to not ruin the shape of the flower too much.

Then each flower is stuffed with a piece of provolone or mozzarella cheese (we used provolone) and if no one objects, it's traditional to put an anchovy in the middle of each one. We opted for no anchovies, but they are delicious either way. Then, using a batter of flour and cold beer (the beer, we learned, makes them lighter and also prevents the oil from sticking to them), dip each one in the batter and drop into your very hot vegetable oil. Dora uses one that is part sunflower and part vegetable oil.

Now for the risotto. This is a very easy risotto recipe. I've made them many times before and the main difference here for me was all about the ingredients, mainly the butter. I learned that in the North of Italy they have a special type of butter called 'Burro Soresina" from the freshest milk of Italian cows only (it says so on the label) and contains 85% fat (!!) It's the highest percentage of fat content you can sell and still be legal. And it makes your risotto extra creamy and so good. What a revelation.

Another reason for the extra creamy goodness of this risotto was the type of rice we used. It's called 'vialone nano' and, unless you are a professional chef (or just an Italian houswife) you may not have ever heard of it. There is arborio (which we commonly use in the US for making risotto) and then there is vialone nano (for creamy vegetable risottos like this one) and carnaroli (for seafood and other less creamy kinds). The rice you can get in Italy is far above the quality of the rice we can find here. I am now going to have to order it in bulk on the Internet because I've been educated on the vagaries of rice and their uses. I love the specificity of the Italian cook's pantry.

Now, back to our risotto. We used very small zucchine which made the cutest little rounds when sliced very thinly.

We used about 2-3 lbs of zucchine I think. Melt about 3 tblsp. of the finest butter you have, with 2 cloves of garlic, until foamy. Then remove the garlic and add the zucchine. Sautee until browned a bit, or a few minutes. We didn't use any onion in this recipe, but we did throw in some 'erba cipolline,' a small little herb that looked like chives.

Then add your rice (about 70 grams per person) and toast it about a minute, or until you can smell the toasty rice...

At this point, add about 1 cup of white wine, or if you happen to be drinking prosecco like we were, add that. It does't matter as long as it's not red, which would color your rice pink.

Now for the stirring. A risotto requires almost constant stirring and adding broth (vegetable) which you have heated on the stove next to the burner you are using. Each time the rice absorbs the liquid, add a ladel of broth and stir and continue this until the broth is gone and the rice cooked al dente. This will take at least 20 min., maybe a little longer.

When the rice is done, add a big handful of fresh grated parmigiano cheese, stir, turn off the heat and add more of that delicious butter, stir and let sit while you prepare your bowls. It's important to let it sit a few min. before serving, though it does need to be served very soon after finishing. Fill each cheese basket with risotto and garnish with a fried zucchine flower.

For this meal, Dora also served a 'vitello tonnato' that she had whipped up earlier in the day, a classic Italian summer dish because the veal is served cold with a tuna mousse; and a frittata with zucchine and mixed salad after that.

We drank some lovely wines from the region, local wines from Garda like Bardolino "le Nogare," a light red; Groppello, a deep, rich red to follow; and Franciacorta "Ca del Bosco" a fantastic sparkling white made using the Champagne method right down the road from where we were staying.

Cookies and Limoncello (another local specialty made with the huge, sweet lemons grown near Lake Garda) were a perfect ending to a beautiful meal and cooking lesson. Grazie ancora, Dora e Gianfranco!


  1. Beautiful! I love hearing about your trip. I'm definitely going to try the rice for risotto. I've never thought about using parmesan bowls for anything except salad - a great idea for risotto!

  2. ok - i'm starting from the top and reading down. we need to get together SOON!!! i want to hear everything!!!